Takatori ware and the Kuroda Domain

I admit, it may look like a rather dry subject to start with, but this book on the Takatori kiln by Andrew Maske weaves together many of the most importance themes of Japanese ceramic production. It touches on history, economics, the tea ceremony, aesthetics and technical aspects of ceramic production in clear and lucid prose.

Potters and Patrons in Edo Period Japan

The Takatori family is a fine example of a traditional potting dynasty in Japan and a few peculiarities means that it makes for a rewarding study. For example, the Raku family and the senke tea houses still guard a lot of their sources (although Pitelka’s book on Raku Culture is an equally absorbing and fascinating read), whereas the Takatori family is still unattached to a particular senke and there has been slightly less mythologizing around the family name. Even so, part of the fun is following the author as he gently questions many of the assumptions and stories that have built up over the years around some of the stories and attributions.

Many of the basic components of the story are well-known: the family was ‘encouraged’ to move to Japan from Korea; they produced fine tea ceremony wares, especially tea caddies for the Kuroda domain; and they became one of the seven kilns of Kobori Enshu.

The Move to Japan

But there is more nuance to all these parts of the story. Kuroda Nagamasa returned with the founders of the Takatori family, father and son Hachizou and Shinkurou, from the disastrous Korean campaign around 1598.  It is unclear whether the Takatori family was compelled to go to Japan with him or not. It is also unclear in general why so many Korean craftsmen and women were brought back to Japan. After all, as Maske points out, it would perhaps have been easier to bring Japanese potters from Seto or Bizen. This question isn’t answered in the book, but presumably the daimyo (feudal lords) may have been unwilling to share expertise from a potentially lucrative revenue source in their domain. Maske also suggests that Koreans kidnapped by Japanese pirates had proven to be useful craftsmen which could have inspired the daimyo to kidnap their own during the campaign. Whatever the situation in Japan, even Hideyoshi himself ordered that his commanders return with suitable craftspeople. The Takatori family have asserted that it was a voluntary relocation to Japan, but all other evidence suggests otherwise. And, no matter the benefits of employment with a Japanese feudal lord, after a brutal campaign of occupation it seems unlikely that a Korean family would voluntarily leave for Japan. So why would a family record not record the truth of their arrival in Japan?

Kuroda Nagamasa portrait

Kuroda Nagamasa, the founder of the Kuroda clan

About 25 years after coming to Japan, in around 1624 the Takatori family applied to the new daimyo, Kuroda Tadayuki, to return to Korea. Tadayuki was notorious for his temper and he immediately banished the Takatori family to an unproductive part of his domain and cut their stipend. Whether or not it was intended as such, this perceived challenge to Tadayuki’s authority was a major faux pas. It is no stretch to believe that the family record was created to assuage any accusations of disloyalty from their employer.

More so than the Raku family for example, where the mythology exists to create a brand, the Takataori founding myths speak to the human cost of the disastrous Korean invasion and as a result is more poignant and more relevant today given continuing diplomatic conflict between Japan and South Korea.

Production of High Quality Ware

Maske takes us through all the iterations of kiln locations, styles and techniques, and the different heads of families and collaborators. Throughout nearly all phases of production, the Takatori kiln was renowned for “delicate construction, fine clay and vibrant glazes”, as it still is today! But what is interesting is the extent to which definitive attribution of some pieces to the Takatori kiln is so tricky. This seems to be for two reasons: both the Takatori and the Kuroda family collection have been widely dispersed after the Meiji Restoration; and such a wide variety of styles and shapes were attempted through the lifetime of the Takatori kilns. News about popular techniques, shapes and styles flowed across Japan, from the old potteries at Seto, Mino and Bizen through Kyoto to the newer centres on Kyushu and vice versa. Maske finds evidence of Oribe style kutsugata wares and celadon and porcelain alongside the traditional finely glazed Takatori ware.  The commonly-held theory is that agents would design and commission specific kilns across Japan to make new wares to market in Kyoto. These marks have been found on Takatori, but only on Oribe style items produced at the kiln. This flow of information and techniques makes identification and attribution for items without a cast-iron provenance extremely difficult.

Oribe Kutsugata style Tea bowl from the Takatori Kiln

Oribe style Kutsugata tea bowl with a warped rim and split foot made by at the Takatori kiln.

