The University of Michigan Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Clay as Soft Power, curated by Natsu Oyobe, opened Nov. 12. and explores Japanese Shigaraki. Emily Alberts/Daily. Buy this photo.

Japanese pottery takes center stage at the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Clay as Soft Power, curated by Natsu Oyobe. On Saturday, the UMMA opened the exhibit featuring Japanese Shigaraki ware to examine how pottery contributed to post-war Japanese-American relations. Shigaraki ware, named because of its production in Japan’s Shiga prefecture, involves the practice of using wood fire kilns and special clay, which create stone bursts, burns and fire marks. 

The exhibit features pieces from Takahashi Rakusai III, an artist who helped revive Shigaraki pottery, as well as his great-granddaughter Takahashi Yoshiki, the first woman to head the Takahashi studio. John Stephenson, late Art & Design professor, and his wife, Susanne Stephenson also contributed pieces in the exhibit. Yoshiki designed pieces specifically designed for the exhibit, including “Yoshiko’s Shigaraki Jar,” which was crafted so students would be able to touch and feel the style of Shigaraki.

Oyobe said the display’s inspiration came from the 50-year anniversary celebration of the Japanese state Shiga Prefecture and Michigan being sister states. Oyobe said she wanted to celebrate the anniversary, and decided on Shigaraki ware as a way to explore the connection between the two regions.

“I wanted to do something with the art of Shiga Prefecture, and Shigaraki is one of the traditions,” Oyobe said. “Also I participated in a workshop back in 2016 introducing Shigaraki ware to museum curators, so I spent lots of time there. That’s when I got really interested in Shigaraki ware.”

Oyobe said throughout the process of curating the exhibit, she became interested in the history of collecting Shigaraki ware, which she explained began to make its way to the U.S. in the period following WWII. 

“(The collecting) relates to international political and social circumstances,” Oyobe said. “It was during the cold war, and Japan was in the immediate postwar period still occupied by America and also allied powers. And for the United States, it was necessary to change the view of Japan so that they could get the public support to be friendly nations. And so Shigaraki is one of the art forms to be used as a soft power to influence the public opinion.” 

Oyobe said Shigaraki ware look different than American wares, as they were a symbol of Japanese culture.

“Up until then the ceramic wares more familiar to the (American) public were smooth shiny wares, very decorative types,” Oyobe said. “Shigaraki ware is a totally different look. It’s very rustic and some wares are very deformed intentionally, so that really shows Japanese simplicity, not in the image of Japan as a war enemy. Shigaraki ware was viewed as an embodiment of Japanese culture.”

LSA senior Nami Kaneko, president of the Japanese Student Association (JSA) and a research assistant for the exhibit, said the Ann Arbor and U-M communities have a strong connection with art.

“What’s interesting about Ann Arbor specifically is that it has a very strong pottery community as well as an arts community in general,” Kaneko said. “We do have specific connections to (Shigaraki) but for the most part it’s not a very specific connection, it’s just with art in general, with Japanese pottery.” 

Oyobe said the University of Michigan has a strong relationship with Shigaraki ware because of the work of John Stephenson, who was given a grant by the University to study Shigaraki ware. Oyobe also said Shigaraki ware had a strong influence on American artists, such as the Stephensons, who incorporated the style of Shigaraki with their use of glazed pottery.

“To fire Shigaraki ware, it takes more than seven days to fire continuously,” Oyobe said. “You can imagine how much wood it takes to fire for seven days. (The Stephensons) realized the limit of their resources here. So they created glazed ware, but they completely changed their style. It’s more wild and deformed.”

Oyobe said she hopes students can appreciate demonstrations on campus from Japanese potters and their connection to U-M history professors.

“I think people should know on campus that there’s a really deep connection between this University and Shigaraki,” Oyobe said. “Many things I dug up in my research, it was so exciting to see this really tangible relationship … The reason why a Japanese potter came (to the University) in the 1950s was because of professors teaching Japanese history. They were really eager to introduce these potters here too.” 

Law School student Misha Emanoil, a visitor at the exhibit, said he appreciated the aesthetic value of the pieces, which included traditional techniques such as a natural ash glaze and unique fire marks.

“I thought it was really interesting to see how the different traditional techniques were used to create different forms and colorations on the stoneware,” Emanoil said. “I thought seeing the American interpretation of these techniques was important too.”

Kaneko said she thinks the UMMA’s exhibit helps raise awareness around Japanese culture on campus.

“(The) UMMA has a lot of cultural exhibits, which is really cool, but the fact that a cultural exhibit is the star of the show, specifically with Japanese culture being the star of the show, it’s very exciting,” Kaneko said. “It helps make people more aware of Japanese culture and what it’s like on campus (for Japanese students).” 

Kaneko said Shigaraki ware may not be something that traditional Japanese students would know, and that she plans to invite members of the JSA to the exhibit as a way to reconnect with Japanese heritage and share the experience with non-Japanese students. She said Japanese students often feel alienated from discussions on campus, but that the exhibit might be able to open up conversations between Japanese and non-Japanese students. 

“I think (the exhibit) can be a place for discussion and connection,” Kaneko said. “One with the people of Japanese descent to connect with their culture, and then one for non-Japanese people to connect with their friends who are Japanese and who are learning the same thing at the same time.”

Oyobe said she hopes students come to the exhibit to learn the history of Shigaraki ware and the power behind its presence in the UMMA. 

“Knowing the history is quite important,” Oyobe said. “(Art is) politically used to influence public opinion, but also if the artwork is not powerful, it becomes kind of empty. I think (in) many of the works here, you can see the power within the work. So I want students to be able to experience that power.”

Daily Staff Reporter Joshua Nicholson can be reached at