The history and characteristics of Bizen ware
Bizen ware is said to be a type of sueki pottery. It is possible to trace the origins of sueki back to the 5th century, giving it a 1,500-year history. Subsequently, whiter sueki known as “Sabukaze sueki” and “Sanage sueki” emerged in Bizen and in Aichi Prefecture, respectively. These two places became Japan’s first ceramics areas producing advanced sueki, with beautiful pale green natural ash glaze on a white base. Between them, they held a monopoly in Japan in the Asuka and Nara Eras of the 7th and 8th centuries. 

At the end of the Heian Era, the ritsuryou legal system collapsed, allowing commerce in Japan for the first time. Unregulated economic activity and distribution caused concentration on the six ancient Kamakura Era kilns.

In the 800-year period from the end of the Heian Era to the beginning of the Kamakura Era, the medieval kilns at Tokoname, Seto Mino, Atsumi, Shigaraki, Echizen, and Tamba underwent significant development.

Bizen was a little behind the field, only obtaining a unique process and getting it off the ground at the beginning of the Muromachi Era (with only temperatures of 1200°C, [2192°F], Bizen used slow firing to realize hardnesses in excess of those at Tokoname, etc., with 1250°C, 2282°F). It grew to obtain an 85% share of all pottery in the area around the capital, the Japanese consumption region with the greatest economic activity at the time. During the period of tea ceremony culture that followed, Bizen continued to have a central status.


The arrival of the Edo Era heralded the invention of wooden tubs, etc., as a result of the Daimyos’ emphasis on consumption of locally produced goods, which undermined Bizen’s undisputed lead. Bizen continued to lose momentum and declined until the Showa Era. Recovery was prompted by high post-war economic growth and the “Return-to-Momoyama,” movement centered on the six ancient kilns. However, at the current time, fairly harsh conditions persist for all production areas.

Making Process of Bizen Ware

Clay quarrying site
Digging up black clay from an area 3 m below the surface in an area that thousands of years ago was on the ocean floor.

Regulating moisture levels
Clay mixed with water is placed in unglazed pots and wrapped in cloth to keep impurities out, then left to evaporate.

Kneading

Forming a tea bowl on a wheel


Drying process

Rice straw for hidasuki fire markings
In order to create the soft, gentle fire markings on the vessels’ surface, the straw is beaten then left to dry in the shade.

Half-underground anagama kiln

Six Characteristics
Since the sueki period in which it has its origins, the historical fortunes of Bizen ware have fluctuated wildly, with soaring highs and terrible lows. On the other hand, whereas many other famous production areas failed, Bizen refused to give up. It is now possible to view Bizen ware as the exception that stubbornly survived. Purely by having the longest history, these products clearly reflect the rises and falls moving in line with each period.    Having been concerned with cultural assets for many years, I can say with confidence that “it is the era that creates the object; the object is definitely not created by the creator.”  From that point of view, I would like to demonstrate the essence of Bizen ware.    The characteristics of Bizen ware are “strength” and “freedom,” “warmhearted-ness,” “purity,” “subtlety,” and “toughness.” So, where have these qualities come from? These things have surely been etched into the Bizen ware as it experienced each repeated twist of fate, from apex to nadir.   Although the “strength” characteristic can be understood by looking at the large jars in which Bizen has an undisputed lead, that is not the whole story. Not only did the Sabukaze kiln, which was active eariler in the Asuka Hakuho Era, share the nationwide market with only the Sanage kiln, with whiter beautiful Sué ware, it also had an undisputed lead in large items such as shibe ornamental ridge-end tiles and commodes.   By “freedom,” I mean that the pot is not constrained to a particular use or for use at one particular time, but can sit quietly forgotten in the corner of the kitchen and then, when suddenly called upon for an important tea ceremony, be the perfect item for that occasion.  The charming “warm heartedness” of Bizen ware is visible in an immediately accessible o-azuke tokkuri sake bottle that has no decoration at all but fits into the palm of the hand and is deeply cherished.   By “purity,” I mean that the potter’s work, of course, ends when the pot is put into the kiln, and the latter half of the process is left completely in the lap of the gods, as emergence is patiently awaited of the pot clad in clothes seared on by the dancing flames.  Surely no other potters have such a happy lot as the potters of Bizen.    Without “subtlety,” it is impossible to, for example, provide limitless drama in the world of appreciation, in tune with the heart of someone with subtlety. Also, the beauty of the hidasuki crimson-streaked pots resembling the living skin of a woman wearing rouge is unequalled among the medieval kilns.  “Toughness,” as you already know, is the quality of always bouncing back stronger from any crisis. These crises were not military battles, but rather the kind of things that are demanded of many ordinary people, such as responding to the demands of the era.     In response to events, Bizen ware sometimes naturally has a demeanor full of confidence and at other times it lacks all confidence and shows its worst, confused demeanor. Because the spirit of the age is projected directly onto the object, anyone who has the heart to appreciate it will surely be touched by the essential qualities a human being should have. It seems to me that, when one is tired with daily life, there is nothing else nearby that so closely resonates with oneself, teaching more about human life than a book of philosophy, in a simple way that transcends its age.   
Characteristics of Bizen Ware: Works by Isezaki Jun, the Holder of Intangible Cultural Property
 It is not just any of the individual works by master potter Isezaki Jun that mysteriously conveys the aforementioned “essential traditional characteristics of Bizen.” If we look at his works as a whole too, surely there is no other potter who preserves the characteristics of Bizen to the same extent in his or her works. I feel that if you stroll through Isezaki’s world and look at it, you will instinctively be able to understand the essence of Bizen ware. When historical events are left behind within the culture of each era, it is in a state of ferment between inevitably conflicting objects and, at the end of the fight, it has a completely different “radiance.” That is perhaps the newly emerging “culture” of that era. What is more, the new radiance nourishes the next generation and, classifiable as neither body nor spirit, it bolsters the life of the next generation as genetic material.   It is mysterious that there are no other potters that have exuded these characteristics at an unconscious level into all their works to the extent that Dr. Isezaki has. I am aware that, while the characteristics of Bizen ware are usually within any given pot, it is of course extraordinary for them to be found in a whole body of work.  Please do take a look. Anyone should be able to see, within Bizen ware, the essential quality arising from long connection with the era. I am certain that you will feel a charm in Bizen ware differing from those of the past. That new charm is surely a sublime radiance shining because the history of ceramics is like a backbone across the world of pottery, unchanging, despite one interruption, from ancient times to the modern world. I have no doubt that this is how an everlasting Bizen tradition is born. 

