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The history of Agano ceramics

Agano ceramics are made around Fukuchi city, Fukoka prefecture. Its history dates back to the Imjin War (1592-1598), when a Korean master potter, Sonkai Joseon, was brought to Japan and the rulers of the area established a pottery workshop under the jurisdiction of the Hosokawa clan in 1602. At that time, the head of the clan was Hosokawa Tadaoki, who, like most people, was a tea ceremony practitioner and learned the art of tea ceremony from no less a person than the famous tea ceremony master Sen-no-Rikyu (Toyotomi Hideyoshi Shogun was a tea ceremony master and his work had a significant influence on Japanese tea ceremony). Given this background, it is perhaps not surprising that Agano ceramics were originally vessels for tea ceremony.


Hosokawa Tadaoki
Hosokawa Tadaoki

The next big event in the history of the style was the selection of Kobori Enshu, as one of the seven Enshu ceramic styles. Kobori Enshu was the third Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, master of tea ceremony and thus had a significant influence on public taste in Japan. And he did so so successfully that he founded a school of tea ceremony which has survived to this day.

Kobori Enshu tea master
Kobori Enshu

The Hosokawa clan ruled the area for only 30 years, after which the Ogasawara family took over the area and dominated the area and the local pottery industry for 10 generations. At that time, without powerful and wealthy patrons, the kilns could not operate, as the construction, maintenance and operation of such kilns required a substantial financial investment and backing. In addition, these kilns were huge and months would pass between firings as the potters worked, but their income was only after the pottery was fired. During this time they had to make a living and if something went wrong during the firing, someone had to bear the risk.


Precisely because of its exposure, the social changes of the Meiji period, which began in 1868, threatened the local ceramics industry. The Ogasawara family moved to Tokyo and the local ceramics industry was left without a patron.


After that, in 1875 three families, the Totoki, Watari and Yoshida families joined forces and tried to continue operating the former clan kiln, but finally in 1899 the last kiln for Agano ceramics was closed.


Later, with local cooperation, they tried again to save the kiln, which was repaired and put back into operation, but the participants slowly withdrew from this cooperation. Kuhachiro Kumagai, who founded the Kumagaya main kiln in 1902, was the last one left, and the Agano style was saved.


In 1938 Watari Genhiko continued his work. During the economic boom following World War II, the demand for ceramics increased and the local ceramics industry stabilised. Today, more than 20 workshops produce Agano ceramics.


Characteristics of Agano ceramics


Perhaps the most important characteristic of Agano ceramics is the quality of the raw material used. The local clay allows for a very thin wall thickness, making the ceramics made here very light and graceful. In terms of colour, the bluish-green copper glaze is one of the distinctive features, the use of which is due to the presence of a copper mine nearby. The first documented mention of this glaze dates back to 1796, but earlier fragments have been found. Today a wide variety of glazes and colours are used, thanks to the post-World War II boom.


Agano-yaki
Agano-yaki

Agano vessels are usually marked with a counter-clockwise swirl pattern (left Tomoe). This is the porcelain mark of the ceramics made here. This porcelain mark is presumably recent, as no ceramics from either the Hosokawa or the Ogasawara families have survived with it.


Agano-yaki porcelain mark
Agano-yaki porcelánjegy

Interesting facts about local kilns


Of course, many kilns have been built and operated in this area over the centuries. I will highlight three of them, which for some reason had a special significance in the history of Agano ceramics.

The Kamanokuchi kiln is one of the largest climbing kilns in Japan. Its total length reaches 41 meters. The kiln was built by Sonkai and operated by his family, eventually closed by her eldest daughter's husband.

The Sarayama main kiln is believed to have been built around 1625 and was the clan kiln until its closure in 1871. This kiln was then tried to continue to be operated by local association.

The significance of the Saienba kiln is that it is believed to have been Tadaoki Hosokawa's hobby kiln. Despite its close proximity to Kokura Castle (the seat of the Hosokawa and later the Ogasawara clan), this kiln was only discovered in 1982. For a hobby kiln, it was quite substantial in size, with a total length of almost 17 metres.


Kokura castle
Kokura castle


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