Japanese Studio Potters: A Quick Guide

Ceramics in Japan are part of a tradition dating back to the Jōmon period (c. 14,000–300 BCE). Traditionally, as in many other countries, early Japanese pottery was often distinguished by the location of its origin, as many workshops would employ locally sourced materials. Over the last two centuries, however, things have shifted, and the reputation of individual studio potters has transcended location. 

The post-war education system in Japan had a major impact on the individuals that chose to work as studio potters; in particular, the new university system offered routes into the profession that had not been available previously thanks to the limitations of traditional apprenticeship schemes. This change in education, combined with economic and technological developments that allowed people to travel around the country more, means that more women have joined the craft over the last century and styles have become distinguished more by the potter than their location.   

Identifying Japanese Studio Pottery

There are a variety of ways to distinguish each of the Japanese studio potters:

  • The maker’s mark (the common identifier for ceramics around the world). A thorough guide to some of the most popular Japanese studio ceramicists can be found here.
  • Workshops often had distinct styles, based on the materials used in the area, as well as with unique glazes and throwing techniques. Many of the older pottery workshops were associated with the San-Senke, schools for the Japanese tea ceremony, and this is why many historically important pieces of Japanese pottery are vessels associated with these.
  • As we move into the world of contemporary Japanese studio potters, many have global reputations, built on individual styles, drawing from a range of techniques from around the world. Contemporary Japanese studio potters often play with more abstract forms, see examples below. 

Notable Japanese Studio Potters

While Japan has a rich history of workshops across the country that have produced consistently high quality ceramics across the past few hundred years, there are several notable studio potters worthy of mention.  

Shoji Hamada (1894-1978)

Area: Tochigi Prefecture 

Arguably one of the most famous of the Japanese Studio Potters, Shoji Hamada worked during the early to mid 20th century. His work became so well known that he was pivotal in developing Mashiko, a  town in Tochigi Prefecture, which has become recognized across the world as a centre for pottery. He was designated a ‘Living National Treasure’ of Japan in 1955. Following his studies and a period in the UK with Bernard Leach, Hamada returned to Japan to establish his own pottery studio, with a commitment to using only locally sourced materials in his work.  

He also worked closely with Sōetsu Yanagi and established the Mingei folk-art movement that focused on celebrating the ordinary, looking at work that was hand-crafted by no-name craftsmen.  

Hamada’s own work can be distinguished through his use of a variety of glazes, including tenmoku (iron), nuka(rice-husk ash glaze) and kaki (permission glaze).

Eiraku Myōzen (1852-1927)

Area: Kyoto Prefecture

Eiraku Myōzen was one of only a few female ceramicists in Japan in the early 20th Century. The Eiraku family had a long tradition of ceramics in the Kyoto area. Myōzen took over the Eiraku workshop in Kyoto following her husband’s death.  The family’s work was in the Kyō-yaki (Kyō ware) tradition and served the San-Senke. Eiraku Myōzen’s work is considered to exhibit more feminine characteristics, which sets it apart from earlier and later Eiraku work. This, however could be disputed given the use of common motifs on ware for tea ceremonies. Examples of Myozen’s work are rare, and as such few have come to auction. 

Arakawa Toyozo (1894-1985)

Area: Gifu Prefecture

Arakawa was responsible for the revival of shino ware, a traditional form of stoneware that was originally prominent during the 16th-17th centuries. Shino is characterised by a rich white glaze, often applied in the case of Arakawa’s work, to a red clay. The story goes that Toyozo discovered a shard of early shino pottery from the Momoyama period and proceeded to conduct research at old kiln sites in the Kani district of Gifu. He went on to build his own kiln on the site at Ogaya, where he was able to replicate the shino glazing technique. For the most part, he took a rustic approach to shino ware in his personal work, with rough, uneven shapes.

In 1955, along with Shoji Hamada, Arakawa was designated a ‘Living National Treasure’ for his work. There are several major collections of his work around the world including in several museums in Japan, as well as the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. 

Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1919-2007)

Area: Tochigi Prefecture 

An apprentice of Shoji Hamada himself, Tatsuzo Shimaoka went on to gain his own reputation as one of the eminent Japanese studio potters. He became the second Japanese National Living Treasure in the town of Mashiko. While his apprenticeship was delayed due to conscription into the army during the Pacific War, where he fought in Burma and spent time as a prisoner of war. He was said to have carried a Shino tea bowl with him during his time in the army as a symbol of his dedication to the craft, and was eventually able to return to his apprenticeship with Hamada. On completion of his studies, Shimaoka established his own workshop and kiln, As he developed his own style and broke away from Hamada’s Mingei movement and instead drew on his own family history of rope-making. He developed distinctive techniques, such as creating rope imprints on the surface of the ceramic, and taking influence from the Korean technique of Punch’ong to inlay markings. His work continued to develop, and by the ’60s he was exhibiting internationally. 

Kayoko Hoshino (1949 – present)

Area: Fukuoka Prefecture 

Hoshino’s work is influenced by European history. She works with a mixture of several types of clay, including Shigaraki (a pebbly clay from one of Japan’s six ancient kilns). Her forms, created with geometric forms, are simple with a harmonious sense of balance. The surfaces of her works bear the impression marks of metal implements, such as wire wool, and straw, which she uses to create a linear pattern.

Kitamura Junko (1956 – present)

Area: Kyoto Prefecture

As Japanese studio pottery developed during the 20th century, not only did more women start to enter the craft but the creator’s intention moved beyond traditional craftsmanship and practicality, and moved towards the worlds of art and design. Kitamura Junko is an excellent example of this; her pieces have been exhibited in several major art galleries around the world. Her work draws on the traditional Buncheong (or Punch’ong) technique from Korea that commonly features designs inlaid into the glaze. She trained under Suzuki Osamu (who was designated the second Living National Treasure, after Arakawa, for his work in shino ware) so there are likely to be influences from the shino tradition also. Her work is distinguished by intricate inlaid designs that almost resemble constellations and bear commonality with traditional Aboriginal art.