The gentleness of the soft color tones combined with the black speckles and faint gradations from reddish to pale white give an air of delicacy and mystery.

Around the medieval period, kilns began to be built on an incline. As a result, objects with rounded bottoms, such as sake bottles, were arranged on their sides in the kiln so as not to roll downwards. Without exception, pieces from the medieval period show evidence of being placed on their sides. Also known as funadokkuri “ship flasks” these were exceptional pieces that would not fall over even on a rocking ship. The older the piece, the larger the circumference at the base.

The “kiln-effect” markings that are considered the hallmark of Bizen ware were originally accidental results of production, however after the Momoyama period, from about the beginning of the Edo period they began to be created by deliberately controlling the changes inside the kiln to create the feel of natural effects. If the intentionality was noticeable, it felt affected and disagreeable, but without no markings the look was too perfect. There, the exquisite delicacy of the light, wind-blown burned straw fire markings strike the perfect balance.

Further reducing the solemnity of Bizen clay, the potter creates a solemn and powerful tea bowl of striking and suspenseful contrast between the light and black glazes.

This series may well have grown out of the reduction of the human figure down to an absolute minimum, and yet one can feel the impression of a face, head, and body, where there should no longer be any. This masterful creation seems almost to have been formed by a divine hand.

This is a vase that any flower would look perfect in. The holes formed from the splitting of the clay, the twisting of the overall form, and the kiln effects above and below are the embodiment of flames themselves. It is like pure fire that could burst into flame at any moment.

This dish gives root to a strangely mysterious, natural quality, as if the rice straw that was placed here to create the fire markings were almost alive, having been planted here and begun to grow.

This piece has a consummate energy that comes from an overwhelming sense of weightiness created with a decisive hand, while at the same time seeming as if, in spite of its mass, it might fly away of its own accord at any moment.

The sense of unfolding a crinkly piece of paper creates a feeling of endless expansiveness.

Completely carefree and unconcerned, a feeling of unfettered openness is clearly expressed in this piece.

Though impressively gigantic in size, this flower vase has a truly gentle feel and the beauty of its design is unparalleled. Surely only in the art of pottery, can one beat the body with a square stick with such strength and draw out such gentleness. Indeed, working with clay is like walking a tightrope between obedience and strength.

This piece is brimming with striking power and mystery. With this piece, it is almost as if divine intervention has directed Isezaki Jun to draw the line here in bending something to his will that is not meant to be bent.


Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Credits: Story

Text and Direction by Ushui Yousuke

Images provided by:
Okayama Prefectural Museum
Bizen Municipal Bizen Ware Museum

English translation by:
Eddy Y.L. Chang

Project Directors:
Dr Maezaki Shinya, Associate Professor, Kyoto Women's University
Dr Yamamoto Masako, Ritsumeikan University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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