The islands of Okinawa lie at the westernmost point of Japan, and until approximately 500 years ago were a nation known as the Kingdom of Ryukyu. During its short history of prospering as a small trading nation, Okinawa’s unique style of pottery known as yachimun came into being and that tradition still continues to this day. The serene design reflects the everyday life of this tropical environment.
What is the source of its appeal?
YACHIMUN: THE VERY SHAPE OF OKINAWA
“In the shapes, the glazes, the colours, the designs, everything says that it is of Okinawa.”
These words about the pottery of Okinawa were written by Soetsu Yanagi, the philosopher-founder of the Mingei Movement, in his book Te Shigoto no Nihon (Handmade Crafts of Japan). Enjoying the blessings of nature and robust trading, Okinawa accepted into daily life the changes brought by different eras and formed its own unique culture. To say that pottery is the best example of this is no exaggeration.
Robust and yet not overbearing, yachimun is pottery that is suited for use in everyday life. Its origins go back to the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, when Okinawa prospered as a nation, from 1429 for 450 years. A lot of pottery from various countries was brought in, leading to the development of new pottery techniques in the Ryukyu Kingdom. After the Satsuma Invasion in 1609, overseas trading declined and pottery techniques from Japan and Korea were actively incorporated. In 1682, King Sho Tei brought together potters working in Wakuta, Kina and Chibana ware close to Shuri Castle and established the Tsuboya style of pottery. Two types of pottery were made. One is ara-yachi, which is unglazed, leaving the clay surface bare. The other is jo-yachi, which is glazed and decorated. Ara-yachi was mostly used by commoners, while jo-yachi was used in everyday life by the local upper class or was traded.
Tsuboya ware was developed because the Ryukyu Kingdom gathered together and consolidated the kilns, which had previously been scattered around at various locations. However, when the Meiji Restoration occurred in 1868, and the establishment of prefectures followed the abolition of han (domains), the Ryukyu Kingdom became the prefecture of Okinawa. The Tsuboya Pottery transitioned from a kiln of the Ryukyu Kingdom to a privately owned kiln. With the abolition of the han system and subsequent lifting of distribution restrictions, many pottery merchants from the Japanese mainland visited Okinawa, and cheap pottery started to flow in to the market. The Tsuboya Pottery lost its position as a supplier of everyday ware and suffered a decline.
Following that, pottery merchants from the mainland began to create designs and have them made by potters at Tsuboya and, at one time, the Tsuboya Pottery was relegated to the role of an original equipment manufacturer. Even though interacting with other countries was something that Okinawans were used to, it must have been a difficult time. These hard times lasted until the Taisho period (1912−1926) when the Mingei Movement brought back the splendour of former years.
This movement, which introduced yo-n-bi or the functional beauty found in well-loved items that were used during everyday life, reached as far as Okinawa. One of Japan’s foremost potters, Shoji Hamada, learned pottery at the Tsuboya kiln in the 1920s, after he returned to Japan from London. Due to Hamada’s influence, Soetsu Yanagi, the central figure of the Mingei Movement, also visited Okinawa quite often. Yanagi and Hamada were so impressed by how the potters at the Tsuboya kiln continued to make traditional pots despite the influence of the mainland, that they took every opportunity to promote their work throughout Japan. Because of that, the potters regained confidence and pride in their work.
Tsuboya ware managed a revival due to the Mingei Movement’s followers and their kindness. However, it was soon to incur a heavy blow due to the Pacific War. As the war worsened and transport between Okinawa and the mainland came to a standstill, the government contracted the Tsuboya kiln to produce dishes for the army. Fortunately, the Tsuboya kiln only suffered light damage during the war, and after the war ended it was able to restart operations quickly. The flames stirring in the Tsuboya kiln signaled the beginning of the return to normal life in Okinawa.
In 1972, control of Okinawa was returned to Japan, and Tsuboya Pottery then faced the issue of pollution. Nearby Naha City was prospering as a residential area, and concerns were voiced about pollution from the smoke of the wood-fired climbing kiln. The kiln’s use was subsequently prohibited. It was Yomitan Village that welcomed potters who had been left with no place to go. Tsuboya’s Jiro Kinjo, the first Okinawan to be designated as a Japanese Living National Treasure, was invited to Yomitan, and land formerly used by the American military was readied and provided for use. Yomitan Village, which had previously been home to traditional crafts, took this opportunity to put into action the Yomitan Cultural Village Plan under the condition that the potters form a cooperative, in the spirit of yuimaru, or helping each another. Four potters including Shusei Omine and Shinman Yamada agreed to these terms and moved to Yomitan where they built a large climbing kiln with nine chambers. Inspired by the four founding potters who had discovered an environment in which they could concentrate exclusively on making pots, many young people who will become the future generation, visit Yomitan even now.
Yachimun has survived turbulent times and continues to develop, sometimes feverishly but always with an unchanging warm-heartedness. That is the very shape of Okinawa and the Okinawan people who accept everything with their magnanimous attitude.