Shoji Hamada, Mashiko and Mingei

Shoji Hamada: Three tea cups. Shoji Hamada: Three tea cups. Sold for £2,375 via Sotheby's (September 2015).

Shoji Hamada is one of the most distinguished Japanese Studio Potters of the 20th Century. Conversely, Hamada is also considered to have been one of the key figures of the Mingei movement, which looked to celebrate the work of the people rather than giving a platform to individuals.

Hamada’s work emerged during a period of transition for the Japanese world of pottery. Until this point, the names of individual potters had not generally been well known; instead studios were defined by their locality: by connection with chashitsu (local Japanese tea rooms), and the local materials. The 20th century saw a noticeable shift  towards celebrating individuals, and Hamada is a perfect example of this. 

Hamada’s work continues to have influence today, with his studio still working to support new potters joining the profession and through the continued appreciation of Mingei across the globe. 

The Influence of Bernard Leach

Bernard Leach & Family + Shōji Hamada. Taken at Draycott Terrace, St. Ives

Bernard Leach & Family + Shōji Hamada. Taken at Draycott Terrace, St. Ives. Image credit: fraser donachie on Flickr.

Hamada studied ceramics at the Tokyo Industrial College (now Tokyo Institute of Technology) and was one of only a handful of students interested in becoming a studio potter. He spent the years following his studies experimenting with different techniques and glazes before coming across Bernard Leach’s work at an exhibition in Tokyo. 

Above: examples of work demonstrating the mutual influence of Leach and Hamada. Left: Three works by Bernard Leach; Right: Three works by Shoji Hamada.

Hamada met Bernard Leach in 1919 and the two formed a close friendship. Leach himself is considered to have been one of the first British studio potters. A young Hamada came to England with Leach in 1920 and together they established Leach Pottery, with a traditional Japanese wood-fired climbing kiln, and bringing several Japanese techniques to the West for the first time. Hamada returned to Japan in 1923, taking his experiences of working with Leach with him. Leach went on to build on the Japanese techniques that Hamada brought over and the two names have gone hand in hand ever since. 

The legacy of Hamada and the town of Mashiko 

The history of many Japanese studio potters are embedded in studios associated with a particular area or partnership with a tea house. Often their names have become part of a history of a particular studio. For  Mashiko, the opposite could be said. While the town had had a reputation as a centre for pottery since the Edo period, it wasn’t until Shoji Hamada moved to the town that its reputation became firmly established.  

Hamada established a base in Mashiko upon his return from England. At first, he met with some hostility. As he established himself in the town, he developed his residence and studio, converting farm buildings. As it grew in space he began to provided accommodation for visiting pottery students and this is still the case today. His residence has since been transformed into the Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art, but often hosts students looking to develop their craft. The museum continues to celebrate the practical beauty of the everyday, showcasing the collection that Hamada built up over his lifetime.  

Above: Three examples of Hamada’s work in Mashiko clay

The local red-brown clay gives work produced in the area its distinctive look but the range of glazing techniques that Hamada brought back from both the UK, and his time developing and experimenting with his craft in Kyoto, means that there’s a diverse range of work from the potters who have continued to work in this pottery town. Today Mashiko is a destination of pilgrimage for many potters, and there are more than 300 working in the area.

Shoji Hamada and Mingei 

A further dimension to Hamada’s legacy is the role he played in the Mingei movement. A movement in 1920s Japan, Mingei roughly translates to folk craft or art of the people, celebrated work created by everyday individuals or unknown craftspeople. Hamada was one of the founders of the movement, which aimed to celebrate beauty in the everyday, rather than relying on association with a famous name. The simplicity of the movement can be seen in the style of Hamada’s work – although the irony of his name being synonymous with the Mingei movement should not be lost!

Hamada’s Distinctive Style 

Thanks to extensive travelling and experimentation, Shoji Hamada’s style varied over the years – but it was distinctive none the less. Much of his work was made from stoneware, which has a practical elegance like many of the mingei pieces that he admired and sought to celebrate through the movement. This meant that his pieces were designed to be useful, rather than purely decorative, and many collectable pieces include his yunomi (tea cups), lidded bowls, plates and cases and bottles.

Hamada used a variety of glazing techniques including dip dripped and incised, and the glazes themselves ranged from tenmoku (iron), nuka (rice-husk ash) and kaki (persimmon glaze). The glazes, as with the clay, centred around local, readily available organic materials.  

National Treasure 

Partly owing to the significance of his role in Mingei, but also thanks to his reputation as an exceptional studio potter. Hamada was designated a National Living Treasure along with a number of other craftspeople of Japan in 1955. He also went on to be appointed as the director of The Japan Folk Crafts Museum in 1962.  

Shoji Hamada’s work today is highly sought after and the reputation of modern work coming from Mashiko is very much part of his legacy.