On Learning Pottery in Japan

Ruth Huebner

For foreigners wishing to study traditional arts in Japan there is often a wide and dangerous gap between their romantic notions of apprenticeship and the hard reality they find when they finally get here. Ruth Huebner, a potter and computer programer now living in rural Maryland, recollects her three visits to this country where she met with other foreign potters and put in nine months working for a potter in Mashiko. Her experience was a good one, and one we can all learn from no matter what field we intend to study in Japan.



While I was in college and working at an art center I became deeply involved with pottery and potters. In that circle, as in many others, Japan and the East were revered as the source of certain values which we ourselves had taken to heart.

Among those values were an appreciation of simple, strong forms, a direct way of working which revealed the nature of clay, glaze, and technique, an acceptance of asymmetry and avoidance of the “perfect” and a respect for tradition itself, manifested in stories of pottery families and villages extending ten generations and more. Shoji Hamada, a potter designated by the Japanese government as Holder of an Intangible Cultural Property or Living National Treasure was our hero and “shibui“ was our catchword. (Speakers of Japanese will laugh, but a “shibui” was our term for the blemish that increased the beauty of an otherwise too-perfect object.)

In this context, we avidly soaked up reports of potters who had gone to Japan to study with potters famous and/or traditional, from Bernard Leach, the English potter who befriended Shoji Hamada in the early part of this century, to young Americans recently returned from Japan who toured college campuses with slide talks describing their experiences. When I learned that my college had an exchange program with a college in Japan I eagerly signed up. My potter-friends all asked me if I was going to appren­tice to a potter there and each time I carefully explained that for this first year I was going to attend classes and study Japanese language and culture and look at situations that were available before deciding whether I really wanted to enter an apprenticeship arrangement.

In accordance with the respect for tradition which we attributed to Japanese potters, apprenticeship was the assumed mode for transmittal of traditional values. Our view of apprenticeship in Japan was something like this: a period of typically seven years, during which the apprentice worked alongside the master in his studio cleaning floors and tools, wiping shelves, and only toward the end actually mixing and preparing clay for the master himself to use, but all the while absorbing through eyes, ears and tactile senses the educa­tion which would carry the apprentice through on his or her own.

The Stateside (and Europe-side) idealization of this environment included such features as the opportunity for the apprentice to work alongside the master, throwing pots which the master would come to appreciate for their unique characteristics, the opportunity to display one’s own work in a graduation show, evenings and teatimes spent discussing pottery and the philosophy of craft, weekly tea ceremonies using teabowls and flower containers made in the workshop, and the opportunity upon returning home to build a Japanese style workshop and kiln and sell pots in New York City galleries. It did not generally include the possibilities that might cause serious misunderstandings, that there could arise jealousy between a foreign student and Japanese co-workers, or between a foreign female student and potter’s wife, that there might not be enough work or space or clay in the studio to accommodate a full-time student, or that the master him or herself might be barely more than a graduated student, scarcely experienced enough to use or educate an apprentice.


Perhaps a few vignettes are in order here. Shortly after arriving in Japan as an exchange student I heard of an American potter working in the town of lmbe, near Okayama, making Bizen pottery. A friend and I set out to visit. The subject of our search had already returned to America, but we were told of another American potter in town, and were sent to see her. She had been living in Japan for several years already and was enviously independent and able to get around. When we met her, she was trying to decide whether to devote her energies to pottery or to Zen meditation, and was spending time each month in a monas­tery in Kobe. To the bemusement of her Japanese neighbors, she was living in an old teahouse in decidedly substandard conditions (the tatami mats were old and ragged and there was no running water), yet enjoying the remnants of teahouse atmosphere. Her teacher had recently built a new traditional-style kiln and she took us into the storeroom to show us the difference between pots from the old kiln and ones from the new kiln. The third category of pots, she explained, came from the electric kiln: The electric kiln?!!

Yes, some of those most traditional of pots, pictured in the books on Japanese Ceramics, were actually fired in an electric kiln. She gave us each a pot she had fired in her teacher’s kiln, and it wasn’t till long afterward that I realized the magnanimity of such a gift.

