Raku Ceramics: Handmade Culture

When it comes to Raku, there is already a gulf between the Western and Japanese understanding of Raku. I have lost count of the times people have browsed our stock and asked, “Is this Raku?”, when to our minds it quite clearly cannot be! This is because Raku in Japan is now the domain of the Raku family, the makers of one of the most sought-after and historic ceramics in the world.

Linked to Sen no Rikyu and the birth of the tea ceremony as we know it, Raku tea wares are characterised by a hand-formed shape with a low-fired lead glaze in sombre and unassuming blacks and reds.  During the later 20th Century outside Japan, ‘Raku’ has instead come to be a firing technique centred around removing a piece from the kiln and putting the still hot ceramics in sawdust or straw or some other combustible material to encourage post-firing reduction. Western ‘Raku’ is normally hand-turned and characterised by colourful glazes with not much in common with the Japanese idea of Raku (for example).

Raku Comparison - Chojiro and Soldner

The Oguro tea bowl attributed to Chojiro and a modern piece by Paul Soldner, each with their own virtues. (photo credit: modernegallery.com)

Pitelka covers technique, but his emphasis is on how the Raku family became this dominant force in Japanese aesthetics and the tea ceremony.  ‘Handmade Culture: Raku Potters, Patrons and Tea Practitioners in Japan’ is an absorbing, wide-ranging and scholarly account of the family and at only 165 pages long is concise and engaging throughout. From the origins of Raku ware to the family today, Pitelka ranges across the tea ceremony, the iemoto system, the importance of patronage and the self-conscious efforts of the Raku family to manipulate and build the Raku brand.

Handmade Culture: Raku Potters and Patrons by Morgan Pitelka

Lineage and heritage are very valued in Japan, and sometimes it is hard not to cast a sceptical eye over some of these claims. Pitelka manages to do this without undermining or satirising the Raku family, the tea ceremony and the tea schools (senke). This is a delicate balance, and clearly Pitelka has been fortunate enough to spend plentiful time with the Raku family itself and his respect and affection for the family and ceramics themselves shines through, but not at the cost of his historical and sociological analysis. So many parts of the book are fascinating, particularly the symbiosis of the sen tea houses and the Raku family, but all this rests on the original entwining of the two families.

The story commonly goes something like this version from Wikipedia:

In the 16th century, Sen no Rikyū, the Japanese tea master, was involved with the construction of the Jurakudai and had a tile-maker, named Chōjirō, produce hand-moulded tea bowls for use in the wabi-styled tea ceremony that was Rikyū's ideal. The resulting tea bowls made by Chōjirō were initially referred to as "ima-yaki" ("contemporary ware") and were also distinguished as Juraku-yaki, from the red clay (Juraku) that they employed.”

So this providential meeting of tea master and craftsman initiated 300 years of intense artistic collaboration and jointly created the distinctly Japanese wabi aesthetic.

Pitelka is less convinced about the Raku / Rikyu “mythohistory” and asserts that “none of this is supported by the historical record”. While it is certain that Chojiro definitely existed, there is no evidence to suggest that he and Rikyu ever met. Interestingly, there is no mention of Chojiro or Raku in any extant writing by Rikyu. Nor is there any hard evidence that Chojiro ever made tea bowls rather than roof tiles.

Chojiro Raku Roof tile

The only work signed by Chojiro, even if he didn't make tea bowls, he was an accomplished craftsman in his own right. Sometimes 'tile-maker' doesn't do justice to his skill.

Even in the hagiographic Namboroku (a document ‘discovered’ just in time for the 100th anniversary of Rikyu’s death) there are only references to a water container (mizusashi) and an incense container made by Chojiro, but nothing on tea bowls. There are no water containers attributed to him today and only one incense burner. So as the excerpt above makes clear, the already tenuous link between the two rests on the definition of ‘ima-yaki’.

The common argument in tea circles is that any mention of tea ceramics in the surviving tea records which are not directly attributed to someone or somewhere else must refer to Raku pieces. So a piece may be described as “Black Seto” and this geographic appellation shows it cannot have originated in Kyoto. But any mention of black tea bowls, ima-yaki (contemporary ceramics) or Soeki form bowls (ceramics of a form that Rikyu enjoyed) are taken to mean Raku pieces even though there is no evidence at all to support this connection.

Pitelka pieces together the archaeological record to show that there was a thriving market in Raku type ceramics at this time, and these unattributed pieces share the technical aspects of Raku but have a variety of shapes and glazes. It seems exceptionally unlikely that all these pieces are the product of one hand, and the variety of styles and decoration show that the assumption that all Raku style pieces were produced by the Raku family workshop does not hold water. It is still not entirely clear what “ima-yaki” or “Soeki style” meant to tea practitioners at the time, but it is reasonable to conclude that Raku style ceramics would have been included in this category. However, no-one knows what else was included in this category.

