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Passions of Artisans We ask Rin crossing participant manufacturers about their wishes regarding manufacturing.

Home > Passions of Artisans #035 Kozangama, Co., Ltd.

#035 Kozangama, Co., Ltd.2015/07/02

All handmade

"Kasama-Yaki" had almost no outside distribution

Kasama City, a pottery town in Ibaraki Prefecture. Kasama-Yaki pottery started in the middle of the Edo Period, and is thought to have begun when a Shigaraki-Yaki potter from Omi was invited to build a kiln there. Currently, there are over 200 pottery makers and individual potters, and each spring, a pottery festival called "Himatsuri" attracts over 400,000 visitors.

But when people hear the phrase "Kasama-Yaki", very few are able to conjure up an image of what that means.

"Many pottery producing areas developed through assembly-line production, but Kasama-Yaki was always created, not by assembly-line production, but by making best use of a potter's individual style. It contains techniques and variations that can be seen in pottery all over Japan. Ironically, despite the fact that it has such a wide variety of features, it is sometimes said that "it's major characteristic is that it has no characteristics." Furthermore, since people come to where it is produced to purchase it, we seldom go outside, thus making this truly a production center with no distribution.

So says Mr. Koji Masubuchi, founder and president of Kozangama Co., Ltd.

"In the wake of Japanese cuisine making the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, and the opening of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I'd like to create a system for distributing Kasama-Yaki tableware to the overseas market," says Koji Masubuchi.

5 traditional craftsman, a rarity even in Japan

By establishing their ability to mass-produce high quality handmade pottery, Kozangama has opened a national market for Kasama-Yaki, that was once dependent on direct sales from production areas.

Kozangama has 10 potters, 5 of whom have been recognized by Japan as traditional Kasama-Yaki craftsmen, so in addition to small volume order-made, they can also handle large orders in the tens of thousands, all handmade. This kind of pottery maker is extremely rare even in Japan.

The company was established in 1970, about 40 years ago. President Masubuchi was born in the former Makabemachi (now Sakuragawa City) in Ibaraki Prefecture and, on the recommendation of his father who was deeply knowledgeable about fine arts, attended Aichi Prefectural Seto Pottery Senior High School. He studied ceramics diligently in that great production region.

Kozangama's direct sales store, "Kasama-Yaki Plaza" features a wide variety of products, from folk craft style to unique art pieces.

"When I first saw Kasama after returning from Seto, I thought, "This isn't a production area!" Compared with Seto, where the ceramics production is very sophisticated and practical as a result of community activities, Kasama still hadn't graduated from the homemade pottery stage. Even so, customers were coming from other places so they were able to work leisurely, and even the smallest company in Seto would have been the biggest company in Kasama."

At some point, they were going to be unable to compete against other production areas. With that in mind, President Masubuchi decided to build a kiln in Kasama. Naturally, it was out of love for his hometown. He traveled around various pottery makers, acquiring skills until he was considered the greatest potter at the wheel in all of Kasama, but once he acquired the target of his heart's desire, his own kiln, President Masubuchi chose the path, not of an individual craftsman, but of a potter and eventually a manager.

"That's when I set my goal to become Kasama's number one pottery maker in terms of quality and quantity. I want to do PR for Kasama-Yaki outside our prefecture and develop further as a production center. To accomplish that, first we have to be able to produce in large quantities and pursue our craft making with a real sense of urgency."

Business-use tableware that only Kasama-Yaki can offer

"The appeal of Kasama-Yaki is in its freedom," says Hideki Abe. At 30, he was the youngest person ever to be recognized as a traditional craftsman. This indicates the high technical skill as well as the ability of Kozangama to nurture excellent craftsmen.

 

Potter Jeremy (left) from Australia, and potter Kyoko Nabatame (right). Through hard work, potters with various sensibilities are able to produce highly refined pottery.

Kozangama started by hiring 4-5 young potters, a big surprise to the locals at the time. "From now on, pottery makers are going to have to sell their wares themselves," and, with pots wrapped carefully in Japanese cloths, the president set off around the country in search of sales routes, finally opening his own direct sales store, "Kasama-Yaki Plaza" in 1990. Taking on the mantle of lead role in a conservative production area is always difficult, but with Kozangama's high-quality production model, he steadily expanded his business even after the collapse of the bubble economy.

But being only a few years before the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy shock, they were unable to escape the effects of the recession, and sales gradually declined. Then, in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, their facilities were damaged and they suffered a loss of 70% of their inventory.

"When I saw all the broken pottery in the store and the factory, I was shocked. At the time, I thought it was all over. But the potters cleaned up the broken pieces, and went back to work at their wheels. When I saw that, I knew that I couldn't give up either..."

Once they join the company, potters strive for independence. With skills polished from mass production, former Kozangama potters create remarkable works showing off their individuality.

Kozangama is currently putting their efforts into the production and sales of business-use tableware. President Masubuchi formed the "Business Tableware Research Group" and is now the head of that organization. Along with 20 other pottery makers from the area, they are in a battle to clear the path to a new world for Kasama-Yaki pottery. Although he says the struggle with other production areas will be a fierce one, Kozangama has an advantage unique to Kasama-Yaki.

"At our company, we've preserved the Kasama tradition of having one potter work independently on their piece, so that we don't lose the individualism of the creator. As a result, we're able to collaborate with elite restaurants, make suggestions to them and provide them with the high quality of tableware that sets them apart from other establishments. Then when it comes time for the mass-production, the potters, with their shared craft skills, work together and, employing the 6 kilns in the company, are able to provide high quality, low-cost service extremely quickly."

Kozangama combines both the free-spirited creativity of the "individual" and the practicality of the "group". It is this vital quality that Kozangama possesses that gives them an appeal that others can't match.

 

Kakiyu shimamon drinking cups. Modern craft-style designs applied to a traditional kakiyu glaze.

 

Luster kohiki oval plates. Fusing traditional and modern design, a warm kohiki contrasts with a metallic luster glaze

Sending all-handmade Kasama-Yaki to the world!

Last year, Kozangama's tableware was imported into France. Previous to this, there had been examples of Kasama-Yaki being sold by pottery makers or artists overseas, but it had been 50 years since an true export had been made using a local trading company. Most Western tableware is made from porcelain and it's unusual for earthenware to be chosen.

Actively participating in exhibits to open still more markets. In March 2015, they participated in the "International Washoku Show Japan 2015" and the "Fabex 2015" held at Makuhari Messe, where they showed their ability to respond to the needs of businesses with their handmade products. Next year, they also plan to exhibit at the "Tokyo International Gift Show".

"We're very happy to meet with buyers who are interested in and appreciate the value of all-handmade production. As globalization advances and the marketplace becomes more active, we would like to build a system for further development of overseas exports with guidance and advice from Rin Crossing.

Kozangama, Co., Ltdz

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