Report on the talk ‘Crafting community: Cooperative relationships behind the sustenance of the Tamba pottery industry’

On 16 February 2023, the Sainsbury Institute hosted a talk by Dr Shilla Lee, Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow, on the lives of those involved in the pottery industry in Tamba Sasayama in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. Dr Lee is an anthropologist with extensive fieldwork experience in the area, and conducted her doctoral research in the village of Tachikui in 2018-19.

After a brief and thoughtful historical overview of the development of the pottery industry in Tamba Sasayama, Dr Lee turned her attention to the central questions of the talk: “How is the Tamba pottery industry sustained amidst the growing sense of precarity and what are potters’ strategies for navigating the uncertain times?”.

Dr Lee invoked the concept of tochigara, ‘the character of soil’, that her potter friends told her about when discussing the strong character of potters in the area. Tochigara refers to soil as a material substance, of course, but also to land, as a place of living and dwelling. She thus focused on social ties between the potters, who are often related to one another through close neighbourly bonds and family ties. The close connections allowed the Tamba potters to prepare for various community events effectively and speedily, and offered a safety net if required.

As circumstances changed and the local government encouraged the potters’ social engagement and promotional activities to revitalize the area, the previously disparaged tightly-knit community, once associated with closedness (heisa-sei), became an asset in a context demanding a coordinated response to prepare for public events, engaging not only in local heritage projects, but also participating in global crafts markets.

Water Jar: Ko Tamba ware, mid-1500s. Japan, Muromachi period (1392–1573). Stoneware with natural green ash glaze (Tamba ware); overall: 44.3 x 34.9 cm (17 7/16 x 13 3/4 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift 1963.556

Perhaps most importantly, Dr Lee’s research draws our attention to cooperation among craftsmen in an age of precarity, and contributes to our understanding of creativity among this group as a deeply relational endeavour, bringing together craftsmen, their families and communities, as well as local politicians in complex networks of co-production. These relationships, however, are not always simply collaborative or harmonious: their actions may be motivated by aims that stand in some tension to each other. Yet as Dr Lee adeptly shows us, creative practice is best understood in this broader relational context, in Tamba as a place of dwelling.

Dr Iza Kavedžija is Assistant Professor of Medical Anthropology in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge. She works on issues of creativity and meaningful work in Japan, and was also a Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow at the Sainsbury Institute between 2014-2015.

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