Craftsmen of Hokkaido
Potters, swordsmiths, weavers and glass-blowers in Japan’s cold northBy John Ryle • November 1995 • City of Words • The Guardian • Revised with afterword • Posted 2016 • 1,140 words
A package arrives from my old teacher, from Japan. “Printed matter,” it says on the outside, “no commercial value”. But the contents are precious. For the past decade and a half Willie Jones, who taught many generations of boys English at Shrewsbury School, back home in Britain, has been living in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago, where he is a professor at the Imperial University. Each year at this time his Christmas letter arrives, addressed in immaculate Roman and Katakana script (the Japanese syllabary for foreign words), Usually it is a book of verse or prose, published by a local small press or directly from his desktop in Sapporo, Hokkaido’s principal city.
The Japan revealed in these letters is a far cry from the place we read about in most western reportage. There’s no indoor golf; there are no company men; no gangsters nor geishas; no animé, no schoolgirl prostitutes; no genocidal millenarian cults. This Japan is rural, dominated by the volcanic landscape and spectacular winter climate of Hokkaido, which—if you didn’t know—is the world capital of ice sculpture, and the site of that unique scientific and educational institution, the Museum of Snow.
For the Japanese the rural areas of Hokkaido are their wild frontier, their Alaska. Willie Jones’s Hokkaido is inhabited by artists and craftspeople, votaries of the loom and the kiln, and by a variety of closely observed birds and mammals, creatures whose tracks criss-cross the pages of these letters home.
For most of his time in Japan, Willie has pursued his passion for visual art and natural history through essays in a local English-language cultural review called Northern Lights. The current number, enclosed with his Christmas letter, is dedicated to interviews he has conducted with potters, glass-blowers, weavers, dyers, scroll-painters and swordsmiths—craftsmen who live and work, like him, in Hokkaido. In the pages of this engaging magazine, between advertisements for local wine and weekends in Tokyo, and tinned sweet corn, and Ikeda’s Fuku Fuku beans (recommended, it says, “For Those Who Like Talking”), a world is revealed, vigorously archaic, pre-electronic and pre-industrial, where the mysteries of craft are part of the everyday.
Vats of indigo stand on the banks of a stream; a weaver works in fields of winter wheat; the swordsmith’s window glows late into the night; the solitary potter wrestles with his clay. Such scenes are described in a style as far from journalistic as it is possible to get. This is no easy thing to achieve. Craftsmen are often unforthcoming. Some of Willie’s subjects are awesomely reticent, laconic to the point of silence (strangers, it would seem, to the Fuku-Fuku bean.) There are interviews where nothing is said at all. This would be a journalist’s nightmare. But Willie admires the silence. He observes it lovingly. For him, silence dissolves the language barrier; it concentrates attention on the articulacy of hands.
“It was his dream,” he writes of Sakata the potter, “to move into the wilderness, to live beside his kiln, wrapping his isolation around himself even more tightly.”
This Sakata is the most reticent of all Willie’s subjects. “As I haven’t heard of him for some time,” he adds at the end of the interview, “he has perhaps found the place that he was in search of.”
The dyer’s hand
What interests Willie most is the process of creation. His writing style is a kind of contemplative reportage, drawing comparisons between one craft and another. “The glass-blower,” he writes, “doesn’t fill the back of his rib-cage as a singer must; he fills his cheeks and expels his breath in quick cherubic puffs.”
He is a poet of the natural world, here pursuing the origin of weaving in spiders’ webs and birds’ nests, there the beginnings of metalwork and pottery in the domestication of fire. Earthquakes, he says, are common in Hokkaido; eruptions are not unheard of. The hills there are young; they smoke; lava pours down them like glaze on the sides of a pot.
Ceramics were famously restored to the status of high art in Japan by a foreigner, Bernard Leach, who championed the work of a Japanese potter named Shoji Hamada. My old teacher is following the tradition that Leach established. Recently Willie was appointed as an Emeritus Professor at the University, a not-so-usual distinction for a gaijin, or foreigner. His language students, I learn from an editorial in Northern Lights, address him, as Japanese students do, in the proper manner, as Willie-Sensei—“teacher”, a term that, in Japan, still carries a proper measure of respect—as it should everywhere, but sadly does not.
In his disquisitions on other people’s craftmanship there is also, I think, a pedagogical design. Willie is providing his students and readers with an analogy for his own craft, the writing that he practises and teaches. Those of us who have been his students—both those who knew him in his incarnation as an English schoolmaster, before he took the narrow road to the deep north, and those who have been in his classes in Japan—know that he is much struck with the metaphor, from Shakespeare via Auden, of the dyer’s hand, the craftsman subdued to the medium in which he works. His descriptions of the expertise of craftspeople and his admiration for the deceptive casualness of their long-practised skills, reveal, in their ease and lucidity, his aspirations for his own writing, and that of his students.
For the author of pots or the maker of books, achieving this ease is a life-long task. Shoji Hamada, according to Bernard Leach, said that making a pot should be like “walking downhill on a pleasant afternoon”. But to walk downhill, as Willie-Sensei points out, you first need to get to the top. ★
In November 2014, nineteen years after writing this piece, I visited Willie Jones and his friend Hiroaki in Sapporo. At the age of 83 Willie was still teaching. In the course of my stay I assisted him at the weekly class he gives on Shakespeare, which is attended by a number of distinguished professionals living in the city. One of them, Takafusa Tanaka, a retired professor of Greek philosophy, noted that in the article above I had unconsciously observed “the eastern traditional rule of composition: ki 起 –shou 承 –ten 転 –ketsu 結”. This rule, he explained, prescribes a rhetorical sequence: “starting, confirming, changing the tone and concluding.” My thanks to Takafusa-sensei for this reassuring observation. If I unconsciously observed such a rule it is undoubtedly due to my early training in rhetoric in Willie Jones’ English class at Shrewsbury School.
In late 2019 Willie’s essays will be published by City of Words as Out of Our Hands: Encounters with the craftsmen and craftswomen of Hokkaido.