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Ties of Tradition: Ceramic Artist Katō Takuo’s Campaign to Restore Persian Lusterware to Iran

Society Culture

The small town of Tajimi in Gifu Prefecture, a center of Minō pottery, has become a focal point in the renaissance of the ceramic tradition of Persian lusterware three centuries after it fell into disuse. The ceramic artist Katō Takuo spent nearly two decades reviving the technique; today Kōbei, his son, is working closely with Iran to fulfill his father’s wish of restoring lusterware to the region it flourished so many years ago.

Stretching from the Far East to Europe, the Silk Road from early times linked distant lands through goods and stories that traveled along its winding route. This ancient connection with faraway realms has made Japan an unlikely epicenter in the modern revival of a ceramic technique last practiced in Persia some 300 years ago. It was in the pottery-rich town of Tajimi, nestled among the verdant hills of Gifu Prefecture, that the ceramic artist Katō Takuo (1917–2005) slowly resurrected the lost art of Persian lusterware.

Katō Takuo at his workshop in Tajimi, Gifu Prefecture, in April 1995 just prior to his designation as a Living National Treasure. (© Jiji)

The bold endeavor required vast determination and nearly two decades of toil to accomplish. Now that the secrets of the ornate pottery have been unlocked, though, Takuo’s son, Katō Kōbei, faces the equally daunting task of reestablishing the tradition in Iran.

A Glimmering Past

The West Asian tradition of lusterware first appeared in Mesopotamia in the ninth century and represented the pinnacle of porcelain art in the region. Immense patience and skill were required to create the pieces’ glimmering, goldlike finish and elaborate designs, and works were cherished for their beauty and rarity. Production of lusterware shifted briefly to Egypt before settling in the twelfth century in Rey, Kashan, and other areas on the central plateau in modern-day Iran. Here it flourished over successive dynasties and empires before mysteriously dying out around the eighteenth century.

A rooster-headed pitcher (left) and a blue luster vase.

Takuo—a master potter who was designated a Living National Treasure in 1995 and who was the sixth-generation head of his family’s kiln in Tajimi—discovered Persian ceramics in a collection of photos he came across as a young man. In his autobiography Sabaku ga sasou (The Desert Beckons) he described how the pieces moved and intrigued him with their beauty attesting to a style and history that starkly contrasted his own specialty of Minō ware.

In 1961, while studying in Finland on a cultural exchange, Takuo made his first of many trips to Iran to experience the pottery tradition first hand. While touring the National Museum of Iran he eagerly examined ancient works of Persian blue, three-color glaze, and other styles, describing the encounter as “love at first sight.” But lusterware made the deepest impression on the artisan, although to his chagrin he discovered that the technique for creating the dazzling ceramicware had died out centuries earlier. Determined to resurrect the tradition, Takuo over the next two decades devoted his time and resources to reviving the lost art.

Wandering in the Desert

This proved to be a formidable challenge, however, as even basic knowledge on the composition of glazes and the manufacturing methods was nonexistent. Takuo pored over books and carefully examined museum pieces and shards of pottery in search of even the smallest hint, but to no avail. His expertise in Japanese and Chinese pottery also offered no key, and lusterware traditions from Europe and other regions, being based on different techniques, were of no use. Undaunted, though, Takuo traveled regularly to Iran to collect samples, meet with ceramic experts, and inspect ruins of ancient kilns. He would often stay months at a time, amassing a formidable collection of ceramic works and artifacts in the process.

After toiling alone for a better part of a decade, he recruited his son and successor Kōbei to assist in the effort in Japan. Following instructions sent in letters by his roving father, Kōbei tested the chemical composition of glazes, studied the designs of pieces, and built model kilns for firing lusterware at the family’s workshop in Tajimi. Even with the additional help, though, the Persian pottery stubbornly held on to its ancient secrets.

Takuo’s son and successor Kōbei at his family’s pottery in Tajimi.

