If you visit the ancient city of Kyoto, let your schedule include a stop at Kawai Kanjiro’s House, which is hidden away on a narrow backstreet in Gojo-zaka. You will be rewarded with a window into the life of an accomplished potter, who was also a poet, writer, architect, and sculptor.
Kawai Kanjiro is best known as one of the leading figures of the Mingei movement, but his impact reaches far beyond. A conversation about his life’s work can easily turn into a discussion about the spirit and soul of what it means to be a maker and artist. His house, which is now restored as a museum, is the ultimate expression of his perspective on a life that he loved and embraced to the full.
Kawai (1890-1966) was born in Shimane prefecture to a family of carpenters. He aspired to be a potter and attended the Ceramic Industry Department at Tokyo Higher Technical School (today known as Tokyo Institute of Technology). Not long after his graduation, Kawai had a successful solo exhibition at a major department store in Tokyo in 1921 that cemented his success as a potter. He was especially famed for his mastery of various glazes and ancient Chinese and Korean techniques.
But as his popularity grew, Kawai became increasingly dissatisfied with his work. As a result, he joined the Mingei movement and after spending three years in seclusion, drastically changed his style and started to make functional pottery for everyday use. His style and creativity continued to develop in his later years when he produced many different forms of ceramics, woodcarvings, and literature.
In recognition of the profound impact that Kawai had on Japanese cultural life, the Japanese government sought to bestow on him the highly prestigious distinction as an Intangible Cultural Property of Japan –more popularly known as a Living National Treasure- and the Order of Culture Medal. But Kawai was not interested with such awards and turned them down. He also declined to be nominated to join the Japan Art Academy, which is the country’s most prestigious artistic organization.
While Kawai does not appear to have given any public explanation as to why he politely but firmly refused these accolades, I wonder if this was because he wanted to remain as a maker empowered by his work, rather than as an artist qualified by his fame. We often lose our ability to see when fame gets in the way. For Kawai, who said that “to see my new self, so I work”, he found joy in continuing to self-explore through the things that he could bring to life. This is obvious from the sheer volume of output that he accomplished during his lifetime.
Kawai also paid particular attention to how he lived his daily life, because he believed that “lifestyle is work, work is lifestyle”. In 1937, he designed his own house that was modeled after classic Japanese rural cottages from the Hida-Takayama area, and he called upon his own family of carpenters from Shimane to build it.
This house was Kawai’s residence, pottery studio and gallery with a climbing kiln in the back. But more importantly, it was a place that he filled with his favorite objects. Kawai said that, “one buys things, one buys oneself.” What we choose to acquire and surround ourselves with is a reflection of who we are. It is a simple but powerful observation that can be easily lost in today’s materialistic world. To this day, visitors are reminded of the pleasures of the humble and often forgotten everyday items that Kawai carefully selected for his home.
To me, the most moving aspect of visiting Kawai’s home was the warm, welcoming atmosphere of the space. Beyond the objects, the place was filled with friendliness that stemmed from his generosity of spirit and open mind.
Sagi Tamae, the granddaughter of Kawai, wrote about an episode in Kawai’s life in the commemorative issue of Honoho Geijutsu magazine in 2010 that offers an insight into who he was as a person. The story was about what happened when one of Kawai’s housekeepers broke his drying pots when she was trying to take in laundry that was on the pole in the garden of the house.
Tamae wrote that Kawai “ran out from his studio and quickly picked up the broken pieces in his apron and told the housekeeper, “don’t worry, don’t worry, just go inside. I can always make more.” Kanjiro was the type of person who worried more about the feelings of the housekeeper than the pots. He chose to become a potter and participate in the Mingei movement as he obviously loved ‘things’ but ultimately he was not fixated about any of them. To Kanjiro, what cannot be seen was far more important then what was visible.”
A visit to Kawai’s house is unlike a trip to a typical museum where ‘things’ are lined up to be admired. Kawai’s abode is a place to be inspired by the delightful life of an artist who never stopped exploring his inner self.
Through his home that he left behind, Kawai continues to share ideas that may enrich our own lives and help us to discover ourselves. All we need is a childlike curiosity and an open mind to be inspired. Kawai affectionately called this amazing human ability “to be surprised by the act of being surprised” and acknowledged its utmost importance throughout his long and productive life.