From the Catalogue
Todate Kazuko (translated by Wahei Aoyama)

The History of Women in Japanese Ceramics


Contemporary women artists are responsible for creating some of the most accomplished and vibrantly innovative ceramics in today’s Japan. Women now comprise the overwhelming majority of enrollment in the nation’s many art schools, and it is increasingly common to find women ceramists being awarded the top prizes at important ceramic competitions. Yet while the case can be made that the creative presence and impact of women artists are what has made contemporary Japanese ceramics and its forms interesting, there has been surprisingly little critical discussion of the issues surrounding their rise in the last fifty years. The lack of such critical attention is underscored by the fact that the author of this essay is one of the few who devote research to this topic.

Despite the success of contemporary women ceramists in Japan, their retention rate is dismally low. It is not unusual for women to retire from the field of ceramics even after receiving major awards during or after university. Some have stopped working after showing exceptional work as their graduation projects, even though their work has been praised and admired by critics and collectors alike.

It should be obvious that time is required for an artist to develop her style and to mature in her abilities and deepen in her expression. Yet unlike contemporary fine art, which can exist as a concept alone, the key prerequisite for contemporary ceramics (or craft) is the continuation of productivity itself. In this sense, however, the apparent vitality of the work of women ceramists tends to obscure the underlying truth that the future of Japanese ceramics is currently at risk. This essay will review the history of women in Japanese ceramics and discuss the issues that are pertinent to today’s ceramic scene in particular as they relate to women artists.

Feminism in Japanese Ceramic Art

In the latter part of the twentieth century feminism and gender issues became important areas of discourse in the fine arts worldwide. Issues surrounding female sexuality surfaced in themes for exhibitions and in critical discussion. Feminist perspectives on historical art, including the depiction of the nude female body, have now become their own genre of critical analysis and theory.

On the other hand, feminism in Japanese ceramic art (if in fact such a thing existed at the time) was primarily concerned with issues associated with a woman’s social status or environment. This is in sharp contrast to painting or sculpture, where gender issues were more commonly addressed through an “expressive object” or sculptural concept.

The superstition that prevented women from even touching a kiln (referenced, with intended irony, in the title of this exhibition) and the restriction of women to menial and insignificant jobs in ceramic production are evidence of a history of the intentional exclusion of women from the creative process. Ultimately, it deprived women of the opportunity to become artists in their own right.

In the ceramic art of postwar Japan, beginning in the 1970s, sculptural concepts dealing with female sexuality were expressed in the sensuous ceramic forms of Tsuboi Asuka and in the provocative works of Miwa Ryōsaku (b. 1940), an influential male ceramist close in age to Tsuboi. However, the works of these two artists were far removed from traditional perceptions of ceramic objects as utilitarian vessels. They were not only innovative and ambitious, but they were precursors of the extreme abstraction and nonfunctionalism of later ceramic art. While their works were praised for their highly individualistic and original forms, it can be said that they were not particularly valued for their take on gender issues. The contrasts in the sculptural qualities of the work of Tsuboi Asuka and Miwa Ryōsaku, known today as the twelfth Miwa Kyūsetsu, are important topics.

Tsuboi’s works, which incorporate references to the female body or found objects relating to a woman’s femininity, were affirmative paeans to emancipated female sexuality. Miwa also used the female body or feminine motifs as subject matter, but he approached these themes through his own fetishistic imagination. The difference between a woman and a man taking on female subject matter surely calls for comparative analysis in the future.

With the advent of the Super-Girl Phenomenon (Chō-Shojo Genshō) in the early to mid-1980s, women ceramic artists faced debilitating criticism for the expressive elements in their work. Tashima Etsuko, one of the so-called Super Girls, recalls that her awareness regarding gender issues, in particular the ontological question of what it means to be a woman, was nurtured during her years in college in the late 1970s. In 1981, Tashima completed her graduate project titled Censored, which was a ceramic installation made with a plaster mold taken of her own body. Two years prior to the creation of Censored, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and at the same time, the women’s liberation movement that ignited in the United States in the late 1960s spread throughout Japan.

In 1986, Japan’s art critics began to take notice of the gigantic outdoor installations created by Tashima and other women artists and dubbed them collectively “Super Girls.” Simultaneously, the same critics targeted the works of these artists for harsh criticism.