After heading down countless dead ends, Takuo was on the verge of throwing in the towel when the fates finally smiled. In 1968, during a visit to Pahlavi University (now Shiraz University) in Tehran, he learned of the works of the late Arthur Upham Pope, who had been a leading scholar on Persian ceramics. Pope had left volumes of research detailing the techniques of creating lusterware, including the composition of glazes, firing temperatures, and diagrams of kilns.

Takuo’s careful study of these revealed just how misguided his efforts had been. Not only was Persian clay different from that used to make Chinese and Japanese porcelain, glazes included lead, tin, sodium, and other ingredients not utilized in the East Asian ceramic tradition. In addition, lusterware required compact kilns that accommodate only a few pieces at a time and lower firing temperatures.

Like his father, Kōbei creates original and traditional lusterware pieces.

Lusterware bowls ready for firing.

A Tradition Reborn

Armed with Pope’s research Takuo made steady progress, and within a few short years he was able to create pieces that could earnestly be called lusterware. In 1976 he showed several of these works to the director of the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research in Tehran. Impressed by Takuo’s feat, the director offered to help organize an exhibition at the national museum.

Having revived the tradition, though, Takuo was to learn just how fickle fate can be. As the final preparations for the show were being made, the Iranian Revolution toppled the government of the Shah in 1979, and the resulting tumult dashed any hope of lusterware’s proud return home. Efforts were made for an event in Baghdad in 1980, but these too were thwarted by the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War. An exhibition was eventually held as part of an international festival in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1986, but Takuo was bitterly disappointed by his failure in achieving his broader goal of returning lusterware to its homeland. Among his ambitions, he had strongly hoped to see damaged and missing tiles restored at ancient mosques and palaces he had visited, along with other works of lusterware that once decorated these locations.

Takuo continued creating and showing lusterware pieces and other works of Persian pottery based on his own and traditional designs in Japan and abroad, but he never returned to Iran. He died in 2005 at the age of 87.

From Father to Son

After Takuo’s passing, the role of preserving the newly revived lusterware tradition has been taken up by Kōbei, the seventh head of the family. As heir to his father’s legacy, he stresses that any successful attempt to propagate the lusterware technique must involve a wide range of players in Japan and Iran.

Kōbei skillfully illustrates a lusterware bowl.

A notable ally in this effort has been Seyed Abbas Araghchi, who first reached out to Kōbei while ambassador to Japan from 2008 to 2011 and who has continued the relationship as deputy foreign minister of Iran. It was through Araghchi’s urging that Kōbei made his first trip to Iran in 2011, a journey that opened the way for the first combined exhibit of modern and ancient Persian lusterware to be held in its homeland.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi during a visit to Tajimi in August 2017 holds a bowl made by Takuo.

Having fulfilled one of his father’s greatest ambitions, he is now working with colleagues in both countries to pass his knowledge of lusterware to Iranian potters and ensure that the technique flourishes for generations to come. He was involved in founding the Tōkai Iran Friendship Association, a cultural exchange organization that has arranged for two Iranian ceramic artists to study in Tajimi. Behzad Azhdari, head of the Iran Ceramic Association, and Abbas Akbari, a professor at the University of Kashan, spent three months training with Kōbei in 2016, making considerable progress during their time in Japan. Kōbei is pleased with their general ability, but is quick to point out that mastering lusterware is an arduous process. He says it will take another five years of dedicated effort for these artisans to get up to speed. Still, he is strongly optimistic that the tradition will again take root and thrive in Iran.

Kōbei, Araghchi, and Iranian Ambassador to Japan Reza Nazar Ahari (rear left) admire a lusterware bowl made by Abbas Akbari.

During a recent visit to Japan sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Araghchi made his second trip to Kōbei’s workshop in Tajimi, where he spoke of the pride Iranians have in their cultural traditions, including lusterware, and their deep respect for the accomplishments of the Katōs. His words undoubtedly provided encouragement for Kōbei by illustrating that the barriers that once stood in the way of his father’s efforts to return lusterware to Iran have given way to an atmosphere of eager cooperation.

(Originally written in English by James Singleton of Nippon.com. Banner photo: Katō Kōbei illustrates a lusterware bowl. All photos by Nagasaka Yoshiki except where otherwise noted.)

Japan art Iran ceramic