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Tobe Ware

The Features of Tobe Ware

Tobe Ware (砥部焼) is one of traditional Japanese porcelain. It is from Tobe City, Ehime Prefecture, and the manufacture of ceramic ware has been prospered in this district since around the 6th century. Since Tobe area forms a natural basin, it has a large base of a mountain and plenty of pine trees, which means, it is an ideal building site for kilns and rich in fuel. Tobe Ware makes full use of local rocks, and the material gives Tobe Ware high durability. Besides this characteristic, it has moderate thickness and beautifully simplified shape without too much decoration.

The Decoration of Tobe Ware

Its decoration is simple and categorized into roughly two kinds. One is called Kotobe-mono, which means ‘old Tobe style’. It was common from the early stages of its manufacture to the early Meiji period (- ca. 1890). The style is quite humble since only one color (usually dark brown) is used for the painting, and the painting itself is simplified very well. Patterns that were favorites with people are creatures that are close to Japanese life style, such as pine trees, bamboos, Japanese plum (ume) trees, wisteria flowers, rice plants, sparrows, and fishes. Incidentally, all of patterns are also sort of symbols of the peaceful countryside-life in Japan. In other words, they are connected to the image of nature and peace, and the Japanese see the beauty of nature throughout these creatures. The reason why Kotobe-mono spread well among the people is not only because of its high durability, but also because these patterns were preferred. Kotobe-mono succeeded in presenting the symbols in the beautifully simplified way. The second kind of Tobe Ware’s decoration is called Gosu-e, which means ‘Gosu picture’. The motif of Gosu-e is also nature like the one of Kotobe-mono. The feature of this style is a beautiful deep blue color painting. Since the earthenware itself has a soft white color, the deep blue lines make a stunning contrast on it. Each color makes the other color purity stand out. There are three designs that are famous in Gosu-e. The first one is Karakusa-mon (an arabesque design), which has a lot of energy. The second motif is called Taiyo-mon (a design of the sun), and it is the combination of the sun and cranes. The last one is Nazuna-mon (a design of shepherd’s purse). The elegant curve is a distinctive characteristic of this design.
These painting are almost always painted by hand after the first baking without glaze. After the painting part, ceramists glaze them and fire them completely. In the first baking process, porcelain is fired with 900 to 950 degrees centigrade (°C) for eight to ten hours. Compared to it, the main baking process takes 15 to 24 hours with around 1300 degrees centigrade.

The History of Tobe Ware

As mentioned earlier, Tobe region has been famous as an ideal place for baking porcelain, but how exactly did Tobe Ware achieve the nowadays success? Were there any difficulties even though the location was perfect? In this section, we take a time travel to the beginning of Tobe Ware, and follow the progress of it. Interestingly, as we follow, we can even feel the strong passion of a ceramist who devoted his life to the success of Tobe Ware. But first, let us take a close look at the local rock, which became the crucial ingredient of Tobe Ware.
Tobe area has been famous as the good place to quarry whetstones since Nara•Heian era (ca. 700-1180). Nowadays Tobe area belongs to Ehime Prefecture, but until the late 19th century, the region of today Ehime Prefecture was called as Iyo Province. Since then, whetstones from Tobe region were called as Iyoto (Iyo – toishi: means whetstones in Japanese), and its quality was recognized in many other regions. Moreover, Iyoto was used for imaging the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and this is one of the best and honored ways to be approved its quality in Japan. In Edo period (ca. 1600-1850), the Ōzu Domain governed Tobe area. Needless to say, the Ōzu Domain put a lot of effort on quarrying Iyoto. As mentioned before, Tobe Ware is made of whetstones, but strictly speaking, the scrap when whetstones are quarry is the core ingredient. However, at the early stages of quarrying whetstones, people did not have any idea that whetstones could be used for porcelain; furthermore, the scrap whetstone was just the source of the Ōzu Domain’s distress since the dispose of scrap whetstone was hard labor. The Ōzu Domain pressed many villagers into duty for the disposal, but the villagers could not stand the extreme hard labor for long time. In the end, it brought about serious antagonism between villagers and the Ōzu Domain. However, a proposal given by a wholesale dealer changed the whole situation. Jihey Izumiya, who undertook exclusive sale of whetstones, got to know that whetstones were used for making porcelain in other regions, and advised the Ōzu Domain to try to produce porcelain with scrap whetstones instead. It was a truly perfect idea for the Ōzu Domain since it solves the disposal problem while making profits. To realize the idea, the Ōzu Domain asked a wealthy farmer to invest in a project, hired ceramists from other regions, and built new kilns. Moreover, the Ōzu Domain appointed a ceramist called Josuke Sugino as a head of the project. He is the person who devoted his life for Tobe Ware to lead it to remarkable success.
Soon after he and the other ceramists started to work on the project, they faced a big difficulty – the porcelain got big cracks on surface after the main baking process. This problem did not solved no matter how many times they tried or changed their methods. The all ceramists who were hired from other regions gave up trying and went back their home villages but not Josuke. He kept baking to find the solution to the big cracks all alone, but he run out of firewood. He became half-crazed and put pillars and tatami mats from his house into the fire. Fortunately, a ceramist from Chikuzen Province (located in the west side of Iyo Province) saw Josuke’s struggle and realized that the reason of the big cracks was due to unsuitable glaze. Josuke immediately visited Chikuzen Province and looked for proper glaze for Tobe Ware. After repeated trial and error, he finally achieved to bake porcelain without any cracks. It took about two years since he started the project. Even after the achievement, he did not stop develop the technique. Furthermore, he found a suitable material for glaze inside of Iyo Province, so that he did not have to import glaze from Chikuzen Province. He succeeded to stabilize the production of Tobe Ware in the end. In praise of his achievements, a monument was built in present Tobe City later.
In 1818, high quality stones called Kawanobori Touseki were found, and ceramists were able to produce whiter porcelain with the stones. Until this discovery, Tobe Ware was slightly grayish white color because of whetstones. In 1893, Tobe Ware won the first prize in The World’s Columbian Exposition (The Chicago World’s Fair), and it became a world-famous porcelain. In Taisho Period (ca. 1910-1920), about 70 percent of production was imported to other countries to meet the demand for Tobe Ware under the influence of the Expo. Tobe Ware temporally faced a crisis because of a depression, but people started to take a fresh look at it and appreciated the beauty of handcrafted porcelain after World War Two. In 1976, Tobe Ware was finally recognized as one of Japanese traditional crafts.

Today’s Tobe Ware

Nowadays, young ceramists and female ceramists play active parts in the production. Not only they have inherited traditional techniques, but also they grope for new styles of Tobe Ware by introducing unique patterns or color that are not tied to tradition. Their novel approach to Tobe Ware succeeded to harmonize tradition with modern art in Tobe Ware, and now that is the attractiveness of it. Tobe Ware will keep attracting considerate attention and increasing the number of it.


・砥部町 観光協会
・砥部焼 協同組合
・愛媛県 生涯学習センター (杉野丈助について)

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