Ryotaro Kato and the Kobe Dynasty


A recent article described Ryotaro Kato as the ‘son of the seventh master of Kobe Kiln’.

‘Son of the seventh master’ – not the ‘eighth master’. That distinction is important, for it points to two critical aspects of traditional Japanese familial culture: the honouring of elders; and continuation of the family legacy.

Japan has, for a great many years, been a country of ‘Fathers and Sons’; whether imperial families, dynastic businesses, or inherited trades. In a nation that has undergone monumental shifts in infrastructure over the centuries, it has ensured the passage of craft skills between generations; and it has maintained longstanding traditions on an island that, for all its apparent insularity and uniformity, built its collective identity from a great many independent peoples and outside influences. Only in the last hundred years or so has that culture begun to lift – and to open itself to daughters, mothers, and adoptee apprentices. But in a great many areas, the command of lineage remains vitally important – and none more so than the ever-fragile world of ceramics.

L1001846 1 Ryotaro Kato and the Kobe Dynasty

The pottery dynasty to which Ryotaro belongs traces its roots back to the early 19th century, when in 1804 Kobe Kato founded the Kobe-gama, ‘Kobe kiln’, in Tajimi, Gifu prefecture, formerly the province of Mino. Kato’s workshop were major suppliers to the Shogunate in Edo, modern day Tokyo, and quickly established a reputation for their exceptional tablewares. After a century in production with five generations at the helm, the sixth master, Ryotaro’s grandfather, the late Living National Treasure Takuo Kato (1917-2005), took the kiln in a new direction when he rediscovered the ancient links between Japanese pottery and old Persian luster-ware: bright, turquoise blue glazes, particular to the Middle Eastern, Egypt and North Africa, and a scintillating chromatic pottery that was the source of China’s legendary Sancai (‘three colours’) ware.

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The kaleidoscopic qualities of this new pottery, which seemed to change colour with the light, were in great demand in China, where it was bought in bulk on the Silk Road and occasionally exported to Japan. But to recreate its effects, as Takuo sought to do, required a totally different approach than that practised by the Mino potters of old. Persian clay does not fire to high temperatures, and its glazes used elements not often found in Asian ceramics. It necessitated new kilns, far smaller than the Japanese were used to working with, fired at low temperatures (and producing even lower yields) where the flames could not be allowed to come into contact with the pots. The local humidity (Japan is well known for its rain) often ruined firings that would have survived in the dry Iranian heat.

Anyone familiar with Japan’s roaring dragon kilns – huge multi-chambered slugs built on hillsides, fired with wood for days on end – knows just how great a change in discipline Takuo was engineering; but engineer it he did, developing new techniques with a high-fired Japanese clay that produced far harder wearing pots than their Persian equivalent. Ryotaro’s father continued the work, and Ryotaro (45) himself still maintains the kiln’s production, with research links and cross-continental collaboration with potters in Iran. But in his own pottery, Ryotaro sought to revive a quite different ceramic tradition – a return to the local Mino style.

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Mino pottery was born in the Momo-yama period, the late 1500s, at a time of violent feudal conflict. As control slipped from the hands of the previous shogunate, belligerent ‘daimyo’ warlords battled rival clans across Japan to take advantage of the power vacuum, driving artisanal craftsmen from the most war-torn regions into nearby Mino. One warlord, Oda Nobunaga, and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, rose above the rest, launching a long and bloody campaign to re-establish peace and usher in an era of unification under a new shogun.

Pottery masters were then highly prized by their warlords, for whom the tea ceremony provided important opportunities to parley with fellow lords, or to demonstrate power, wealth, and superior taste. Some, like the famed samurai tea master Furuta Oribe, even gave their names to the styles their subjects innovated under their rule. A Kato of a different line, Kagemitsu Kato, was one of many potters to flee the warring of Owari province and establish premises in Mino. Kato was afforded personal protection under Nobunaga, and from the safety of his new workshop helped develop some of the most important styles and glazes of contemporary Japanese pottery, from rich, black-glazed wares to yellow ‘Ki-Seto’ and snow-white Shinos.

The changes that occurred in Japanese ceramics between the death throes of the Muromachi period and the splendour of Momoyama are sometimes referred to as the ‘Japanese renaissance’ – and indeed they were monumental. Previously, sombre, symmetrical, modest black and white glazed bowls, inspired by or imported from China and Korea, were the desired standard in tea ceremony. But from the crucible of a war-torn country, Japan’s potters reinvigorated traditional pottery with extraordinary stylistic change. Out went the clean edges, smooth sides, and textureless glazes; in came a world of strange distortions, bright colours, high-fired brushwork embellishment, and brilliant, encrusted, thick, sugary glazes, all of it inspired by a wealth of foreign influx, from Venetian glass and Chinese ornament to ‘barbarian’ Portuguese traders in strange fancy dress. Usually, the avant-garde pushes conservative aesthetics further and further from restrained or formally rigorous traditions; in Japan, original Momoyama pottery remains among the most daring, loose, and technically virtuosic on display – a standard potters strive for, not just politely venerate or disown with disinterest.

