An interview with Akito Akagi


As a child, Mr. Akagi could not understand what it meant to be in harmony with others. The boy who played with making box gardens with a sense of incompatibility with the world eventually became a young man who was passionate about poetry and novels.

‘I liked the poetry of people like Kenji Miyazawa and Chuya Nakahara, and made my own poetry collection in high school. At that time, I was thinking of becoming a poet, so I submitted my poems to contemporary poetry magazines, but they never picked them up, probably because they were too incoherent.’

At university, he majored in philosophy. He studied under Gen Kida, who is known for his research on Heidegger. After graduating from university, he became an editor at Kakaigaho magazine. He was not in charge of the pages related to tea ceremony and pottery, which he liked, but the work was interesting. On his days off, he visited galleries and pottery shops. Around that time, he met Tomoko, whom he would later marry, who was working at a gallery in Shinjuku that introduced mainly contemporary ceramics. His days were exciting and hectic, but at some point he began to feel unfulfilled.

‘At that time, I was able to plan my own editing projects, meet the people I wanted to meet, and write my own articles. It was very interesting, but one day I suddenly felt bored with myself. For example, when I went to interview the film director Nagisa Oshima, and wrote about him. Mr. Oshima was very interesting, but when I read my own writing, I thought it was not interesting. And when I thought about why, it was because I myself was not interesting. Mr.Oshima had been making films for a long time, and there was something about him that he had built up while fighting against various problems. The reason why my writing about Mr. Oshima was not interesting was because I didn't have that something in me when I was writing. So I wanted to find that something. I wanted something that would form a solid core. In order to get that, I thought that I couldn't just keep writing about people and interviewing them. When I thought about what I should do to have that something inside of me, I thought that making things with my hands would be the one.’

Mr. Akagi's life was changed when he happened to visit an exhibition of Mr. Isaburo Kado’s works at a gallery in Takashimaya Department Store in Nihonbashi. Mr. Akagi describes the impact he felt at that time as follows: "I felt as if each vessel was alive, as if it had a personality and spoke to me. Two years later, he went to Wajima to visit Mr. Kado, and while having a drink with him, he decided to become a lacquerer.  "I am amazed at myself that I jumped into the world of Wajima lacquerware without knowing anything about lacquer. ’’he laughed. 

‘But I believe that there are encounters in everyone's life that can change his or her life. I think there are many people who pass by without noticing them, but I was able to notice them.’

I asked Tomoko what she thought when Mr. Akagi told her he was going to become a craftsman.

‘I was closer to that world than he was, so I wasn't surprised. I thought, "If you can do it, try it, but it's not that easy," but we were both busy with work and didn't have the kind of daily life we wanted, so I agreed that he quit his job.’

A year later, Mr. Akagi left the company, moved to Wajima with his family, and with the help of a few contacts, apprenticed himself to Susumu Okamoto, a Wajima lacquer artisan. His book, "Nurishi Monogatari" (Bungeishunju, currently out of print), describes those intense years.

I asked him what was the biggest thing he had gained during his apprenticeship.

'I think it's that I found my own way. When I was an apprentice, I must follow the master's instructions, but he doesn't teach me anything. So it was really chaotic at first, and I didn't know what to do. When I became an apprentice, the first thing I did was making my knife. The blade was not a finished product.  A sheet of steel was given to me, and I ground a sheet of steel into the shape of a blade, and then attached the handle to it to make my own blade. The reason why I made my own blades is because the blade is an extension of my body, so I have to make the right one for myself. Once finished, I made tools such as spatulas and brushes for applying lacquer with the blade. The shape of that blade is different for every single craftsman. Because everyone is different, there is no right answer. The process of penetrating the lacquer also differs from craftsman to craftsman. Each craftsman has his or her own idea of what is the best way to do this process. I think apprentice training is all about finding your own way. However, students who have graduated from university lacquerware courses are taught the correct way of doing things by people like living national treasures. And they are taught to use such and such a tool for this process and to paint in such and such a way. Everyone assumes that this is the correct way, but it's not. A living skill is not the right way to do something, but something that is acquired as you find your own way. I think that was the most important thing I learned during my apprenticeship. I was never taught anything from my master, and I don't teach anything to my apprentice either. I don't teach anything, but I teach everything. I believe that this is the best way to become a craftsman, but nowadays, as the transmission of skills is incorporated into the school system, there are many things that cannot be transmitted anymore. It is very difficult to get people to understand that.'