By the time of the Rikyu revival in the 17th century, maybe the Raku family workshop was the last surviving workshop making Raku style ceramics and this survivor bias shaped the Raku / Rikyu history articulated at the time. But it seems clear that there were multiple Raku style workshops in Kyoto during the time of Rikyu producing a broad range of wares, many of which share characteristics of what we now think of as a wabi aesthetic.

Chojiro’s Wikipedia entry reaffirms this constructed history:

“Tanaka Chōjirō (長次郎) (1516-?1592) is distinguished as the first generation in the Raku family line of potters. According to historical documents he was the son of one Ameya, who is said to have emigrated to Japan from Korea (or possibly Ming China, as asserted on the RAKU WARE website (link below) of the still active line of potters founded by Chojiro). Historical evidence shows that he produced ridge tiles for Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Jurakudai palace in 1574. There is a historical document reporting that in 1584, Toyotomi Hideyoshi presented him with a seal inscribed with the character , raku, and with this "Raku" was adopted as the family name. He worked at one time for Sen no Rikyū, the master of tea, at whose request he created teabowls to be used in chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony. Extant records of the use, at the time, of the tea bowls that he produced for Rikyū describe them as "tea bowls of the Sōeki form", Sōeki being the name that Rikyū was then generally known by.[1] The bowls attracted attention for their beauty and refinement. Chōjirō produced bowls that were either entirely red or entirely black glazed soft pottery, simple and without decoration, which were meant to reflect wabi ideals.

Chōjirō's adopted son, Jōkei, followed in his father's footsteps, and was allowed to append the term raku to his name in recognition of his talents. This marked the beginning of the use of the style in Japanese pottery.

Pitelka’s conclusion is that Raku was not in fact an individual effort. The ceramics and tea goods market was already well-developed and agents, merchants and middlemen would design, commission, and retail ceramics from different kilns. We have already seen in the Takatori story a similar diffusion of ideas across Japan (albeit a short time later than Chojiro). The Raku technique shares similarities with the sansai style of Chinese ceramics production and decoration and the Raku family site posits that Chojiro’s parents were Chinese immigrants and the Wikipedia page asserts Korean or Chinese ancestry. Other sources in 18th Century Japan claim Korean ancestry or that he was a ‘continental’. We know Chinese middlemen facilitated trade from the ceramics markets of Southern China and that Korean tea bowls were also popular in the tea ceremony at the time (hence the merchants of the port of Sakai, of which Sen no Rikyu was one, being in a prime position to influence the growth in this trade). We have also seen how Hideyoshi himself promoted the collection of Korean craftspeople during the Imjin wars for relocation to Japan. It is entirely credible that potters of Korean or Chinese heritage operating in Kyoto and the surrounding region were responding to the local market by producing a broad range of Raku style ceramics. Korean potters bought with them new noborigama kiln designs too which spread East from Kyushu across Japan, which maybe lends indirect evidence that Raku style was more likely to have been of Chinese origin as the sansai idiom was lead-glazed earthenware.  The sheer size and range of this market (as shown in Louise Cort’s lovely paper, Shopping for Pots in Momoyama Japan) makes it unlikely that one person could influence the market to such an extent over such a variety of producers. While taste makers and connoisseurs had an important role, the contingencies of the market more broadly must have had a part to play given the profusion of new styles in the Momoyama era.

This only covers one aspect of Pitelka’s extraordinary book and it is mostly an account of how the history and tradition of the Japanese tea ceremony was consciously shaped throughout the 17th and 18th century to elevate the personalities of Sen no Rikyu and Chojiro to the fore, whereas the contingencies of history combined with deliberate myth-making may be more responsible. At the same time, this doesn’t change the aesthetic appeal and experience of handling these wares, after all nearly every traditional pastime has an element of myth to it and an awareness of the reality underlying this myth need not detract from the experience itself.

Unlike the Takatori family, whose history was massaged to reinforce their loyalty to their domainal lord, the Raku family’s history was created to reinforce their brand to the exclusion of others.  But both share immigrant origins which were bolstered by the support and patronage of a tea master during the early years of the tea ceremony. In that sense, both are typical of successful potting dynasties, but in another sense, Takatori high fired wares made at the behest of a daimyo for political capital are more representative of Japanese tea ceremony wares. But the ascendancy of Raku to embody the wabi aesthetic has made it the touchstone of Japanese traditional tea ceremony aesthetics. However, as Pitelka points out, this may be because it is the only surviving source of this style. The mid-Momoyama flowering of ceramics techniques and technology, resulting in Takatori, Shino, Oribe along with the existing kilns and styles in Seto, Bizen, Shigaraki and Mino may have put exceptional pressure on small scale Raku producers, reducing the technique to an aristocratic hobby, but nonetheless a hobby which dovetailed neatly with the elite pastime of the tea ceremony. The Raku family had the foresight, luck or simply the opportunity to accept patronage from the Sen tea houses which proved to be a lifeline.