The craft of Bizen ware is more than clay—it is a primal union of man and nature. In this series, we explore how different families have passed down “the way of Bizen,” and how the craft has evolved through generations.
Before and after each kiln opening, three generations of the Kaneshige family gather over a simple hearty meal of fish, white rice, and sunonomo pickles topped upon platters made by their own hands; the mood is toasty with affection and familiarity. In a family composed of potters, the conversation always inevitably turns to clay. They speak of their latest pieces, of new forms and techniques, and of “clay flavor” (tsuchi-aji)—the notion that a potter’s purpose is to illuminate the natural beauty of the clay.
One of the six original shokunin or “honorable craftsman” families in Bizen, the Kaneshige line has practiced clay craft for 400 years. Like clockwork, every firing brings the family together for the loading, firing and unloading process, and culminates in a lively family dinner to celebrate.
Jumpei cherishes these dinners; they are not only a time for family, but a masterclass on the power of clay and fire. Jumpei comes from a long lineage of Bizen potters dating back to the 16th century; he is the grandson of Toyo Kaneshige (Bizen’s first Living National Treasure) and son of Kosuke Kaneshige (renowned sculptural potter).
Jumpei’s earliest memory of creating with clay was at his father’s studio. He modeled a small train set with his block of clay and placed it cautiously on his father’s potter’s wheel. As he watched his sculpture in motion, spinning on the makeshift track, Jumpei was transfixed. That day, he learned that clay could come alive.
Jumpei’s spontaneity and imagination is still evident in his process to this day. “When I’m building, it’s so fun. Sometimes I make a good piece. Sometimes I fail. But my purpose is to capture the life and music of each piece,” Jumpei says.
A couple of years ago, through a gift from his uncle to his father, Jumpei discovered some of the most mineral-rich clay near his grandfather’s old studio. His grandfather once mused that if he ever set up a studio outside of Japan, that he would need to select a site based on the quality and taste of the local clay. It felt fitting that the finest earth was found in close proximity to his own studio in Bizen.
Potters in Japan traditionally use clay in close vicinity of the kiln sites. Jumpei explains, “Internalizing nature and the Bizen landscape [tasting the clay] is essential to bringing clarity and intention to the craft. It helps potters create pieces that take on the characteristics of the local clay.”
Jumpei found the chemical composition in the clay was ideal for shaping pottery, all the elements, the iron and glass, added personality and plasticity to the clay. During the firing process, the minerals alive in the Bizen clay meld gracefully with the melted ash to result in organic textures and subdued colors.
As a young apprentice, Jumpei watched his father’s technique and approach to clay with reverence and awe. In the studio, he carefully practiced his father’s movements, emulating his father's attitude towards the clay and his dedication to the craft. Over time, Jumpei's own style emerged.
Jumpei led his first firing in 2007, using the Momoyama-style firing techniques established by his grandfather, with his family gathered around for support. He directed the loading and unloading of the kiln, setting the vessels meticulously in place for desired coloring and textures. Every firing is an opportunity to experiment with the clay, to learn more optimal arrangements of the pieces in the kiln and to discover ever more ways that the clay reacts to the fire.
“There are only a few clays that become beautiful after firing. Bizen clay is one of them,” says Jumpei. “I’m studying how to let special effects happen as I wish. It’s what we call happy accidents in the kiln. That is the most interesting part of the firing.”
His faith in chance appears earlier in the process as well; when throwing, he surrenders his thoughts to the rhythm of the wheel—forming becomes like breathing. “I let the tempo of the wheel and feel of the clay guide me,” Jumpei says. “The form itself becomes a vessel to express the music.”
Despite the weight of the Kaneshige name, Jumpei insists that he is just another potter. He says it’s his peers that push him and keep him fresh. “I am still learning.”
It is this spirit of learning and a love of clay that Jumpei hopes to impart to his own children, who spend their weekends with him in his studio. It is only a matter of time that his daughter takes her own place at the wheel and leads her own firing.
While each new generation of the Kaneshige clan thoroughly masters the techniques of the last, the Kaneshiges do not view the preservation of tradition as rote replication.
Jumpei’s uncle, Michiaki Kaneshige said, “Tradition is always changing. A mere copy of an old piece has not changed; it is nearly the same as its prototype of four hundred years ago. Tradition consists of creating something new with what one has inherited.”
Instead, each generation builds on the last, using the techniques of their forefathers to create new pieces that speak to the times. And it is through new shapes, new recipes, and new ways that they keep the ancient traditions alive.
Kosuke Kaneshige: A Master of Bizen Sculpture
As the third son of Toyo Kaneshige, Kosuke Kaneshige (b. 1943) evaded the usual familial pressures of the first-born. While his eldest brother, Michiaki, managed the family pottery business, Kosuke instead pursued studies in sculpture at the Tokyo University of Art.
After his father’s death in 1967, Kosuke taught college-level pottery; his new job afforded him a steady paycheck and a studio. Despite coming from a family of potters, his own knowledge of clay was limited to what he learned from spending afternoons as a child in his father’s studio.
Kosuke eventually returned to Bizen to fully devote himself to clay. He worked side-by-side with his brother Michiaki, finding inspiration in his brother’s maestro-like technique, but drawing on his own sculptural background to create more modern forms.
Kosuke’s background in sculpture and mixed media brings a uniquely dimensional and modernist quality to his work. At 77, he still challenges himself creatively, continuously exploring new ways to harness the plasticity of Bizen clay into unexpected shapes and forms.
Today he serves as an inspiration to his own son, Jumpei, who follows his father’s footsteps in a life of clay.