How to live forever, Japan style 

You know those “artist names” that get passed down from one generation to the next in Japan? I always assumed those were about art. That the passing of the torch from one generation to the next was about choosing the most gifted artist of the next generation to take their predecessor’s place at the top of the podium.

Turns out, I was wrong. It’s all about living forever.

Exhibit at the Raku Museum in Kyoto
See this place? It’s the Raku Museum in Kyoto. It displays stunning examples of the famous red and/or black pottery that’s been known all over the world for over four hundred years as Raku. The Raku artist name has been handed down for fifteen generations now, and at the museum, each artist’s life’s work is represented by one teabowl. Yes, that’s right. One teabowl.
Black Raku tea bowl by Chojiro
This one is by the original guy, Raku I, who was sort of the father of tea ceremony ware. Toyotomi Hideyoshi bestowed the name Raku on the artist Chōjiro in 1584.
Black Raku tea bowl by Sonyu
By the 18th Century, they were up to Raku V. The guy who made this one‘s name was Sōnyū.
Black Raku tea bowl by Ryonyu
And by the 19th Century, a guy named Ryōnyū (Raku IX) was holding down the fort, making teabowls like this.

When you see them like this—one bowl per generation—you can see the differences between them. One has straighter sides, one is more rounded, one has a thinner rim and less of a foot. But when you step back and look at them all together, without reading the tags, they could have all been made by the same man.

And they were.

Because when someone takes on the exalted artist name, his lifetime pledge isn’t to be inspired by his heritage and interpret it in brave new ways. It’s to continue that artist’s work as if he were still alive, with the same glazes, the same clay, the same aesthetic. Fifteen generations of Raku ware looks like the work of one artist who is enjoying a very, very, very, long life. Some might say an unnaturally long life. Sure, the pieces change over time, but in the kind of subtle way that an early Renoir looks different from a late Renoir, but they were both very clearly painted by Renoir.

And it’s not just pottery

You know how kabuki actors in woodblock prints are always making this crazy face?

Tōshūsai Sharaku's ukiyo-e portrait of the actor Ōtani Oniji III woodblock print
Like this guy, in Tōshūsai Sharaku’s ukiyo-e portrait of the actor Ōtani Oniji III. That grimace is known as a mie, and when the current Ōtani Oniji does it on stage at a crucial juncture of some kabuki play, it’s the equivalent of hearing the Stones play the opening chords of “Satisfaction.”
Kabuki poster featuring Ebizo Ichikawa XI
The actor chosen from each generation to assume a famous kabuki name is chosen because he can make that face (and perform whatever other signature moves the original actor was famous for). In theory, watching Ebizo Ichikawa XI (the actor featured in this poster) is exactly like seeing the original Ichikawa perform that role in the 1600s.

An artist’s name migrates from body to body, passing from one generation to the next, and each individual agrees to subvert his own individuality in the service of preserving the vision of the original holder of that name. Which raises the question—

Is it still art?

What do you think?

This is one area where Japanese thinking can be quite different from Western thinking. I bet we can both make a case for both ideas being art, just as a case can be made for the Ise Shrine embodying a very different notion of antiquity. However…

I didn’t realize until a podcaster asked me about artist names in an interview about The Last Tea Bowl Thief that the character Yakibō is my real answer to that. And you only have to look in my dish cupboard to discover why…

Tea bowl made by Taroemon XIII and three pieces by his younger brother, Takashi Nakazato
The tea bowl on top was made by Taroemon XIII, and it’s a beautiful example of e-karatsu pottery, which features stylized traditional motifs sketched in dark glaze over a lighter background. The pieces on the bottom (from my secrit Japanese pottery hoard) were made by his younger brother, Takashi Nakazato (who is neither blind nor outcast, but has become a renowned potter in his own right, making pieces unlike any other in Japan, before or since).

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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