Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (106): The Korean divinity at a Shinto shrine

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 11, 2009

SOLDIERS BRING HOME all sorts of souvenirs when they return from foreign battlefields—unusual rocks from uninhabited beaches, Luger pistols, hachimaki headbands, severed ears and other body parts, unpleasant diseases, and war brides speaking unfamiliar languages, to mention a few.

The <i>kachigarasu</i>

The kachigarasu

Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded the Korean Peninsula twice in the 1590s, and his staging area and jumping off point was located in what is now Chinzei-cho in Saga. He had the Nagoya Castle built there in just five months; after the Osaka Castle, it was the largest in Japan at the time. In those days, the area was part of the Nabeshima domain, ruled by Nabeshima Naoshige. A skilled military leader, Nabeshima’s epigrams and deeds were recorded in the classic samurai how-to manual Hagakure by Tsunetomo Yamamoto, an attendant of the daimyo’s grandson Mitsushige.

Nabeshima accompanied Toyotomi on his Korean excursions and brought back two unusual souvenirs. One was a type of black-and-white magpie known in Japanese as the kachigarasu, which is still found in Japan almost exclusively in Saga and Fukuoka.

Though the bird resembles the karasu, or the all-black crow that lives throughout Japan, it is of a different genus and species. The Koreans call it the kkachi, so the etymology is very clear. They like to nest in utility poles—there are probably some right now peering down on the street in my neighborhood—which gives the Kyushu Electric maintenance men a spring- and summer-long headache.

Nabeshima’s second war souvenir was a Korean ceramist named Lee Sam-pyeung, who arrived in 1598 and would later revolutionize ceramics production in Japan from his base in Arita, Saga. Because he couldn’t find the proper type of clay in the area to make the sophisticated Chinese/Korean type of porcelain already in demand in Southeast Asia and Europe, Lee initially worked with a group of 12 Korean ceramists to make what is known as Karatsu ware.

That changed in 1616, when Lee struck kaolin—the ceramist’s equivalent of gold—at Mt. Izumi in Arita. That’s where he built the first noborigama, or climbing kiln (sometimes called dragon kiln) in Japan required for firing fine porcelain. It was the first of two strokes of exceptional luck for the Japanese ceramics industry.

The second occurred when the Ming Dynasty in China collapsed in 1644. The European nobility and wealthy merchants were buying enormous quantities of Chinese porcelain, but the turmoil at dynasty’s end caused many kilns to shut down. Some were damaged in the battles between the dynasty and the Manchus. The succeeding Qing Dynasty government then stopped trade altogether from 1656 to 1684. The end of supply from China spurred the Dutch East India company to turn to Arita porcelain to fill the prodigious demand. The Dutch were the only foreigners allowed to maintain a presence in Japan at the time, and they had an office on Dejima, a small island off the city of Nagasaki. (Land reclamation operations later made it part of the city itself.) As a result, an enormous amount of porcelain was shipped from Arita to Europe from then until the mid-18th century.

Two factors drove this demand. The first was that in Europe in those days, porcelain was a beautiful and exotic rarity from distant places barely imaginable for most people. The first porcelain manufactured on the continent was in Meissen in 1709. The production techniques existed only in Asia, so porcelain items were considered treasures. Deliveries took several months over the Silk Road or in sailing ships. Some even thought porcelain had magical properties, and believed it would become discolored and crack if it came into contact with poison.

The second was that the only people who could afford to indulge themselves with porcelain purchases were the European and Ottoman Turkish nobility, and the wealthiest of the merchant class. The customer base may have been limited, but those customers had plenty of money to spend on whatever struck their fancy. Their passion for collecting became a mania that was almost degenerate in its profligacy. One German Elector traveled to the Amsterdam docks to buy immense quantities right off the ship. Their frenzy culminated in the creation of porcelain rooms, in which the entire chamber was filled with porcelain displays from floor to ceiling, and sometimes included the ceiling. The rooms often had mirrored walls to enhance the effect. A single room wasn’t enough for Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. He built the Japanisches Palais in Dresden, a palace for holding and displaying the more than 20,000 pieces of Chinese and Japanese porcelain in his collection. (It was never used for that, however, and became a library instead.)

