Japanese potter Shoji Hamada (1894–1978) is one of the most celebrated ceramists of the modern era. A forerunner in the Japanese folk art movement, Hamada embodied a principled respect for handmade wares in a period of ever-increasing textile industrialization.
Shoji Hamada was born on December 9, 1894 in Kawasaki (Kanagawa prefecture), Japan. Not much has been recorded regarding his father, Kyuzo Hamada, and his mother, Ai. Hamada found himself drawn to the arts at an early age. When he was eight, he accompanied an older relative to classes at the Tokyo School of Fine Art and watched the students and their work closely. He also tagged along when the same relative went on painting expeditions. At sixteen he was submitting woodcuts to periodicals for publishing and being awarded frequent prizes for his work in art class at the school he attended. The Pucker Gallery (Boston, Massachusetts)'s online biography of Hamada revealed that he was "first interested in painting, but discarded it in favor of pottery, figuring, 'Even a bad pot has some use, but with a bad painting, there is nothing you can do with it except throw it away.'" This utilitarian mindset became an integral part of Hamada's personal character, and clearly informed the temperament of his work, which was praised for its practical elegance.
In 1913, Hamada attended the Tokyo Industrial College (sometimes referred to as Tokyo Advanced Technical College, and now called the Tokyo Institute of Technology) and enrolled in their ceramics program. While studying there he met influential potter and friend, Kanjiro Kawai. A year before, in 1912, he had been to the Ginza district of Tokyo to view the pottery exhibitions in the galleries there, and come upon pieces and etchings by renowned British potter Bernard Leach. He found Leach's work captivating, and identified with the Western potter's straightforward, skillful designs. Hamada graduated from Tokyo Industrial College in 1916, and he and his colleague, Kawai Kanjiro, both went to work at Kyoto's Ceramic Testing Institute (sometimes referred to as the Municipal Ceramic Laboratory). Hamada finally met Leach in 1919 during a one-man exhibition that Leach put on in Tokyo. The two potters quickly bonded, finding that they shared similar styles, and Hamada was asked to accompany Leach to Abiko to meet and work with other major potters. This excursion sparked a lifetime of mutual friendship and admiration between the two artists that bridged the distance between their respective cultures.
World Wise Craftsman
Leach invited Hamada to England in 1920 to assist in the formation of the St. Ives kilns for the Leach Pottery Studio in Cornwall. While there they also did trial work with lead-glazed slipware. Hamada's experience and expertise were welcomed and praised, and the Leach Pottery remains active—boasting a much-visited museum featuring both Leach and Hamada's work. One of Hamada's main contributions to the St. Ives project was his oversight of the building of a traditional Japanese noborigama or "climbing" kiln—the first of its kind in the West. While in England, Hamada had his first one-man exhibition at London's Paterson Gallery in 1923 and returned to England periodically, presenting shows at Paterson in 1929, and again in 1931. Hamada spent four years in England with Leach, and then returned to his native country and was welcomed into an Okinawan potting community. In 1924 he married Kazue Kimura and had six children; four sons and two daughters. His first one-man exhibition in Japan was displayed in 1925.
Hamada eventually became heavily involved in the Japanese folk art, mingei, movement and quickly established himself as a leader. The term mingei (literally "folk art" or "art of the people") was coined by Soetsu Yanagi—author of The Unknown Craftsman. Scholars explain that it was Yanagi's opinion—and Hamada whole-heartedly agreed—that the "anonymous individuals in village cultures [craftsmen] … were not consciously trying to make 'art', but interestingly, much of [their]work is now considered art." Whereas, "the contemporary artist/potter was too caught up in the desire to produce art, and the cult of celebrity." The philosophy suggests that the desire to produce art "would have to be abandoned in order for real art to be produced" and one would have to "[work] with one's hands, naturally and unselfconsciously, using local materials and traditional techniques to produce meaningful work for one's fellow human beings." Hamada traveled all over Japan, China and Korea looking for unique folk art pieces and perfecting and improving his own potting and firing methods.
In 1931, Hamada settled among a group of rural artisans in Mashiko (Tochigi prefecture) and established a modest but successful business there. The Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan (1983) explained that Mashiko had been "a pottery center since the latter part of the Edo period (1600–1868)" and Hamada did not initially receive a warm welcome. He was viewed as an outsider, and none of the local artisans would accept him as an apprentice at first because they distrusted his urban education. Eventually, a compassionate local potter took Hamada under his wing. Hamada became so popular and well known that Mashiko became synonymous with his name. Regardless of his celebrity, however, he remained both a humble artist and a diligent worker—relatively unspoiled by his fame.
