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Raku Pottery in Japan

Updated on January 17, 2015
'Fuji-san' by Honami Koetsu (1558-1637). This piece is a National Treasure of Japan and gets its name from the white glaze, which "caps" the bowl like the snow-covered peak of Mt. Fuji.
'Fuji-san' by Honami Koetsu (1558-1637). This piece is a National Treasure of Japan and gets its name from the white glaze, which "caps" the bowl like the snow-covered peak of Mt. Fuji. | Source

Welcome!

Raku pottery is one of Japan's cornerstone arts and one that has exploded in popularity all around the world since it was introduced to the West by Paul Soldner in the late 1950s and, to a good degree, by the late British potter Bernard Leach in the 1920s. While only becoming largely known to the West over the past 5 1/2 decades or so, Raku ware (or 'Raku-yaki'/ 楽焼,as it's called in Japanese) has a long history in Japan dating back to the 18th century. Raku pottery serves both practical and aesthetic purposes in Japan, and has been manufactured by not only Japanese artisans, but also by the same family that created the Raku technique in the 1700s!

What is the history behind Raku-yaki? What purposes does it serve in Japanese society? Read on and find out!

Please note that while I'll make mention of Western raku potters when and where necessary, I'll keep the focus of this hub on raku in Japan and on the Japanese artists who have mastered the art over the centuries.

What is Raku?

Raku is a type of Japanese pottery that is made using a special process known as the Raku firing process. In this process, the piece is hand-molded instead of being turned on a potter's wheel and is fired at a low temperature. The piece is usually left in the kiln and sometime afterwards thrown into a container with combustible materials such as sawdust or newspaper, which leaves a unique design on each piece. The piece is then dipped in water and left to cool.

In Japan, most raku pottery pieces are fired in traditional wood-burning kilns. Also, unlike most Western artists who use alternate metal glazes, Japanese artists use a type of non-lead frit in place of lead glazes, which can be very toxic.

There are various sub-styles of raku in Japan. These include Chojiro-raku, which is the very mysterious black and red-glazed raku mastered in the beginning by Chojiro himself, the black raku pioneered by Shoraku Sasaki called Kuro-raku, the reddish-brown Aka-raku, and Koetsu-raku, which is Honami Koetsu's style of Raku.

A red and black Raku chawan made by (and featuring the mark of) Ryonyu XI, potter of the 9th generation of Ryonyu potters. This piece is on display at the Musee des Beaux Arts de Lyon in Lyon, France.
A red and black Raku chawan made by (and featuring the mark of) Ryonyu XI, potter of the 9th generation of Ryonyu potters. This piece is on display at the Musee des Beaux Arts de Lyon in Lyon, France. | Source

History of Raku

Raku-ware has its roots in the Sencai pottery tradition of Ming-dynasty China, which is where Chojiro (Raku I) had his roots. His father Ameya was a Sencai potter who was brought to Japan from China and he passed on much of his skill to his son Chojiro.

In the 16th century, the Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu had pioneered the tea ceremony ("chanoyu"). To make the tea ceremony complete, Rikyu needed to have the right teabowls ("chawan") available that would reflect the "wabi" ideals of the ceremony. For this task, Rikyu asked Chojiro (?-1592), who was a famous Kyoto potter at the time, to make the bowls. Chojiro accepted the task and made the chawan from Juraku clay. These bowls were initially called "Ima-yaki" and were black and red-glazed. They were simplistic in style and reflected the wabi ideals well.

In 1584, Toyotomi Hideyoshi presented Chojiro with a seal inscribed with the character 楽 (meaning 'raku', or "enjoyment" or "ease" in English) and this became the family name from that point onwards.

The Raku family has continued to produce Raku-ware ever since. The Raku style pioneered and mastered by Chojiro has been passed down through the generations to the current and 15th Raku, Kichizaemon. In addition, a number of Japanese artists and potters have studied at the Raku family kiln and mastered the technique over the centuries. These include a number of Japan's most famous artists.


A chawan made by Honami Koetsu.
A chawan made by Honami Koetsu. | Source

The Legacy of Raku in Japanese Art

Over the centuries since its creation by the Raku dynasty, many Japanese artists have mastered the art of Raku and created magnificent Raku pieces. Some of these artists studied under the Raku family themselves.

One such artist was Honami Koetsu (1558-1637), who mastered Raku along with the tea ceremony. Koetsu was given clay by Donyu II, grandson of Chojiro I (Raku I), but developed his own individual style, which he combined with the Raku family tradition. One of his pieces ("Fuji-san") has even been designated a national treasure in Japan!

Another Japanese artist to master Raku was Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743), who was one of the greatest ceramicists of the Edo period in Japan. He set up a kiln near Kyoto, where he did most of his work until 1712.

