Review – Ceramics and Modernity in Japan

I’m trying lately to build a solid base of knowledge in ceramics, not only of aesthetics and mechanics, but of culture and context as well. This book, part of the Routledge Research in Art History series, is an excellent resource for exactly that.

The cover of the book Ceramics and Modernity in Japan.
The image is the abstract work Mr. Samsa’s Walk by Yagi Kazuo.

It features 11 scholarly essays (including the intro and epilogue) examining how the whole ceramics world—creating, seeking, purchasing, and appreciating—changed in post-Meiji Japan. The individual topics are relatively specific, but are well arranged and referenced enough to give an excellent overall grasp of the various issues at play.

The articles are all both rigorous and accessible, with the possible exception, perhaps, of “More than “Western”: Porcelain for the Meiji Emperor’s table” by Mary Redfern, which reads like something an undergraduate in social science might write to fill in a word count assignment. Study, overly erudite, and off questionable insight

Of particular interest to me are the many references to the interplay between attitudes toward other Asian nations during Japan’s colonial and post-colonial periods and the concurrent growth of the mingei movement under Yanagi Sōetsu. There is also a very illuminating reference to the circularity of how ceramic science from Europe influenced Japanese pottery, which in turn went on to influence the British studio pottery wave spearheaded by Bernard Leach.

These incidents fundamentally changed my perception of the mingei movement and Leach; particularly his “translation” of Yanagi’s work into “The Unnamed Craftsman.” The clear biases and, dare I say, agenda they shared makes much of what they say very suspect, even as it touches on some clearly vital issues of the intersection of art and Buddhist ideas.

Anyone who is interested in fort insight into the historical context of his Japan came to be “potter’s paradise,” the tension between art and craft in ceramics, and the roots of Japan’s enormous valuation of pottery and the “living national treasures” that create it would do well to read through this one.

Highly recommended.

My New Year in Pictures

Rather than a tired resolution post or whatever, I thought I’d just post some picture I took over the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023. I’m also trying to ensure that I include captions for screen readers, which WordPress seems to struggle with when it comes to galleries. Patience, please.

Locations include Shunan city’s Eigenzan park, Tokuyama Zoo, Nijigahama Beach, Yanai Adeli Hoshi Park, and Mt. Taika in Shunan.

Captions for slide show: 1. A brilliant pink and yellow flower against green leaves. 2. A pale piece of driftwood that resembles some kind of beast’s skull, atop a pine-needle bedding. 3. A small green bird perched on a bare branch, with a bright pink flower nearby. 4. The silhouette of a bird encircled by leafy, flowered branches.

A tricky term – オカルト

Today’s conundrum: Is オカルト a false friend for “occult,” or not?

In Japan, for example, writers who dabble in horror, mystery, and stories with a weird, dark edge are often labeled オカルト (okaruto, a direct transliteration of “occult), and there are things like オカルトサークル (okaruto sa-kuru – occult circles), which are clubs that discuss and share information about things like urban legends (a very common theme on オカルト websites, it appears), strange true crime stuff, and related fiction.

But calling those “occult writers” or “occult clubs” seems, to me, to have entirely different connotations. I feel like the label “occult” is strongly associated with witchcraft and mystical secrets, rather than “eerie stuff in general.” The dictionary definition tends to point that way, too, but of course dictionaries always lag behind popular usage.

A look at the massive Wikipedia list of “occult writers” in English clearly shows a leaning that way: people like Anton LaVey, Aleister Crowley, Madame Blavatsky, and Simon Magus. More popular writers listed include Lovecraft, Robert Anton Wilson, Carlos Castaneda, and W. B. Yeats. Clearly, these writer seem connected by a focus on mysticism and the secret layers of reality, rather than “could-be-true scary stuff.” Again, this is not any kind of definitive list, but I do think it reflects the popular perception of the word.

The upshot of all this is, if I wanted to write about a Japanese オカルト writer, what would I call them? An eerie writer? A dark writer? A writer of the hidden world?

I wonder if anyone else thinks about this stuff?

2022 – Year in Review

It might be a bit premature, but as it looks like I’m moving into the year-end holidays a little early, I think this is as good a time as any to look back on my work life during 2022

Despite the ongoing pandemic, this was one of my most productive and exciting years as a translator and writer.

The cover of the book Discovering Yamaguchi Sake by me, Jim Rion. It features scans of Japanese sake labels from every brewery in Yamaguchi.

The biggest individual developments were two books. I signed a contract with Stone Bridge Press to publish my book Discovering Yamaguchi Sake in February, and signed with Pushkin to translate Akuma ga kitarite fue wo fuku/The Devil’s Flute Murders in June. Both books are coming out in 2023, and do feel free to buy as many as you want!

Read more about those here: Discovering Yamaguchi Sake and Coming Soon: The Devil’s Flute Murders

The cover of the book The Devil's Flute Murders. It features an outstretched hand, looking limp, and near it a fallen bottle of what looks like poison.

I also had a big year on other fronts that might break down a little more numerically.

I translated 285 pages worth of articles for Nippon.com, which is over 100,000 characters by their count.

As for other random website and article translations, it looks like I did over 450,000 characters worth.

I also wrote seven articles for outlets like Sake Today (upcoming), Sake Times, Nippon.Com, and AllAbout Japan.

I hosted online events, made connections, and generally made good use of my time. I also took some photography classes and started getting serious about learning to take proper pictures for my stories.

I plan to make use of all this experience in 2023 with a new book (I’m thinking pottery, this time), and hopefully another book translation.

Despite lots of chaos on the global scale, personally, 2022 was pretty good. I hope you can find a way to say the same.

Happy Holidays, and peace be on you all.