Teaware Master Raku Kichizaemon: Heir to a Radical Tradition


For some 450 years the Raku family of potters has maintained a tradition of teaware ceramics epitomizing the wabi-cha aesthetic of the great Sen no Rikyū. We talked to Raku Kichizaemon, the fifteenth grand master of the Raku line, about the complex relationship between tradition and rebellion in his craft.

Raku Kichizaemon XV

Fifteenth hereditary head of the Raku family of tea-bowl makers. Director and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Raku Museum, Kyoto. Born in 1949 in Kyoto. After graduating from the Tokyo University of the Arts in 1973, studied in Italy for two years at the Academia delle Belle Arti di Roma. In 1981, succeeded to the name of Raku Kichizaemon, becoming the fifteenth member of the Raku clan to head the family. Winner of numerous awards, including the Japan Ceramic Society’s Gold Prize and the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (chevalier). In 2007, designed his own gallery and tea house for the Sagawa Art Museum in Moriyama, Shiga Prefecture. Author of works including Chawan’ya (Tea Bowl Maker) and Raku: A Legacy of Japanese Tea Ceramics.


You are the fifteenth hereditary Raku grand master, the patriarch of a family of teaware makers stretching back to the time of the tea master Sen no Rikyū [1522–91]. Growing up as the eldest son and heir, what were your feelings about your duty to carry on the history and tradition of Raku ware?


I questioned the assumption that it was my duty first and foremost to carry on the Raku legacy. As a youngster, I had a deep rebellious streak, and I was determined to pursue my own interests, even if they took me into a completely different field. If I was going to take over as grand master, I wanted it to be on my own terms, a choice I made of my own free will. I had nothing against the "way of tea," really, but when tea ceremonies were held at our home, I ignored them entirely; I didn’t even help out. I was afraid that if I got too close, I would get sucked up in other people’s expectations and society’s assumptions and lose my sense of self. It wasn’t just tea ceremony, either. I rebelled against traditional Japanese culture in general. I hardly ever attended the drama or other traditional performing arts, for example.

A Roundabout Route Home


At the Tokyo University of the Arts, you majored in sculpture, not ceramics.


Yes, and after I graduated, I briefly studied in the sculpture department of the Italian Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. But I was such a doubter in those days. I kept bumping up against questions like “What is self-expression?” or “What is artistic expression?” until I was completely blocked. Of course, I love Michelangelo and all the other great Italian artists. But sculpture and painting from that tradition are almost 100 percent self-expression, and deep inside I questioned whether I wanted to devote myself to bringing artworks of that ilk into the world. I went through a difficult time when I couldn’t produce anything.


How did you get from there to your decision to carry on the family tradition of making tea bowls?


I think that the experience of living abroad for a certain amount of time allows one to see things through Western eyes and, by the same token, to appreciate the distinctive qualities of Japanese culture. In the midst of that experience, I met the tea master Nojiri Michiko in Rome, and she more or less forced me to observe one of her tea ceremony classes. There wasn’t a single Japanese student in the class. Yet all of them had somehow encountered the tea ceremony in the course of their lives and were now devoted to it. Watching them, the scales fell from my eyes. All the defenses I had built up against the tea ceremony crumbled.

I began studying tea ceremony for the first time with these students, in Italian. And for the first time, I felt the gentle warmth of a chawan [tea bowl]. If you hold a particular chawan for the first time, and you sense a quality of human warmth and sympathy, then that chawan has fulfilled its purpose of resonating inside the user’s heart.

It seemed to me that, in that case, it would be worthwhile bringing into the world works expressing my own creative impulses. The quality of warmth arises from the utilitarian nature of tea bowls as objects made to be used by other people. I realized that this was a form of art that nurtured an expanding circle of human interaction, as opposed to thrusting one’s own ego into people’s faces.

Hand and Clay in Simple Dialogue


Perhaps Raku chawan convey that warmth even more than most because they’re built up by hand instead of being thrown on a potter’s wheel.


In the aesthetic of Sen no Rikyū, interaction with materials is very direct. No buffers intervene. For example, if you’re going to have an earthen wall, you make it out of unrefined earth and avoid any surface decoration as much as possible. The same principle applies to ceramics. At that time [in the late sixteenth century], almost all teaware was thrown on a potter’s wheel to facilitate mass-production, but Raku ware reverted to the primitive technique of handbuilding known as tezukune [a slab-forming technique] with no wheel intervening between the hand and the clay. What you feel with your hands and your whole body, and see with your eyes, is what you get. That’s how we create tea bowls endowed with the warmth and gentle rounded form of a human hand.