L1001879 scaled Ryotaro Kato and the Kobe Dynasty

If you have ever attended a Japanese tea ceremony, it is not difficult to see how its calm, mannered ritual would suit its place in this turbulent history. The idea of a spiritual, neutral space, in which the politics is one of intensely laboured equality and equanimity, provided a vital arena in feudal diplomacy. A ‘chawan’, or ‘tea bowl’, is warmed and cleaned with water before matcha (ground green tea leaves) is added with a small, hooked spoon. Hot water is ladled in, and the bowl beaten with a bamboo whisk until the matcha turns to a vibrant green effervescence. The attendant passes the bowl to its recipient with a particular side of the bowl facing towards them – an offer to enjoy an especially beautiful aspect of the bowl. As the recipient drinks, he or she turns the bowl again, returning the favour. Reciprocity lies at the heart of the ceremony: every movement, from both host and guest, is intended to pay respect to one another and the sanctity of the experience.

Ryotaro Kato’s recent tea ceremony at the Goldmark Gallery is centuries removed from that period of instability in Japan – and in light of our own uncertainty which we currently face in the UK, it offered a welcome, calm respite from our own feuding politicians. Kato’s ceremony is in its essence traditional, for which he dons traditional dress, but he manages to speak to a contemporary audience. Every movement is considered: a hand, crossing his chest to hold a sleeve back, the exquisitely delicate replacement of a bamboo ladle over a hot water pot; it is like a ballet for the hands, every gesture measured in relation to the sharing audience.

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In the quiet, light-filled space conjured from screens in the gallery front room, we were offered the perfect opportunity to enjoy Ryotaro’s latest work. Deep, lake-black ‘guro’ chawan, their colour produced by ‘hikidashi’ – a spectacularly theatrical technique, in which a white-hot pot is removed from the kiln with a pair of tongs at the height of a firing. The thermal shock of the change in temperature engenders its silky dark finish, perhaps as true a black as you can achieve in ceramics. ‘Inside the kiln is a world of fire,’ Ryotaro says, ‘A world of death. This side is the world of living things. There is a clear separation.’ He has spoken of pulling work from his kiln as being like delivering his children – a powerful metaphor for the responsibility he feels for his labour, and a reminder of what an emotional, painful toll the work of a potter must be, where miscarriage is not just a worry but an inevitability.

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Ryotaro has established something of a reputation for his Oribe-ware, the beautiful, glassy-green glaze which he has combined in the past with traditional rust-coloured iron brushwork. But it is the Shino here – as it was in ancient Mino – which is the real showstopper, especially when combined with the lush green of fresh-whisked matcha. A thick, white feldspathic glaze, Shino’s history is shrouded in mystery; even its name has no clear etymology. You could hardly believe, given its ubiquity in international ceramics, that it once fell out of favour for an age, only to have been recovered in the last century. Ryotaro offers us several classic Shino varieties – ‘Akane’ (bright red), ‘Beni’ (deep red), ‘Ogura’ (named after the maple-covered mountain) and ‘Nezumi’ (gray, literally ‘mouse’) Shino – each with the delightful ‘yuzuhada’ (‘citrus skin’) effect on the surface, where tiny potholes lend the pot the feel of a waxy lemon rind. One especially beautiful chawan is almost entirely white, save for a peach flush round the rim, the glaze deliciously thick, with a face where the Shino has been applied more thinly. The result is a gorgeous ‘crawl’ in the surface, where the glaze appears to have peeled back, lending a deep, seductive ‘okoge’ (scorched) blush.

It is often said by chawan collectors that you can tell everything about a potter from the foot, or ‘kodai’, of their bowl (a rather less snobbish version of the Western expression that you can tell a gentleman by his shoes). Ryotaro Kato throws a chawan that is low; the belly of the bowl is wide and deep, the walls straight, overhanging its base to cast a pool of shadow beneath, almost as if it were floating. The foot is short and hidden from view – not courting approval, but sitting, quietly and coolly, for the right person to come along.

Ryotaro Kato may not see himself inherit the mantle of ‘eighth master’ for years; but he seems more than happy to wait, as do his masterful pots.