Raku and Wabi-Sabi

In Japan, one world view that is reflected in much of the artwork of the country is that of 'wabi-sabi'. Simply put, wabi-sabi is beauty through imperfection, incompletion, and impernanence. Some of the characteristics of wabi-sabi are simplicity, irregularity, and modesty. The values of wabi reflect the Zen beliefs of the priests who created the concept many hundreds of years ago.

In art, a simple, imperfect piece that gives the viewer feelings of solitude, loneliness, and spiritual longing is said to possess strong wabi characteristics. Raku is one art form that reflects wabi-sabi very well. Its simplicity, asymetry, uniqueness, and minimalist nature reflect all of these characteristics and a piece of raku ware automatically invokes that sense of solitude that defines wabi-sabi.

It's because of these characteristics that Sen Rikyu chose raku to be the tea bowls of choice in his tea ceremony all those years ago. Chojiro managed to capture the essence of wabi-sabi well in those first raku bowls.

A 17th or 18th century-era chawan with pine boughs and interlocking circles on display at the Freer Gallery of Art in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA. This piece was made in an unknown raku kiln in Kyoto.
A 17th or 18th century-era chawan with pine boughs and interlocking circles on display at the Freer Gallery of Art in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA. This piece was made in an unknown raku kiln in Kyoto. | Source

Raku and the Japanese Tea Ceremony

Raku-yaki plays an important part of the Japanese tea ceremony. In Japan, there's an old adage that goes "Raku first, Hagi second, Karatsu third." This adage is true to a degree up to the present day, but it demonstrates the popularity Raku enjoyed in the tea ceremony when it premiered in the 16th century.

Many chawan, or the bowls for preparing and drinking tea during the tea ceremony, are Raku ware. Since these chawan are made with the Raku process, they - along with the tea ceremony itself - have the wabi-sabi characteristics described above.

Raku in Modern-Day Japan

In recent years, raku pieces have been featured in art and ceramic exhibitions all around the world and other pieces have been put on display in museums. Prominent museums such as the Smithsonian feature raku ware, some of which was made by the Raku family themselves! In Japan, the Raku museum, which is owned and operated by the Raku family, can be found in downtown Kyoto next to the Raku family home (and workshop and kiln). Many historical Raku pieces are on display at this museum, from some of the first pieces made by Chojiro all the way to pieces made by the current Raku, Raku Kichizaemon XV.

In recent years, Japanese artists such as Suzuki Goro have made raku masterpieces that have attracted worldwide attention.

And of course, the Raku family still continue to remain a big name in the Japanese ceramics scene. Raku Kichizaemon XV has become a popular artist and potter in his own right, and the most prolific of the Raku generation of potters. Many of his works reflect an inner energy that results in a very explosive, emotionally-inspired piece of art. And of course, he still makes the same chawan that his forefathers made over the centuries!

In Conclusion

Raku has been one of Japan's most cherished art forms for over 500 years now and with its popularity rising worldwide, raku isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Over the past five centuries, the key purpose of raku has largely unchanged. It still inspires thoughts of simplicity and imperfection, just as the first piece made for Sen Rkiyu by Chojiro did.

In today's Japan, there are still plenty of artists and potters who are learning the raku style and who want to learn the raku style, just as they did when the Raku family first opened their kiln. There's no doubt there will be more to come in the future who will want to learn how to make raku. Some just may learn to make raku from the Raku family themselves, just as Honami Koetsu and Ogata Kenzan did centuries ago!

Thank you for your visit and please check in again as I'll update this hub as time permits. I hope to bring you much more information about raku in Japan over time!

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    • truefaith7 profile imageAUTHOR

      truefaith7 

      5 years ago from USA

      That should be an interesting exhibition! Thanks for sharing that with us Jim and good luck with that! And yes, raku is alive and well, and here to stay!

    • profile image

      jimromberg 

      5 years ago

      Good article. I will be curating an exhibition of historic and contemporary Raku ceramics, March 7-12, 2014 at the Sedona, Arizona Arts Center. This will include a two person workshop featuring Jim Romberg and Patrick Crabb, Gallery talk on Raku March 12 and Tea Ceremony demonstration, raku firing glazing and firing on Sunday, March 16. See the Sedona Arts Center web site soon for details. Raku is alive and well today !

    • truefaith7 profile imageAUTHOR

      truefaith7 

      5 years ago from USA

      Thanks so much for the feedback Ben! I'm glad you found the article you've been looking for in this hub, and good luck with your pottery endeavors!:-D

    • Ben Zoltak profile image

      Ben Zoltak 

      5 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

      Voted up and awesome, well done. I used to watch students create raku pieces at my university (UWSP) and it inspired me to try some real raw firing over a fire pit. I have looked long and wide for a good raku article online, so glad I bumped into yours!

      Now, I have to find out more about this: non-lead frit material...

      Best,

      Ben

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