Toguri Museum

IMG_8089One of the fantastic things about living near Tokyo is that my friends introduce me to fabulous people and invite me to tag along to special events. One of several recent events was a private tour at the Toguri Museum of Art by Alice Gordenker, columnist for the Japan Times and translator extraordinaire. This is not a museum that I would usually have been interested in going to but I knew that a private tour with explanations of the porcelain objects would make them come alive, especially with Gordenker’s passion for her subject matter.

The Toguri Museum of Art is privately run by the Toguri family. Tohru Toguri, the museum’s founder, started collecting Japanese ceramics after WWII when he realized that the bombardment of Western culture would certainly cast a long shadow and he wanted to preserve parts of pre-war Japanese culture. In his words,

In the middle of 50’s, I saw an unresistible inflow of Western Culture, mostly it of American, over devastated bank by World War II. On the other hand, I witnessed a fade of our culture, passed on us through generations. As I watched the change, I felt a sense of fear that our next generation might not know what their ancestors had created and achieved. This was why I started collecting the antique wares, which represented their wisdom , and dreaming of a house to display them in public.
Later, I began to concentrate collecting mainly on decorative porcelain, with assists of knowledgeable antique collectors. In 1987 Toguri Museum was approved as a juridical foundation and built after the land where a feudal domain of Nabeshima, known as the finest producing porcelain district in Kyushu, had their premises. Now the museum is highly acclaimed, not only in Japan but in the world, as one of the most significant museum with its quality of the old Oriental porcelain.
I thank for people who made my dream possible, and I hope the museum helps us to look over and appreciate the past, of which I dreamed fifty years ago.

I am so glad that I went to this privately run museum. Why? I basically lived most of my Japanese life in Yamaguchi and Kyushu in southern Japan, and the current exhibition featured Imari porcelain from Saga. Most people in Kyushu commonly refer to it as Arita-yaki since a large ceramics museum and pottery festival are held in Arita.  Imari was the name of the port in Saga from where the pottery was shipped. Although I know this type of pottery as Arita-yaki, which is technically correct, I am using Imari ware since that was used by the Toguri Museum. On a personal note, Kimoto-sensei who kindly agreed to be my personal guarantor when I was a poor student at a language school later became the head of the Kyushu Ceramic Museum in Arita. Most tourists in southern Japan have been to Arita and its infamous pottery festival. Almost everybody and every restaurant have a vase, a bowl, a plate, or tea cups from there. If they don’t, they might have a tea towel or coasters featuring the colourful designs. I knew some of the basics about some of the techniques and the history but none of the details. I never realized how much information I had absorbed until I went on this tour.

Korean potters were strongly persuaded or coerced…

As with much history throughout the world, the story of beauty often begins with violence. Kyushu is surprisingly close to both Korea and China. At the end of the 16th  century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi led Japanese troops in several attempts to invade Korea. At this time, several Korean potters were strongly persuaded or coerced to come to Japan to teach them  the fine art of ceramics, which was regarded as the desirable technology of  that time.

Korean celadon bowl from the Koryo dynasty (Toguri Museum of Art)

Japanese pottery before this was clunky and porous; Korean celadon was and continues to be known for its quality and delicate emerald colour. Porcelain was lighter than other pottery, and the finished product was non-porous meaning that it hold liquids or food.

Imari ware from the Edo period, 17th century (Toguri Museum of Art)

Early Imari ware is identifiable by its flaws. Isn’t that amazing? Early attempts were clunky and lopsided; debris (furimono) often stuck to the glazes; glazes were runny; cracks (kanyu) and fingerprints can be seen.


Soft clay meant that the bases were small in proportion to the overall size of an object. Sand is sometimes stuck to the bottom of these pieces, because sand was used in Japan, not China, to stabilize pieces. The Korean potters might have been forced to teach how to make pottery but they cleverly did not reveal their secrets all at once. a skilled potter surely would have known how to adjust the water content of the clay by adding something or adjusting the kiln’s temperature. Years later the Japanese potters realized that they could eliminate any debris, such as ash or leaves from wood fires, from sticking to the glazes by placing the items in a special container called a sagar for firing. One more secret that the Koreans kept to themselves as long as possible.

