Tomimoto Kenkichi

A towering figure in the postwar Kyoto ceramics world, Tomimoto Kenkichi (1886–1963) was a charismatic teacher at the Kyoto Fine Arts College for fifteen years. His many successful students include Kamoda Shoji (1933–1983), Miyashita Zenji (1939–2012), and Morino Taimei (born 1934) (also see S2017.12). As a master of decorated porcelain using platinum-blended silver enamel, Tomimoto was designated a Living National Treasure in 1955.

These gifts represent the third remarkable dimension of Tomimoto’s Kyoto activities: his collaboration with Kyoto porcelain workshops to make affordable but well-designed and well-made tableware. Tomimoto explained his motivation in a brochure issued by one of the workshops:

The essence of craft work is to be made inexpensively, so that it can be used by as many people as possible. I never forget this when I am making pottery.

But I alone am incapable of making sufficient numbers. Even though I dispatch them at reasonable prices, they only reach the hands of a few people. As they move through the market, their unauthorized prices rise.

On this occasion the Yasaka Kogei workshop has enabled me to accomplish what I have long dreamed of. Its potters deftly and faithfully reproduce my prototypes in quantity, making products that are cheap and pleasant to use, but that do not lose the beauty of handmade things.

Tomimoto’s ideal of inexpensive, beautiful handmade objects for the popular market developed over his lifetime. As soon as he graduated from the Tokyo Fine Arts University, he left for a year in London. Fascinated and deeply moved by the Arts and Crafts philosophy of William Morris, he spent his days drawing objects in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Back in Tokyo, he attended a garden party at which he tried decorating Raku pottery and met another participant who was experiencing clay for the first time, the British artist Bernard Leach; they became fast friends.

Tomimoto returned to his family home in Nara and set up a Morris-inspired workshop for crafts. As he trained himself to make pottery, he began visiting long-standing ceramic production centers around Japan, decorating local forms with his original designs. In an extreme case, at one Kyoto workshop he painted the same motif on three thousand small plates.

At the end of World War II Tomimoto abruptly gave up all his Tokyo connections and moved to Kyoto. In 1950, the same year he began teaching, he collaborated for the first time with a Kyoto workshop to make affordable everyday tableware. In 1957 he began collaborating with the Yasaka Kogei workshop to create a line called Tomisen—combining a character from his surname with “Sen” from Sennyuji, the pottery-producing neighborhood in eastern Kyoto where Yasaka Kogei and his own studio were located. These lively, charming, perfectly handcrafted tableware pieces are signed or stamped “Tomisen.”

Tomimoto’s intense commitment to affordable tableware was part of a larger postwar movement to reclaim Japan’s international reputation as a source of high-quality handmade goods. Japanese designers also sought to bring good design to a popular market at home. Soy sauce bottles, covered jars for pickles, and chopstick rests appear on every Japanese table. Tomimoto believed in offering a thoughtfully designed, handmade soy sauce container instead of a glass bottle, and he acted on that belief. Other designers, such as Yanagi Sori, used slip-cast molding techniques, but Tomimoto relied on the finely honed skills of Kyoto’s ceramics craftsmen.

The donor, Marie Woo, is a potter based in Michigan. From 1959 to 1962 she lived in Japan, where she worked with several noted ceramic artists, including Kaneshige Toyo in Bizen. In Kyoto she met Tomimoto, whom she recalls as “a gentle, hospitable man.” She purchased the Tomisen pieces in Tokyo at the Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi Department Store, famed for representing ceramic artists on its gallery floor.

Covered jar, soy sauce bottle and saucer, and chopstick rests
Tomimoto Kenkichi (1886–1963)
Japan, Kyoto, ca. 1960
Porcelain with cobalt pigment under clear glaze, enamel over glaze
H x D (jar, assembled): 8 × 9 cm
H x W x D (bottle, assembled): 9.5 × 9.8 × 7.5 cm
H x D (saucer): 2.8 × 10.2 cm
H x W x D (each chopstick rest): 2.5 × 3.7 × 2 cm
Gift of Marie Woo
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S2018.21a–b, S2018.22.1–.2, S2018.23.1–.5