The Japanese tradition of pottery-making, known as Tojiki, is one of the oldest in the world. Having developed in counterpoint to Chinese and other East Asain concepts of pottery, the rough, handcrafted Raku style has influenced designers not only of ceramics but of fashion and sculpture. Like fashion, pottery is an art where form has always followed function.
As a result, it’s easy to track the values of a culture through items produced for daily use. One only has to look at Victorian swimwear to see that chastity was an esteemed virtue. Likewise, pottery and its cultural significance has changed over time in Japan.
The Tea Ceremony
At its origin, tea-ceremonies were part of Buddhust practices. Matcha was served to keep monks awake for long hours of meditation. The simple tea-sets used were often made by the monks themselves. However, the practise was co-opted by the nobility and soon became a way of displaying one’s wealth using foreign pottery imported from China – a discipline that sought to create flawless pieces that are still, even now, a symbol of wealth. All this changed as the result of Murata Juko – a monk and renaissance man of his day who sought to bring the ceremony back to its roots. He wrote in praise of local, handmade pottery, celebrating its imperfection. Through this he was referring to the Buddhist idea of Wabi Sabi.
What is Wabi-Sabi?
Wabi Sabi is the appreciation of imperfection and transience. Although hard to define in the English Language, Wabi is the beauty of imbalance and asymmetry and Sabi references the wonder of aging and the impermanence of life. These concepts are about as difficult for the western mind – raised on a diet of synthetic beauty and fear of aging – as meditation.
So perhaps it makes sense that making pinch-pots and simple handmade clay items is such a mediative, process-informed method. In the Raku style of pottery, imperfection is honoured – the star of the show. Cracks are filled with gold, burned-up horse hairs create irregular lines around hand-hewn mugs, and asymmetries are exaggerated.
What Can You Learn From Wabi-Sabi?
Our western society often frowns on imperfection – but perfection isn’t ever achievable. We have imperfect bodies, imperfect ideas, and even if you think our mass-produced items are identical, engineer friends of mine have told me how sensitive measuring devices have entirely shattered their idea of perfection in the manufacturing industry. You don’t have to go out and buy a Raku tea set, which are paradoxically rather pricey, but rather learn to focus on seeing beauty in the process of making as well as in the end result. Wabi-Sabi is an idea you can bring into your pottery, jewelry and way of seeing the world.
There are lessons to be learned from your own experiences of pottery as well as through the ways other cultures engage with the practise. Of course, there’s a lot of value in perfecting a vase thrown on the wheel or painting the perfect design onto a finished plate. However, there’s also room for small, simple and imperfect creations.