Tashima would overcome the limitations imposed by the relatively small size of her kiln by combining separately-fired ceramic parts together to create largescale works. The innocent girlishness of her ceramics, together with their provocative colors and amplified forms, would lead critics to question the necessity for her art to be ceramic art. Ultimately, Tashima was severely criticized by several leading scholars and art critics. However, their negative reactions could be construed as a failure to understand the psychological complexity of her work. Tashima’s ceramics were not simply a physical representation of intimate parts of the female body, but were an expression of her inner struggle with gender issues.

A Male-Dominated History of Ceramics

The exclusion of women from the creative process of ceramic art and the opportunities denied them to become independent artists are relevant in terms of gender bias mainly in the context of modernism, when the image of the independent artist became the accepted norm. Even though the Japanese had imported Western individualism as part of accepted art practice in the twentieth century, the bias against women had hardly diminished.

In the history of preindustrial and industrial utilitarian ceramics, archeological evidence shows that women played an active part in the creation of ceramics since earthenware was first produced. Yet in the 13,000-year-old history of Japanese ceramics, “earthenware formed without a potter’s wheel was predominantly made by women, while the majority of earthenware made on a potter’s wheel was formed by men.” Furthermore, it is often said that women were responsible for creating hand-pinched Haji earthenware during the Heian period (794–1185 CE), while men made Sue earthenware, which was thrown on the potter’s wheel.

Later in the nineteenth century, Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791–1875), a Buddhist nun living in Kyoto, made hand-pinched pottery decorated with her poems rendered in calligraphy. There is also evidence of a Tokyo-based woman potter named Hattori Tsuna, who made export ware for foreign collectors at the end of the nineteenth century. However, such historic examples of women potters are extremely rare.

After the modernization of Japan during and after the Meiji era (1868–1912), many potteries located in regional kiln sites continued to produce ceramics that were made by hand. Yet even in this hand-crafted mode of production, women were restricted to menial labor. In Kyoto, a city with many artisans and potters, a woman was considered lucky if she was allowed to blot the gosu cobalt blue under-glaze of porcelain ware. In Bizen, one of Japan’s most famous kiln sites renowned for its austere stoneware, there is evidence of the existence of young women potters called hideshi (literally “princess apprentices”), who participated in wheel-thrown pottery production during the Taishō era (1912–26). “Wearing red sashes and kasuri-patterned kimono, the hideshi would help the male craftsmen by singing songs of the potter’s wheel while gently pushing the wheel along with their hands.” Considering that electric wheels were in use by this time, this picturesque description evokes a fairy tale scene. Yet other examples of women hand-throwing ceramics can be found not only in Bizen, but at Shigariki and other medieval kiln sites. Although the image of the craftsman and his hideshi may appear to be a rustic vision of the hand-crafted pottery industry, from the perspective of the women themselves, the situation was far less idyllic.

It is not until 1962 that a fully-fledged woman ceramist (rather than a craftsperson) emerged from Bizen. This artist was Morioka Michiko, who was an apprentice of Kaneshige Tōyō (1896–1967), Bizen’s first Important Intangible Cultural Property Holder (commonly known as a Living National Treasure). Other prominent and progressively-minded Bizen artists like Kaneshige have helped train women ceramists as equals to men. These include the fifth Living National Treasure for Bizen, Isezaki Jun (b. 1936) and Kakurezaki Ryūchi (b. 1950), a popular Bizen artist famous for his sculptural forms. Today more women artists than ever before work in Bizen, which is a wholly different environment for women artists compared to the closed doors of its past.

In the Taishō era a conservative male hierarchy curtailed the creativity of women ceramic artists. At the same time, possibly as the result of the liberalism of the so-called Taishō Democracy, male ceramists emerged such as Living National Treasure Tomimoto Kenkichi (1886–1963) and Kusube Ya’ichi (1897–1984), who created great works that effectively combined artistic individuality with advanced technical craftsmanship. The combination of individual artistry with formidable technical skills can be considered an inherently Japanese artistic profile that helped to define the term “independent artist” for modern Japan.

[Excerpted from catalogue essay]