Black Raku tea bowl named Mozuya-guro by Chōjirō, the first head of the Raku family. Momoyama period (sixteenth century). Collection of the Raku Museum, Kyoto. Considered an exemplar of Rikyū’s austere wabi-cha aesthetic.

The teahouse Taian, which is attributed to Rikyū himself, is considered the ultimate embodiment of the tea sensibility. It’s a tiny space consisting of just two tatami mats and the tokonoma alcove. When the host and the guest sit across from one another in this intimate space, they’re so close that they can feel each other’s breath. When you pass around a handbuilt chawan in that setting, it’s like passing your feelings, embodied in a sip of tea, from your hand to your guest’s. The presence of this artifact, the chawan, may even be forgotten. A tezukune tea bowl embodies the hand of the host and the guest. The special qualities of a tezukune chawan come through in the process of this interaction.

Raku tea bowls are made by a special handbuilding technique known as tezukune, a method of slab forming (as distinct from coiling or pinching). In the tezukune technique, the potter presses a ball of clay into a thick disc and then raises the edges bit by bit to shape a bowl that fits comfortably into one’s cupped hands.

Endless Possibilities of Black


Has the technique of tezukune changed at all since the days of the founder Chōjirō? What kinds of secrets are passed down from father to son?


The tezukune technique has been fundamental to Raku ware tea bowls since the era of Chōjirō, so this is something no one can change. There’s an aesthetic to the shape that only this slab forming can achieve. Raku masters teach their heirs such traditional techniques, but we don't teach the parts that hinge on individual imagination and creativity. For example, the two basic types of Raku ware are red and black. Chōjirō narrowed it down to these after eliminating a lot of others, so this is something we have to preserve. But black can have a whole range of nuances. Nuance has to be left to the creativity and originality of the individual. There's no recipe for glazes, and it isn't taught orally, either. Each heir has to rediscover how to make a black glaze through trial and error. And the color of the black glaze will continue to evolve throughout his life. It’s important for each master to fashion a unique world of his own.

Quiet Radicalism


Some of your own works seem rather wild by traditional standards.


A lot of people tell me that my yakinuki(*1) tea bowls deviate from the tradition of Raku and ask me what they have to do with the legacy of Chōjirō. You may not believe it, but inside, I feel deeply connected to Chōjirō.

Yakinuki-type black Raku tea bowl named Yōkoku, 1989, by Raku Kichizaemon XV. Private collection. The sides of the vessel are cut sharply with a spatula. Although his methods differ, Kichizaemon considers himself heir to the same radical spirit that informed the work of Chōjirō, founder of the Raku dynasty of potters.

Chōjirō’s chawan appear quite subdued. But at a deeper level, they’re very intense. He was challenging his patrons to drink tea from a black tea bowl with none of the pretty colors or decorations that they expected. I’ve tried to learn from and pass on this quiet defiance that I see in Chōjirō’s work. It’s not so much the shape or color or texture but the power of the work to say—in a world where no one questions the status quo—“I don’t think so.” To me, that’s the most meaningful connection I can have with Chōjirō. If one can achieve a spiritual harmony with the past even while maintaining one’s own deep-rooted ideas about things, isn’t one entering into the philosophy of spreading peace and harmony through the ritual of sharing of tea?

Yakinuki-type black Raku tea bowl named Neko-waride, by Raku Kichizaemon XV, mended by the gintsugi method (using lacquer mixed with silver). Years ago, a stray cat wandered into the workshop and broke one of Kichizaemon’s favorite tea bowls, which was later mended. The family only brings out the bowl when entertaining close friends. Tea aficionados value the signs of repeated use that accumulate inside and outside of long-treasured tea bowls and utensils. (Not on exhibition.)


The Cosmos in a Tea Bowl: Transmitting a Secret Art Across Generations of the Raku Family
National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
March 14–May 21


Adults ¥1,400
College students ¥1,000
High school students ¥500
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(Originally published in Japanese March 13, 2017. Interview and text by Kawakatsu Miki. Photos by Kawamoto Seiya. Banner photo: The current head of the Raku family, Raku Kichizaemon XV, studies one of his own creations.)
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(*1) ^ Yakinuki is a firing technique developed by Raku Ichinyū (IV) that involves direct exposure to red-hot coals or flames deep inside the kiln. It is a challenging technique that was rarely used for tea bowls because exposure to ash and fire tends to leave the surface rough, even painful to the touch. Kichizaemon values the “accidental” effects created by exposing the vessel to natural forces.

tradition tea ceremony arts and crafts Raku