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Sakuma Totaro (Mashiko, Mingei)



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An unknown craftsman from Mashiko

 for The Japan Times, June 24, 2000

Many of you are familiar with the name and works of Hamada Shoji (1894-1977), arguably the most widely famed of all Japanese potters. When he settled in the backwater potting town of Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture, in Taisho 13 (1924), no one imagined that he would turn the conservative pottery world upside down and bring potters and collectors from across the globe to their village.

Piece by Sakuma Totaro

large octagonal plate with
bamboo-leaf pattern
by Sakuma Totaro (1969)

It wasn't easy for Hamada in the beginning. When he first arrived the potters of Mashiko were producing utilitarian wares for daily use in the households, inns and pubs of Tokyo: cooking pots (nabe), tea pots (dobin) or grinding bowls (suribachi). The locals didn't want him there; his knowledge of glazes and firing was too intimidating.

He writes of that time, "Mashiko was fine and the people quite nice, but they had a tendency toward stubbornness. I was the object of much suspicion. I was constantly confronted by the police."

One Mashiko local, however, in his own right an excellent potter, befriended Hamada. Something about him caught the eye of Sakuma Totaro (1900-1976), and Sakuma was to become Hamada's first real friend and partner in grime in Mashiko.

This article isn't about Hamada, though. It's about Sakuma. 

Without the influence of Hamada, Sakuma might have faded away like the cooling embers from a kiln, but instead, he became one of the century's leading Mashiko potters. To celebrate the centennial of Totaro Sakuma's birth, Togei Messe Mashiko is holding a retrospective of his pottery.

Piece by Sakuma Totaro

Iron-glazed jar
with impressed design
by Sakuma Totaro (1957)

Sakuma was born into a traditional potting family, the eldest son of Fukujiro and Tomiko  Sakuma, and was expected to carry on the family kiln without wavering from the trodden path. In 1924, however, Mashiko wares were out of date and the industry was dying. Hamada made Sakuma realize this.

Sakuma wanted Hamada to stay and work at his studio, but his mother was suspicious, opposed to having a guest in the house for whom she would have to fix special meals. Hamada assured her that he would be happy with whatever was put on the table. She finally  agreed -- and served eggplant for the first two months of Hamada's stay: eggplant in the miso soup, eggplant pickles, boiled eggplant and fried eggplant.

After Sakuma had finished his daily work load for the family kiln he worked and studied with Hamada. Sakuma compared it to home tutoring. They would spin the wheel late into the night while the worldly Hamada told Sakuma of what lay beyond Mashiko. 

Sakuma heard of Hamada's studies in Kyoto and his time spent with Bernard Leach in St. Ives, England. He learned to use the glazes that Hamada had perfected: kuro-yu (black), kaki-yu (persimmon), hakeme (white slip brushed on wares), tetsu-yu (iron) and ame-yu (caramel-colored) among others. He learned how to fire all kinds of different wares and viewed the pieces that Hamada and Leach had made in England. For Sakuma, his deai (encounter) with Hamada was the beginning of a whole new path; he was 24 then.  

Sakuma's work is quite different from Hamada's, and the current exhibition does a good job of showing that. His work can be described as jimi (quiet and reserved), unlike the pots of Mashiko today which tend to be hade (showy). 

Sakuma's work, following in the Mingei tradition, is also approachable, sturdy and dignified, without putting on airs. In a way it's even more Mingei than Hamada's; it lacks the strong, easily identifiable brushwork of Hamada's pots and thus ties in more with the "unknown craftsman" theory that the Mingei movement propagated. Sakuma was also instrumental in the founding of the Mingei movement in the Tochigi area -- though this is little known! 

He excelled in his use of engraved or combed (kushime) designs on his work, as is seen on the large jar from 1957 with its two-tone body and dripped glaze on the front. Just around the lip of the jar is the wonderful iron glaze that Mashiko is well known for, a color that I never grow tired of.

A jar from 1958 has a subdued ame-yu with nuka (rice husk glaze) flowing over the shoulder in a pleasing contrast. Other pieces, like the octagonal plate from 1969, make use of the rich kaki-yu, another Mashiko favorite. 

The exhibition catalog has some rare photos of Leach and Tomimoto Kenkichi working at the Sakuma kiln, as well as of Sakuma with printmaker Shiko Munakata, potter Kanjiro Kawai, Mingei theorist and critic Soetsu Yanagi and Hamada himself -- the whole Mingei core group. A shot from Showa 15 (1940) has the group, all looking quite dapper in suits and ties, on a boat during a research trip to Okinawa. 

Sakuma is known among connoisseurs of Japanese pottery, but  emains very much the unknown craftsman to the rest of the world, in the shadow of his great friend and mentor Hamada. This exhibition offers a chance to see Sakuma in his own spotlight, an early champion of Mashiko pottery -- and one who deserves to be known. 

Works by Sakuma Totaro, at Togei Messe Mashiko until July 16, 2000. About 70 pieces. For information, call (0285) 72-7555.  

One of the founders of the Mingei movement was the above-mentioned Tomimoto Kenkichi (1886-1963). A retrospective of his work is on until July 16 at Nara Sogo.

Tomimoto worked mainly in porcelain, and his brushwork is held in the highest esteem in Japan. He was also a teacher of many of Japan's top potters, including the late Kamoda Shoji, Yuriko Matsuda, Morino Hiroaki, Miyashita Zenji and Wada Morihiro. 

The Japan Times: June 24, 2000
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