Pottery with the FT: Morihiro Hosokawa

The most remarkable thing about Morihiro Hosokawa’s premiership was his leaving of it. When Japanese prime ministers resign – hardly a rare event in the now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t world of politics in Tokyo – they hang around to manipulate affairs. Like puppeteers of the ancient Bunraku theatre, who handle their puppets in full view of the audience, the grandees of Japanese politics make little effort to hide their string-pulling.

Hosokawa was different. When, in April 1994, his short-lived but important administration collapsed after a mere nine months, he withdrew to the backbenches of the Diet, Japan’s parliament. Four years later, at the age of 60 – a baby in a system where 90-year-olds can hold political sway – he retired from politics entirely.

It was then that, on a whim, he took up pottery. He studied under Shiro Tsujimura, a gruff master of the art. Tsujimura called Hosokawa – a former prime minister who would normally expect to command reverence – a “stupid old man”. Hosokawa, the ageing apprentice – and one from an old aristocratic family at that – was obliged to sit in front of a wheel from six in the morning till seven at night watching the master at work. The training lasted 18 months.

Kata is very important for Japanese art,” says Hosokawa, now an alert and slim 73-year-old, when I visit him in his home-cum-studio in the town of Yugawara, about two hours outside Tokyo. It is a month after the earthquake, but this hilly resort of gurgling brooks and sulphurous steam looks untouched – by the 20th century, let alone by the recent grinding of tectonic plates.

The kata to which Hosokawa refers means “form” or “pattern”, the stylised movements the Japanese learn when they practice swordplay or tea ceremony, or when they slice raw fish. “In Kabuki and Noh theatre, they have to thoroughly understand kata,” Hosokawa tells me as we walk through his cottage-sized house – like something from a Grimm’s fairy tale – and into the courtyard. “They learn it for decades.”

What today’s Noh actors – or potters or swordsmiths – learn, then, is the “perfect” way of performing their craft, refined by their ancestors over centuries. “Even the perfect way to tie the obi [sash] of a kimono took 700 years to perfect,” he says. “After 30 or 40 years studying this form, naturally, the artist can go beyond the limits of the kata.” In other words, only when a Japanese craftsman has imbibed the lessons of generations is he free to innovate.

Hosokawa has not waited decades. Perhaps former prime ministers get some kind of kata pass. Although he produces pottery in a very traditional manner – for example, he doesn’t use a thermometer but judges the heat of the kiln by the colour of the flame – he is an innovator at heart. “I kick these pots before I put them in the kiln,” he says, pointing to beautiful earthenware jars, each lopsided and punctured by a single gash where his boot has broken the clay skin.

Hosokawa says the Japanese have a rare sense of beauty that appreciates such deformities. “The cherry blossom in full bloom is not as beautiful to us as the falling petals,” he says. “Like the pottery we just saw, it is not symmetric or perfectly shaped, but tilted or broken. We find beauty in imperfection.”

Hosokawa’s premiership was almost as fleeting as the sakura, or cherry blossom. In 1993, following the surprise fall of the conservative Liberal Democratic party, which had run the country since 1955, he took the helm of a shaky coalition government. It didn’t last. But Hosokawa managed to pass an electoral reform law that broke the Liberal Democrats’ hold on power. Many see the election of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan in 2009 and the hesitant emergence of a two-party system as the culmination of his political legacy.

“What matters is what one has achieved, not how many years one clung on to power,” he adds. “Most of these politicians hang around for years. Even when they finally go they have SPs,” he says, referring to security personnel. “I don’t have any of those. I drive a truck, so it would look funny to see a security guard next to me.”

Hosokawa mostly makes tea ceremony ware, using many of the different glazes that characterise each of Japan’s famous pottery districts. I ask him to show me how he works. He stands at his wheel and within a matter of seconds is spiriting vase shapes with his hands where only moments before had been a lump of inert clay. He appears not to be looking, but fashioning by touch alone. Hosokawa shows me the barrel-sized kiln in which he fires much of his work. He takes long tongs and demonstrates how he removes each piece and plunges it in water before putting it back in the fire. “Sometimes the flame goes this high,” he says, pointing towards the ceiling. “Once in a while, it burns my eyebrows off.” (I can’t help taking a quick look to ensure they have safely grown back. They have.)

Surprisingly, Hosokawa has little interest in the formalities of the ceremony itself. “I don’t really care for ceremonial things,” he says. “I don’t like to sit on my knees [in the formal seiza style]. I like to cross my legs and enjoy tea with close friends.”

He may not be a devotee of the tea ceremony, but he does have his own tea house. Later, he shows it to me, a tiny construction on stilts. Built from adobe with a thatched roof, it was originally made for Jacques Chirac, the former French president and a connoisseur of Japan, who was due to visit Hosokawa’s residence. When the construction got behind schedule, Hosokawa called on some theatre prop builders to help him finish. “They were thrilled to do it because normally everything they make is knocked down,” he says. “They assembled all the parts in their studio and put it together in one day.” After all that, Chirac cancelled, distracted by the outbreak of the Iraq war.

I climb up the stone steps towards the little building, a miniature house that looks as though it might be made out of gingerbread. The door is hobbit-sized, though apparently it had been widened to accommodate Chirac’s European frame. I peer inside at the tatami matting, the circular hearth for boiling water and the tea-making utensils. On the far wall is an exquisite wall hanging, painted with black brushstrokes. Hosokawa challenges me to describe it. After some time, I make out a boy urinating over a dog. It is a Japanese joke from a previous century. The artist probably took decades to learn his craft. And then he subverted it.

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia managing editor

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