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Kaneshige Tōyō: living national treasure for Bizen ware


Kaneshige Tōyō (1896-1967) was the first person certified as a Living National Treasure (Important Intangible Cultural Asset Holder) in the field of Bizen ware.


The Bizen ware at the time did not have the same life to it that modern Bizen ware has, and its popularity had bottomed out. Kaneshige was one of the people who helped resuscitate the popularity of Bizen ware. Several of his apprentices were also chosen as Living National Treasures, making his accolades in the field tremendous.


Kaneshige Tōyō The Man
There are 6 “Bizen ware families”, known as the kamamoto rokusei (“six potter families”). One of them is the Kaneshige family. Tōyō started making Bizen ware when he was apprenticed under his father Baiyō, whose specialty was handiworks (items like ornaments and ware that featured some crafty handwork).


At the time, Bizen ware was fighting for its life as times continued with no sales of ceramics. In the midst of this, Tōyō made mainly ornaments in the shape of flowers, birds, animals, humans, etc. As such, he began to be considered as the head figure of Bizen ware handiwork artists by the time he was in his early twenties.


Afterwards, his interests began to shift to the Bizen ware that was made in the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603).


The Azuchi-Momoyama Period was when Bizen ware reached its peak. It was regarded as having artistic sense to go along with the tea culture of the time, and it had an active role in all sorts of situations. There is a phrase, Momoyama Bizen, that shows how highly-regarded Bizen ware was in this era.


However, its popularity would fall into decline upon entering the Edo Period (1603-1868). The severity of the decline can be gauged by the fact that the primary production of Bizen ware at the time was for piping.


With the end of the Edo Period and the rise of international trade, European culture flooded in, putting all Japanese cultural traditions in critical positions. However, movements to take another look at traditional Japanese culture picked up steam around the end of the First World War.


Coming out of this historical backdrop, Kaneshige Tōyō did research to recreate the Bizen ware of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, when it was at the height of its glory. From the phrase, “Get back to Momoyama!”, this is known as the Momoyama Restoration.


It was this realization that, “Bizen ware’s true beauty is in the Bizen ware of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period,” that triggered Kaneshige to make such a determination.


The heart of Momoyama-style Bizen ware is the chatō (a container for tea). Chatō can also be argued to be the crown jewel of Momoyama Bizen. To recreate chatō, Tōyō learned the art of tea ceremony on his own, deepening his understanding of the tools involved.


Observing actual Momoyama Bizen was also important, so Tōyō went around to people in cultural circles and had them show him Bizen ware made in the Momoyama Era, and even went so far as to institute a research group. From there, he would proceed with studies on clay development, potter’s wheels, kiln firing, etc., in order to recreate Momoyama Bizen.


In this manner, it is said that he succeeded in creating Momoyama-style Bizen ware before World War II.


In addition, he also devised ingenious ways for kiln loading. The distinct Bizen ware designs are referred to as kamahen. Presently, these designs are made intentionally through artificial means, though at the time such technology did not exist, and there was nothing to do but rely on chance.


Consequently, Tōyō did research on how to make kamahen scientifically, not by chance. For example, by overlaying and firing plates, he succeed in creating hidasuki where vivid red lines appear on the work. All Bizen ware artisans active today are reaping the benefits of Kaneshige Toyo’s breakthroughs.


Then, in 1956, he was elected as the first Living National Treasure for Bizen ware. Later on he would hold private exhibitions overseas, be invited as a lecturer to the University of Hawaii, and contribute in a wide variety of other areas.

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