One summer afternoon, I visited a potter’s workshop called Seto Hongyo Gama at Seto city in Japan. Inside of the work studio, just fired bowls, plates, and cups were piled up on the floor. It is a family-run workshop that has been in operation since around the year 1800 to provide commodity pottery to Japanese households.
Many family workshops existed prior to the 20th century in and around Seto, but many of them switched to large-scale mass production when demand was high. Most of them ceased to exist during the economic downturn, while a small number of them became renowned industrialized ceramic makers. Seto Hongyo Gama, on the other hand, retained its traditional small pottery manufacturing style, and now it is led by seventh- and eighth-generation masters.
Seto Hongyo Gama still produces tableware in the way small Japanese potter workshops used to produce it. They make glaze from pine ash, collect silica to mix in the glaze, let the clay rest for six months before using it, shape bowls and plates with potter’s wheels, and hand-paint the plates before firing them. That’s why their tableware is slightly more expensive than mass-produced tableware.
“We could expand the production, as our products are heavily in demand right now, but at the same time, we don’t know when this boom will end. I think our mission is to keep producing tableware in a traditional way, and passing down the tradition to the next generations,” the eighth-generation master said.
The masters of Seto Hongyo Gama proudly consider themselves as artisans, not artists. In fact, they don’t even sign their products. Considering that even industrially mass-produced tableware bears signatures nowadays in order to give a feeling of false authenticity, Seto Hongyo Gama’s policy is remarkable.
Seto Hongyo Gama’s tableware is not to be displayed in a cupboard. It is made to be used every day. The Japanese say that good earthenware “grows,” and you may notice that the color of the earthenware changes gradually over time as you use it.
Master Shimizu said to me, “We hope that our products are purchased by someone who sees the beauty of our craftsmanship in them, and uses it and cares for it for a long time.”