The Origin of Raku Ware

The tea bowls made by Ch˘jir˘ were initially called ima-yaki, literally "now wares", that is to say, wares produced at the present time. They were subsequently renamed juraku-yaki, "juraku wares", due to the fact that Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), the leading warrior statesman of the time, presented Ch˘jir˘ with a seal bearing the Chinese character for Raku. The term Raku derived from Jurakudai, the name of a palace built by Hideyoshi, one of the great symbols of his age. Raku then became the name of the family that produced the wares. This is the only example in the history of a family name becoming synonymous with the ceramics they produced. Furthermore, few potter families have continued in an unbroken line in the way the Raku family has done.

History of Raku Ware

Making of Raku ware was initiated by Ch˘jir˘, the first generation of the Raku family, during the Momoyama period (1573-1615). At that time three-coloured glazed pottery, san cai ware, based on technology from the Fujian region of China was produced in and around Kyoto. Ch˘jir˘ was presumably familiar with such techniques. A written record confirms that Ameya, Ch˘jir˘'s father, originally from China, is thought to have been the one who introduced the techniques of three-coloured glazed pottery from China, although none of his works has survived to prove this. These Japanese san cai wares, however, were not called Raku wares. It was only after Ch˘jir˘ had become acquainted with the tea master Sen Rikyű (1522-1591) who asked Ch˘jir˘ to make tea bowls for the tea ceremony under his guidance that the Raku ware came into being. It could be said that the origin of Raku ware lay in the making of a single tea bowl for the tea ceremony.

Essence of Raku Ware

The characteristics of Raku tea bowls as pioneered by Ch˘jir˘ are their exclusive use of monochrome black or red glazes - in marked contrast to the brightness of the san cai wares from which they evolved - and an unique aesthetic which aims at the elimination of movement, decoration and variation of form. In this Raku wares reflect more directly than any other kind of ceramic the ideals of wabicha, the form of tea ceremony based on the aesthetics of wabi advocated by Sen Rikyu. Central to the philosophy of wabicha were notions of "nothingness" deriving from Zen Buddhism and the "isness" of Taoism. Raku wares are hand-formed rather than thrown on the wheel, which makes them very different from other kinds of Japanese ceramics. Hand-forming increase the potential for modelling and allows the spirit of the artist to speak through the finished work with particular directness and intimacy. Ch˘jir˘, however, through his negation of movement, decoration and variation of form, went beyond the boundaries of individualistic expression and elevated the tea bowl into a manifestation of abstract spirituality.
Ch˘jir˘'s elimination of movement, decoration and variation of form and his delving beyond the boundaries of individualistic expression manifested themselves in works of monochromatic silence. To deliberately negate attempt at any formative expression is, as if creativity tries to go beyond the act of creation itself, a paradoxical and extraordinary spiritual endeavour. What was Ch˘jir˘ trying to achieve? What are we to understand from his attainments? 400 years later, the issues of spirituality and artistic consciousness addressed by Ch˘jir˘ are as valid and relevant as ever.

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