Imari water jar from the Edo period in the 17th century
Imari water jar from the Edo period, 17th century (Toguri Museum of Art)

Japanese potters slowly learned by trying to replicate what the Korean and Chinese potters did. They learned to add a little bit of iron to get the infamous celadon green that the Koreans were famous for and to get a rusty colour (sabiyu) if they added more iron. Clay slabs gradually became thinner; glazes became more controlled; types of decoration increased. One of the Imari pieces (I think the water jar in the photo above) was  probably a replica of a Chinese one and the potter included little red dots from iron content that were on the original!

Early Imari plate with gold
Early Imari plate with gold

We were allowed to handle this little plate after the tour even though the thought of doing so terrified me. This plate alone was worth approximately $8000. It as a fine example of early Imari ware with all of its imperfections. It must have been chipped during use years and years ago, so one of its owners filled in the space with a bit of gold. This practice is called kintsugi.  This is not as common as Internet memes would like you to believe.


Samurai were also involved with the increased popularity of tea ceremonies (sado). These are cylindrical tea caddies (nakatsugi). The little figure on the lid is supposedly reminiscent of the ones that pop out from the brushes sold as souvenirs at the Arima hot springs near Kobe. Were they commissioned by a souvenir shop in that area?

Imari dish in Ko-Kutani style from the Edo period, mid 17th century (Toguri Museum of Art)

As with much history throughout the world, the story of beauty often begins with violence.

The Ko-kutani style with its bright colours resulted from the influx of Chinese refugees fleeing unrest. All these technical advances gained from the skills of immigrants are ironic given Japan’s current aversion to helping most refugees or immigrants now. This evolved into more elaborate designs and exported to Europe and elsewhere.

Nabeshima dish from Edo period in the late 17th-early 18th century
Nabeshima dish from Edo period, late 17th to early 18th century (Toguri Museum of Art)

Imari ware made especially for Lord Nabeshima from kilns under his feudal control is called Nabeshima ware. Because these were originally for the use of the Nabeshima clan only, few were exported.

Many kilns continue to be run by families.

Many kilns in the region are still run by families, and each tries to have a distinctive style for pottery from their kiln. For example, a family friend has small white flowers on a dark blue background for many of their pieces. The Kozuru family, including Gen Kozuru, Nihon, and Dai, continue to make incredibly light porcelain but in really bright colours. Their studio has a small shop open to the public, and permission can be granted to view the ceramic sculpture garden by Gen Kozuru, the father. Dai Kozuru has annual (?) shows at Daimaru in Fukuoka City.


Even the walls of museum were covered in ceramic tiles. The walls were covered in hundreds of them.


The door handles were also ceramic. This elaborate, decorative and colourful style is what Arita is currently famed for.


As a special treat, we were allowed to handle some of the objects from the Toguri collection. The table was covered with a felt cushion for protection.The objects did not move around the table; the people moved around the table to see the objects.

Japanese ceramics, at least the good ones, often come in a wooden box tied with a ribbon. A more expensive ribbon might resemble a mini obi and is slightly stiff. It is also very difficult to tie in a way that looks nice. The creases from how it was originally tied remain as a clue but it is still really difficult to remember how it was tied. The method is supposedly decided and done in a way so the ribbon lies flat, so boxes can be stacked. For future reference, I took a video of an employee at the Toguri Art Museum showing us how to tie the box after the little plate was wrapped in felt and tissue paper.

If you are planning to come to Tokyo and want an in-depth lesson on Japanese ceramics that revolutionized the country’s history, do try to make an effort to come to this little gem of a museum. It surely is one of Tokyo’s secret places. For special tours in English, contact the Toguri Art Museum to make arrangements. Mr. Toguri and the staff seemed to understand basic, conversational English, but a written request would probably be appreciated.


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