Yanagi Soetsu, Bernard Leach & Shoji Hamada

Yanagi Soetsu
Hands of a Scholar Hands of a Craftsman Mouth of an Orator

Hands of a Scholar

Image courtesy of Amazon.

Note that Yanagi’s hand rests on a book: Yanagi was not so much a maker himself as he was a bridge figure for interpreting the forms and processes of makers as well as developing a system of connoisseurship for ceramics.

Hands of a Craftsman

While Leach and Yanagi spoke, Shoji worked at the wheel with whatever clay he was given, sitting cross legged on the table. That Shoji sits cross-legged in front of his wheel resonates with John Lockwood Kipling’s image of the “Native Craftsman” who manipulates his wood with his foot. Here again we should note a sense of “authenticity” yoked to the craftsperson who involves his whole body in his making process.

Mouth of an Orator

During the circuit tour Yanagi, Leach, and Hamada embarked on in the United States in 1952, Leach did some demonstrations but mostly spoke about the craft. Leach was himself a maker and placed himself as a bridge between Eastern and Western pottery objects and practices.

Photographer unknown, Yanagi Soetsu and Bernard Leach observing Shoji Hamada, likely around 1952. Ken Turner Pottery.
Who’s looking?

This photograph shows a series of gazes within its frame. Yanagi Soetsu and Bernard Leach both look at Shoji Hamada’s hands as they make contact with the clay form. Shoji’s eyes are directed at his hands, expressing a “total body concentration” similar to that of John Lockwood Kipling’s image of the “Native Craftsman.” The attention that Yanagi and Leech give Shoji’s hands renders them as the locus of his craft act. This image crucially suggests that the knowledge, skill, and craft aura resides in Shoji.

This is also a documentary photograph that demonstrates the dynamic of three craftspeople who toured the United States in 1952 and disseminated their philosophy for craft and lifestyle. What the photograph does not capture is the audience that would have surrounded the demonstration table. That the audience is absent places the viewer in the audience’s position. Though separated from the actual site in time and space, the viewer of the photograph still acts as a witness.

Why does this image matter?

This image runs into the problem of capturing embodied knowledge through photography. It documents an art demo in progress, but it also complicates our understanding of the actual action of the demo because of the inherent limitations of the medium—the idea that “you had to be there.” Where Lockwood Kipling’s image was steeped in imperialism, this image of Shoji appears more as an educating body, wordlessly demonstrating his craft and thus becoming the linchpin upon which Leach’s and Yanagi’s theories of craft were hinged.

The Emergence of the “Artist-Craftsman”
Shoji Hamada, Teacup (glazed wheel-thrown stoneware), c. 1960. icollector.com.

Yanagi Soetsu and Bernard Leach facilitated an important shift that occurred in the 1950s for the identity of the craftsperson, from “designer-craftsperson” to “artist-craftsperson” or “object maker.” Perhaps one of the most important qualities of the “artist-craftsperson” was a firm sense of discernment. In the a preface to Yanagi’s 1972 text, The Unknown Craftsman, Shoji describes Yanagi as a “creative critic,” by which he means “his direct eye for beauty” as well as an understanding for the “need of an aesthetic that embraces both [beauty and ugliness].”1 But their collective vision of “beauty” is actually very specifically described as “a simple and straightforward approach” to an object’s making.2 It would seem that even a term as simple as “simplicity” would be subjective. The shift towards an artist-craftsperson was significant because it expanded the craftsperson’s purview to include skills of making and a capability to discern “beauty” and “simplicity.” Such skills were not built on gifted hands alone, but were accumulated through experience and lifestyle.

About Shoji Hamada (1894-1978)

Shoji Hamada graduated from the Tokyo Technical College in 1916 and began specializing in ceramics, enrolling in the Kyoto Ceramics Research. Between 1919-1923, he traveled widely to learn more about folk craft traditions, which would serve as a great influence on his own ceramic forms. He also drew inspiration from English medieval pottery and Korean stoneware, putting him into alignment with Bernard Leach and Yanagi Soetsu. Shoji became acquainted with Leach during his travels in the early 1920s while building a climbing kiln in St. Ives. In 1952, Yanagi, Leach, and Shoji travelled throughout the United States offering ceramics demonstrations to emerging craft institutions. Following this trip in the mid-1950s, Shoji was appointed the Director of the Japan Folk Art Museum. Designated a Living National Treasure in 1955, Shoji’s influence as a maker and an educational resource is extensive and wide reaching.


Brandt, Kim. Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007.

Dewan, Deepali. “The Body at Work: Colonial Art Education and the Figure of the “Native Craftsman.” In Confronting the Body: The Politics of Physicality in Colonial and PostColonial India,edited byJames H. Mills and Satadru Sen, 119-134. London and New York: Anthem Press, 2004.

Koplos, Janet and Bruce Metcalf. Makers: A History of American Studio Artists. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Leach, Bernard. Hamada Potter. Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1990.

Pye, David. The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Radom House, 1994.

Yanagi, Soetsu. The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International, 1972.

  1. Shoji Hamada, “Yanagi and Leach,” in The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty by Yanagi Soetsu (Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International, 1972), 10.
  2. Shoji, “Yanagi and Leach,” 9.