Though the huge shipments to Europe ended in the mid-18th century, Arita is still one of the premier ceramics-producing areas of Japan. Every year during the Golden Week holidays, a period in which five public holidays fall from 28 April to 5 May, the town holds a ceramics fair in which the entire business of the residents is given over to selling ceramics and porcelain from their storefronts or stalls in the street. That includes barber shops and cafes as well as the ceramics merchants and producers who do it for a living.

arita lee festival

The 106th Arita ceramics fair ended last week, and this year 1.13 million visitors just as eager as the 17th century nobility to buy porcelain (for much cheaper prices) flocked to the town with a population of slightly more than 21,000 in an area of 27.09 square kilometers, 70% of which is wooded. It was the second-highest number of visitors in the history of the event, with the highest coming in 2003. It was also the seventh straight year that more than one million people came. The organizers thought the economic downturn and fears of influenza would depress attendance, but a special discount on expressway tolls during the holidays in conjunction with the introduction of a new electronic toll collection system seems to have encouraged people to make the trip.

Shinto festivals have long been held to coincide with commercial events, and vice-versa, so it’s not unusual that the Tozan Shinto shrine in Arita-cho would hold one of their festivals on the 4th. The tutelary deity of the shrine, which is said to have been founded in 1658, is the Korean ceramist Lee Sam-pyeung. There is also a monument to Lee at the top of the mountain behind the shrine, where the ceremonies are usually held, but rain forced it indoors this year. About 100 people from Japan and South Korea were in the procession and witnessed a performance of kagura (Shinto dance), as shown in the photo.

One of those watching from South Korea was Kim Gi-hyeong of the South Korean Ceramics Culture Association. He said:

“We pledge to keep alive the pioneering and creative spirit of Lee, and bring forth a more beautiful friendship between South Korea and Japan.”

It’s curious that some people are so anxious to claim that the Japanese are either ignorant of or loath to honor the Korean contribution to their culture, and that other people are so ready to believe it. That means one of the many positive aspects of Japan-Korean relations they overlook or ignore is this Shinto shrine and event honoring a Korean ceramist who lived 400 years ago and whose life’s work and lucky strike still enrich everyone in the area today—which the Japanese readily acknowledge.

Here are two brief YouTube clips showing the shrine, with Japanese voiceovers. (Number one and number two) It’s Sunday night, and I’m not up for doing a transcription/translation, but they’re worth viewing even if you don’t know Japanese. Both show the unique ceramic installations at the shrine, including the underglaze blue (sometsuke in Japanese) on the torii. The first also includes shots of the monument to Lee.

The entire range of Arita ware is offered for sale during the fair at reduced prices. Those prices get progressively lower every day, so some rather attractive pieces can be bought at dirt cheap prices on the last day. The items sold include both the finest quality porcelain as well as leftover odds and ends. My first year in Japan, in 1984, I visited the fair and purchased for pocket change a surplus tea mug specially produced to commemorate the anniversary of a small Shinto shrine elsewhere in Kyushu. It was sitting in a crate along with some other remainders. Now it’s sitting on my desk, and I still use it to drink tea.

3 Responses to “Matsuri da! (106): The Korean divinity at a Shinto shrine”

  1. Aceface said

    ”One was a type of black-and-white magpie known in Japanese as the kachigarasu”

    Keen bird watcher here.It’s Commom Magpie and “kachigarasu” is regional name of the bird but it’s common Japanese name is “Kasasagiカササギ”.And ornithologically speaking,Magpie is bekong to Corvidae,which is in the same family with crows.

  2. ampontan said

    It might be the regional name here, but which region has the most of them! They’re all over Saga (and Fukuoka). A few of the other daimyo around here brought them back too. I read somewhere that they’re in Hokkaido too, which is interesting.

  3. Aceface said

    “It might be the regional name here, but which region has the most of them!”

    Too true.However,if you are thinking about translating the name in your future proffesional work,Kasasagi could be more appropriate.

    The one in Hokkaido could be a wondering migrant,because Common Magpie can be seen anywhere in the Eurasia from UK to Siberia.I’ve seen them gathering garbage cans in Mongolia too.

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