In that visit we learned also about another feature of trad­ition and the master-apprentice relationship. Although pots had been made in the Bizen area continuously since the Middle Ages, the current “pottery boom” in Japan had contri­buted a boom in popularity to the potters in that area. People whose families had formerly run barbershops and produce stores wanted a piece of the action, and built studios and started making pottery. However, the potters’ cooperative would not sell clay to these newcomers and they were effec­tively shut out of the traditional support system.

My next contact with a foreign apprentice was a strong contrast to this first experience. A former student from my college had family connections in Japan and had returned to study with a friend who was a potter. She and her teacher, a young Japanese man who was married to an American, lived in the mountains far from any other potters. She and a Scan­dinavian apprentice helped in many aspects of maintaining the household and workshop, and the whole situation was remarkably casual.

The day I arrived was the day the new baby arrived home from the hospital, accompanied by American mother and in-laws, and after spending the afternoon visiting, we all pitched in to stack wood for the next firing. Before I left Japan that year, I saw this woman again in a small gallery in Osaka where she was holding an exhibition of her own work.

During this first stay in Japan, a friend of mine arrived from England with no money, no knowledge of Japanese lan­guage, some third-hand names and addresses of Japanese potters and art authorities, a desire to apprentice, a sense of adventure and no return ticket. (This collection of attributes is so common among foreign potters in Japan that it ought to be given a name.) She taught English in Kyoto for several months and worked for several potters in different parts of Japan after I returned to the States. Her letters to me described the difficulties of working for a potter whose work she didn’t respect, or didn’t seem to be doing much work at all, and of being a foreign pawn in Japanese rivalries. She never did write much about pots or clay.

While I was an exchange student, I spent my weekends and vacations traveling to museums and kiln sites in various parts of Japan. My contacts with potters and pottery in Japan opened my eyes in regard to many of the assumptions I and my potter-friends in the United States had shared. The “oriental” pots which we so much admired were not all Japanese. Some were Chinese, Korean, or Thai and only minimally related, if related at all, to pots made in Japan. Characteristics which we saw as “simplicity” and “trueness to the nature of materials” could be seen in such abundance and contrivance as to arouse suspicion in the most dedicated adherent of “shibui.” And the traditional master-apprentice arrangement, which was supposed to be the mystical conveyor of non-verbal values seemed to be an all-encompassing term for any type of teacher-student relationship and not such an effective conveyor of values in any case. I was convinced that I had made the right choice in deciding to study the techniques of pottery in the United States and spend my time looking at pots in the museums of Japan.


I came back to my job at the art center in the United States and found myself in a state of ceramic cultural shock. Friends and students asked all kinds of questions about pottery in Japan, and I was surprised at my own ignor­ance. I didn’t know how to build a Japanese style kiln. I had only participated in one wood firing, the only Japanese clay I’d actually touched was in Hagi (weird, a mixture of marsh mallow creme and bubble gum) and in Shigaraki (tourist stuff). I hadn’t had tea with any Living National Treasures, hadn’t excavated any ancient kiln sites, and hadn’t made any inquiries about selling my own work in Japan. No rice hull ash glaze recipes, never used a Korean style kick wheel. And never heard anyone even mention “Raaa-koo” pottery.

It was then that l began to realize the size of the gap between our generic image of “Pottery in Japan” à la Susan Peterson and Herbert Sanders, and what I had seen as a spectator in Japan. Our information had come to us through a specific filter of interest and era, specifically through people involved in the revival of the Folk Craft or “Mingei” aesthetic in the early 20th century. It was as if Japanese potters expected that we in the United States were still making grey, salt-glazed whiskey jugs and firing beehive kilns. But there was a very major difference between the pottery situation in Japan and in the United States: in Japan there were still lots and lots of people making a decent living by making pottery.

Granted, the pots that were being made were very differ­ent from those in the museums. The ones in the museums were the ones we’d heard about—revealing the nature of clay, “shibui” and all that. Many of the pots in galleries and department stores seemed not even to be related to that line of tradition. The impressive thing was that potters made them and people bought them, even paying tens of thousands of dollars for a single bowl or vase. At the same time, souvenir and gift shops in the pottery villages stocked thousands of handmade teacups, sake sets, rice bowls, and other kitchen paraphernalia, selling for a few dollars apiece.

Apart from the mystique of Oriental tradition, maybe there was something to be learned in Japan—something to do with the role of pottery and the life of a potter in a country where pottery was an ordinary, necessary item and not primarily a vehicle for self-fulfillment for people who like to have their fingers in mud.