Despite Hamada's advanced technical training, he chose to specialize in thrown, molded and hand-modeled pieces using the local clay and readily available organic materials such as salt and cinder for his glazes. The Chambers Biographical Dictionary defines Hamada's work as being "primarily in stoneware using ash or iron glazes producing utilitarian wares in strong, simple shapes brushed with abstract design." The Pucker Gallery's biography confirmed Hamada's distinctive gift, saying "His works were not merely copies of the styles he studied, but were unique products of his own creative energy." In 1936, Hamada and colleagues Soetsu Yanagi and Kanjiro Kawai founded the Japanese Folkcraft Museum.
In his 1960 memoir, A Potter in Japan, Leach describes the two years he spent with Hamada and other ceramists (1952–1954) developing his skills and sharing cultures. The book is dedicated, in part, to Hamada and praises the potter's efforts to uphold and expand the values and expressions of the folkcraft movement, which focused on infusing the new with the old so that Japan's cultural traditions would not degrade. Leach's memoir provided an intimate description of the Hamada potting compound in Mashiko. "He has built up his establishment from a humble start; it consists of several acres on a slope coming down through bamboos, cryptomerias, garden land and trees to the edge of the paddies. Everyone seems to share a spirit of content and mutuality, there is no Western excitability … Hamada works alone in the main house … [sitting] cross-legged on [a low platform into which the wheel is sunk] … The freedom and ease with which he does this is a marvel. But the more one watches, the more one realizes that it is the result of a balance in Hamada himself. Clear and quiet conceptual thought proceeding spontaneously into equally clarified, articulated actions."
From 1952 and into 1953 Hamada visited Europe and the United States as part of a culture tour, inspiring other celebrated potters. Leach recalled the trip, "from the East to the West coast of America, teaching, lecturing, and demonstrating." The tour began with the International Conference of Potters and Weavers—its events held at Dartington Hall in Devon, England in August of 1952. The goal of the conference was the spirited exchange of thoughts and ideas regarding the participants' artistry, and it lasted ten days with a host of over one hundred delegates from more than twenty countries—with Hamada and Yanagi representing Japan. Everyone present had much to learn from Hamada and Yanagi, as Leach explained in his 1960 memoir: "The Japanese Craft Movement … is the most vigorous, widespread and unified in the world today. With about 2,000 active and supporting members, one central and three provincial museums, some thirty groups of craftsmen and about half that number of craft shops, with an unusual[ly large] turnover … it has more impact upon society than any other movement of which I know."
During the tour, Hamada was quiet and unassuming to the point that people thought he did not speak English. It was his choice to serve the purpose of the tour by doing demonstration after demonstration, silently spinning tangible examples of the principles of the folk art movement that people could see and touch. Leach—in his memoir—praised Hamada's mastery of the "deeper aspect of Oriental thought … concerned with Thusness, Nakedness, or Emptiness, a condition of being called in Japanese 'Mu', a quality to be found in all good art …," and he wasn't alone in his admiration. Hamada was the recipient of frequent accolades and awards. In 1955 Hamada was designated a Living National Treasure (also referred to as Holder of Intangible Cultural Property) by the Japanese government. In 1962, Hamada was appointed director of Japan's Folk Art Museum, succeeding his friend and peer, Soetsu Yanagi, and in 1968 he was awarded the Order of Culture (Bunka-sho).
A Potter Remembered
Shoji Hamada died in 1978 in Mashiko, Japan, but the scope of his influence included multiple continents. The Pucker Gallery's biography stated that "Because he spoke English and traveled widely, Hamada's influence on potters around the world is incalculable." As a craftsman, he worked tirelessly to maintain Japanese artistic and cultural integrity while, at the same time, never failing to express his own personal and unique perceptions of aesthetic beauty. In his lifetime he was an honored member of such organizations as the Japanese Folkcraft Society, the Society of Japanese Painters (Kokuga Kai), and the Council for the Protection of Cultural Properties of Japan. He was awarded numerous accolades, including the Japanese Medal of Honour with Purple Ribbon in 1964, an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts from Michigan State University in 1967, the Okinawa Times Prize in 1968, and an honorary citizenship to Mashiko in 1969. Both his studio in Mashiko—which has been renovated into a museum—and the still active Leach Pottery in Cornwall draw a steady stream of admirers. As Leach expressed in his memoir, "Wherever industry penetrates, the products of the primary tool of man, the human hand, diminish and decline…. The only compensation, and it is quite inadequate to replace the wide array of beauty in the common things of life previously provided by hand by the people themselves, is to be found amongst a mere handful of conscious artist-craftsmen…." Of that handful, Shoji Hamada stands out as a figure of exceptional purpose and talent, and is remembered the world over for his ability to balance innovations, and traditional techniques.
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Chambers Biographical Dictionary, edited by Melanie Parry, Chambers Harrap Publishers, Ltd., 1997.
The International Who's Who: Fortieth Edition 1976–77, Europa Publications Ltd., 1976.
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Leach, Bernard, A Potter in Japan 1952–1954, Faber and Faber, 1960.
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