(Fukuoka Art Museum, Photo by Fujimoto Kenpachi, From: Potters and Patrons)

As the quality of Takatori got better, the Kuroda reserved the wares only for their use: either for personal use, or for use as gifts outside the domain, but also for use as gifts within the domain too. The importance of gift giving in the long 16th Century should not be under-estimated and for the Kuroda this represented not only an aesthetic and economic achievement, but also a political achievement. The warlords who united Japan: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Tokugawa, all used the tea ceremony and associated utensils to bolster their claim to legitimacy and to reinforce social, hierarchical bonds across elite samurai society. The exchange of gifts and participation in the tea ceremony was more than a side-effect of this process, in many ways it embodied and created these hierarchies of power and the accompanying alliances. For the Kuroda to have developed a source of tea ceremony utensils which could play into this ecosystem was of great value to them.

Interestingly, by 1779 the Kuroda launched an investigation into why older Takatori ware was of a better quality that recent pieces. The potters agreed, and it was all down to economics. Cost-saving had increased the quantity of ‘good’ wares to roughly sixty to seventy percent of each firing but had decreased the amount of excellent pieces. By making each firing more predictable and not taking risks with kiln construction and the amount of fuel used for example, the domain had reduced the unexpected contingencies which produced some of the most unusual effects. Then in the later Tokugawa period and into the Meiji era, lineage and heritage became even more important within Japanese society as a whole and quality again suffered as bloodlines supplanted skill as the arbiter of quality.

Takatori Hassen realised some of these problems and built a special wood-fired Tangama: a single chamber wood-fired kiln which had deliberate asymmetries in its design to encourage unusual heat and air currents. Although it is more expensive and time-consuming to fire, with a relatively high failure rate, it produces some of the most interesting and sophisticated effects.

Kobori Enshu

The long 16th Century was both a time of turmoil and conflict, but also of huge artistic awakening as a national aesthetic language came to prominence through the wabi style tea ceremony. Takatori has always been associated with the tea master Kobori Enshu as one of the Seven Kilns of Enshu (Zeze, Shidoro, Asahi, Akahada, Kosobe, Agano, & Takatori), but we had always assumed that Kobori Enshu had chosen Takatori ware. Maske reveals the very opposite! The Kuroda family wanted the endorsement of a famous tea master and Kuroda Tadayuki asked Kobori Enshu to contribute by naming some tea caddies which had yet to be made.

Takatori Tea Caddies, named Somekawa by Kobori Enshu

Two tea caddies both named Somekawa by Kobori Enshu, which started the Takatori rise to fame

(L: Idemitsu Museum, Photo by Fujimoto Kenpachi R: Private Collection, Photo by Takaku Ryouichi From: Potters and Patrons)

This seems to be breath-taking chutzpah from Kuroda Tadayuki. Why would Kobori Enshu participate without ever having seen these tea caddies? Or any Takatori ware for that matter? And seemingly with no regular correspondence between him and the Kuroda daimyos? What matters is that he agreed and the Kuroda were a further step on the way to promoting their ceramics. Maske’s hypothesis is that it was only when Takatori Hachizou and his son Hachirouemon presented works to Kobori Enshu in Kyoto that Takatori ware even came to be called Takatori ware rather than Chikuzen ware (Chikuzen was the name of the Kuroda domain). It is entirely believable that up until that point these wares had been more associated with the Kuroda domain in Enshu’s mind rather than the actual makers. At a stroke, the Kuroda had transformed their ceramics from a regional brand, to a named brand restricted to one family, admired and promoted by the pre-eminent tea master of the day. As an aside, it also shows how the tea masters had already started to monetize their positions as arbiters of taste.

Takatori Yaki Branding, Marutaka Stamp

The Takatori brand was later identified with the Marutaka mark, still in use today

However, by the Meiji Restoration, large family domains were less lucrative and many families had had to sell off their collections. Once the modern prefectural system was established and the age of the samurai family was over, nearly every high-quality craft across Japan felt this decline in patronage. Without the bureaucrats of the domain, the workshops were pushed into the market with little to no experience in marketing their wares.

As a whole, this engaging book is measured and extremely well-researched presenting balanced conclusions and gently trying to separate myth from fact. But as a vivid portrayal of the ebb and flow of relations between a major craft family and their daimyo through the 17th century it is unrivalled. Add to this our interest in the Takatori family specifically and it is a treasure trove!