When the time came to leave the Art Center and set up my own studio, I decided to take another trip to Japan in between. Having sworn off the apprentice system. I planned to stock up on inspiration by making the museum rounds and visiting the few old kiln sites which l’d missed on my first trip. Along the way, I went to visit an American friend I’d met at the very end of my first trip. At the time, she was heading up to Mashiko to begin an apprenticeship to a potter there. Now, two and a half years later, she was with a differ­ent potter with whom she’d been studying almost two years. Two months in Tokyo had affected me, and zipping around Mashiko with Julie, riding on the back of her motorbike. I fell in love.

Late November, nip in the air, vines of orange karasuri, tall weeds, smoke, warm kotatsu, coffee shops and kerosene heaters and the orange diesel train—two cars and one track—I was ready for a new adventure. Julie needed a roommate and a friend of her teacher’s needed help filling a large, last minute order. I moved in.

Somewhere along the line, I got to wondering whether this was apprenticeship or not. Our arrangement was fairly simple. I offered to do whatever needed doing—sweep the floor (actually, it was dirt), mix clay, grind kiln debris off pot feet, help pack pots, whatever—for a period of six months and they offered to pay me a sum of money each month calcu­lated to exactly cover my rent and food expenses.

In theory, this would free the potter’s wife from doing this kind of thing so she could make pots on her own, as she and her husband were both university-trained potters. Neither of us said anything about any kind of instruction or about my using the studio to make pots of my own. I figured that six months was too short a period of time to ask the potter to invest anything in training me. I’d be gone before he got any use out me. Besides. I was more interested in observing the situation as it was.

Nariyoshi-san had never worked with a foreign student before, and was basically interested in doing his own work, rather than in teaching anyone. (I still wonder whatever made him decide to take me in—I think at the moment he was desperate for help to finish off the big order, and I think his wife was very tired of doing his support work.) As I men­tioned, I was also skeptical of the apprenticeship system. On the Nariyoshis’ part, it seems that they had very little in the way of high expectations, either.

My very first job was to wrap flat six-sided plates in tissue­ paper. They and their guests were amazed that an American would pay such attention to detail. I had inconspicuously watched the first few attempts, as each guest tried to figure out the best method for making the four-sided sheets of tissue paper come out even on the six-sided plates, and had chosen a method that seemed to work, copying it carefully (you know what they say about Japanese and packaging)—and­ success! This was the beginning of a wonderful relationship that continued through the nine months I actually worked with them, and even to this day.

We must have been made for each other, neither party knowing exactly what we were getting into, and neither of us with specific expectations, and both of us highly satisfied with what came out. My job included a variety of duties, in coordination with Nariyoshi-san‘s work and firing cycle. I mixed clay, made press-molded slab plates and dishes, stirred and sieved glazes, prepared ashes for glaze, helped glaze pots, wiped glaze from the bottom of pots, helped load and fire kilns, cleaned pot bottoms, and helped pack pots. On occasion I helped with major studio-cleaning, picked up a kid from kindergarten, and helped dig in the garden. On other occasions, we would entertain guests or customers, or pick up and drop in on friends (usually other potters in the area), or go out for dinner with grandfather or friends or when we were working late and too tired or busy cook. Most of tile time I worked on my own in the studio. My schedule was regular—9 till 6 with an hour for lunch, and Nariyoshi-san tended to prefer late night hours, when nobody else was around. We would often overlap in the afternoons, though neither of us tended to talk much while working. Once I knew what I was doing, I didn’t need much supervision, and Nariyoshi-san made sure that I rarely ran out of­ things to do.

Most of our verbal communication occurred at tea time—­and tea time was important, and fun, and there was a lot of it! Every afternoon, without fail, there would be tea time, and if guests happened to come by, there might be several tea times. Typically, we’d go into the house about the time kids were getting home from school, and sit around and talk. We’d talk about the Japanese and English language, kids and school, invitations to other people’s exhibitions that had come in the mail, our families, an exhibition that was coming up and what we had to do to get ready for it, travel, whatever. And this was a great time for friends to drop by, as we often dropped in on other people, and just visit.