After four years of training and a year of devotion, he had his first independent exhibition in 1994 at the age of 32.

-When you became independent, what kind of work did you want to make?

‘I wanted to make something that we would need in our daily lives. This is because when I was an apprentice, there were no Wajima lacquerware that we wanted to use. At that time, Wajima lacquerware was a luxury item, something to be handled with care and for special occasions. However, until Meiji era (1868-1912) and the middle of Showa era (1926-1989), lacquerware production areas were not only making bowls for special occasions, but also for everyday use. However, with the modernization, those for daily use were replaced by industrial products, and only the bowls for special occasions remained. That's why I wanted to revive the bowls for daily use once again.’

The first bowl he made, ‘Noto Kamiko Rice Bowl,’ is still a standard bowl today. It was made by doing 'utsushi' a bowl from the late Edo period that he found in an abandoned house in a mountain village in Noto when he was an apprentice. Since then, Mr. Akagi has been making bowls by doing ‘utsuhi' old bowls that he came across, rather than creating new shapes himself. Mr. Akagi says, " Utsushi" does not mean to make a copy of something old, but to explore a form as a model. 

‘When you look at a bowl from the side, it is made up of symmetrical lines. If you move those lines around a sheet of paper, the image and shape of the bowl will keep changing. Utsushi is a process of endlessly pursuing the most beautiful lines out of an infinite number of lines within the same shape.’  The cotton-like finish of these bowls is called "kamiko," and is created by applying Japanese paper and then letting the lacquer permeate the surface. He brought the soft and warm texture of Japanese paper into the world of lacquerware, where glossy vessels are common, and it was accepted by may people.

For the first ten years or so, I was only making bowls with textures of Japanese paper. But gradually I began to feel self-consciousness in that kind of expression, and I felt a strong desire to eliminate myself. So I gradually reduced the number of bowls with textures, and even those with textures, I tried to keep them to a minimum. At the same time, I increased the ratio of "nuritate" bowls, which are simply coated with smooth lacquer. I don't think there is anything wrong with texture as a form of expression or a methodology, but I came to think that the texture I was using in the beginning was something to do with my poor technique. I came to think that I wanted to properly express the most attractive part of the material itself. So my interest has shifted from texture to matière. The matière is a sense of materiality, an expression of lacquer that I like, but it requires technique to bring it out. As I worked on it for a long time, I felt that the potential of lacquer, which was beyond the verbalized world, gradually emerged from the chaos. I have come to believe that drawing out the potency of such non-verbal nature as an idea is, in a sense, art, and that it can save the human soul.


What is craft ?

In the 27 years since becoming independent, Mr. Akagi has continued to ponder the question of what craft is.

'Since ancient times, nature has been an abstract and transcendent thing for Japanese people, like a place where life force comes from, a place where the dead return to, or a place where the dead come from during the Obon. Facing such transcendental things is the origin of craft, or what makes craft what it is, I think. It has been the same since Jomon earthenware was first made 16,500 years ago. Before modernization, all tools created by humans were connected to transcendence, and I think that's what Mingei was attracted . Muneyoshi Yanagi requested  artisans to be mindless in order to reach that point, but it is impossible for us with modernized egos. But I believe that there is still a way to reach transcendence, and I think it lies in the search one's own individuality. For example, there are only black and red in lacquer, but there are also white black, red black, blue black, and many other types of black. I am aiming for a white black, and I am trying to get closer to my ideal gloss and color within that white black. I think that's the meaning of making a lot of pieces, but if you keep pursuing your own individuality and personal taste, you will end up in a world that goes beyond individuality. It's a place that transcends the conscious and the unconscious, the individual and the universal. We can't become mindless all of a sudden, but I believe that we can regain transcendence by exploring our own preferences and individuality, learning the techniques necessary to realize them, and then going further.'


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