Notably, we never talked about our own work in aesthetic terms. I never asked, and they never volunteered. We never talked about the “significance” of our work, or its place in society. There seemed to be no place for the pained self-consciousness that afflicts so many American potters and students.

Granted we lived in a town of potters and that a potter was a most ordinary thing to be, but what struck me with great intensity was that most potters in Japan live in a similar kind of community. It seemed that most potters can make pots and, if they are reasonably competent and don’t stray too far from accepted conventions, can expect to support them­ selves and their families on their income. This statement is loaded with implications. It means that, unlike the stereotypical image of the American production potter who works night and day, seven days a week, producing work and then searching for markets in which to sell it, Japanese potters lead “normal” lives, or, from a Japanese perspective, very laid back lives.

The potters in Mashiko had an active, casual social life. There were baseball teams, days off for golf and tennis, trips into Tokyo that were half business and half pleasure, late nights partying and late mornings recuperating, and always—well, almost always—time to sit and drink tea. The week or so before an exhibition deadline the pace of life would swing in the other direction, with all hands working late, glazing ware, stacking and unstacking kilns, cleaning, marking, and packing pots. On those days, if we were lucky, people who stopped by would make tea for us, and those were the nights we went out for dinner.

It was on one of those nights that I asked Nariyoshi-san about the extra kiln he had out in the back yard. It was just sitting there, a small Japanese style climbing kiln, obviously newly constructed and never fired. It was beautiful kiln, sturdy, graceful, and virgin. He told me he’d built it three years earlier and hoped to eventually switch from the electric kiln he’d been using for the past ten years to this one. The problem was that this kiln had many times the capacity of his present kiln, and he’d never been able to work far enough ahead to have enough pottery to put aside for the risky first firing. But, now that I was here, this would be the perfect opportunity. He promised me that before I left, we‘d fire the new kiln. And so we did.

We unloaded the first firing from that kiln the day I left for the United States. Not surprisingly, it was a very mixed success. Some parts of the kiln had not gotten hot enough, and some parts had gotten more oxygen than expected. There were a few nice pots, a few very nice pots, a few that were just O.K., and some that we simply left in the kiln in the rush of the moment.

Parting was sentimental, and difficult. I was over­whelmed by the extent to which these people had taken me, a foreign stranger, into their lives. They had opened their studio, their home, their family and their circle of friends to me. They had taken time and energy from their own pursuits to introduce me to aspects of Japanese culture and to their corner of the world of Japanese ceramics. I hope that I might have the opportunity some day, and the pati­ence, to do as much for someone in my position as they did for me.

Several months after returning home I got a New Year’s card from the Nariyoshis, with a most unexpected note from Nariyoshi-san himself. He expressed his appreciation for my help during the past year, and hoped that I had gotten some­ thing out of it, too. He asked what I’d learned in his studio. I’d been wondering the same thing. I could put my finger on a few specific techniques which I’d incorporated into my own work, and of course I‘d learned a lot about living in a differ­ent culture, and it had been an immensely pleasurable experience, but what way had I found to relate my observa­tions of a potter’s life in Japan to my life as a potter in the United States?


I still wonder. After returning home, I worked for a Japanese potter in Virginia, built an American style kiln, learned about computers, worked as an Artist-in-resident in Florida, managed a marina, and got my real estate license. My kiln has been fired a few times, but not recently. Last spring I gave in to the urge to go back to Japan, “just to visit.” Three and a half years had passed since I’d left Mashiko. It could have been just a weekend in Tokyo. It was a delightful reunion. Nariyoshi-san was deep in preparation for a one man exhibition, and the old electric kiln was failing, throwing him behind schedule. I pitched in to help, just like the old days. One afternoon I walked through the back yard to take a look at the climbing kiln. It was still there, exactly as we’d left it that October day, three and a half years ago. Three rainy seasons, three winters, and three hot summers had come and gone and no hand had touched the underfired pots we’d left sitting on the shelves inside the kiln. Nariyoshi­-san never mentioned it and I never asked and we got most of the pots ready in time for the exhibition.

This article features in our Understanding Japan Bundle.

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Ruth Huebner

Author's Bio


Header photo taken in Tamba Sasayama at the kiln of American potter John Dix, by Tyler Billman.
Kiln photo below taken by Sachiko Matsuyama at the Asahiyaki kiln in Uji.