1 Students working on large pots as part of the midterm throwing exam.

At Tokyo University of the Fine Arts, also referred to as Geidai, the professors trust that students of all levels will be self-directed, receptive, and willing to share their knowledge with other students.

Student self-reliance; zero reliance on technicians in the studio; and an immense amount of trust from the professors that students at all levels will find their own way form the basis of the education model at Tokyo University of the Fine Arts (commonly referred to as Geidai), where I am currently a doctoral student. Even though we are in a modern university setting, it is easy to see how the traditional apprentice system, known as senpai (upperclassmen) and kohai (underclassmen), has affected the structure of education.

Shared Studio Space

Undergraduate students enter Geidai under the general Crafts Department, complete general requisite classes during the first year, then, during the first semester of the second year, they rotate every three weeks between the varying crafts, such as ceramics, lacquer, metal casting, etc. At the end of the semester, they select the major they would like to enter, are interviewed by the professors and only then they are formally accepted and begin studying their chosen craft. Graduate and doctoral students share the studio with undergraduates.

Ceramics Foundations

At the beginning of the year, students are strategically positioned throughout the studio so that the upperclassmen and underclassmen are evenly dispersed. It is expected that the upperclassmen provide the front line of instruction to the underclassmen. There is something that keeps you very honest when you know you have to show underclassmen a certain technique, and vice versa, when you know those with more experience are keeping an eye on you. In this way, the professors have more time to devote to other tasks and focus on helping the graduating students. At the same time, students gain confidence in their abilities as they help others.

The ceramics department has a material-based approach, with a heavy emphasis on wheel throwing. The idea behind this is that if a student can control something that is outside of their immediate influence, i.e. the spinning of the wheel, then the slab-making and coiling processes will come more intuitively to them. In their second semester, students are given a wheel and instructed to make more than 300 cups and 100 test pieces for stains and glazes. At the end of the semester, no one truly counts if they have reached their 300 cup quota. The hope is that they will be busy the entire semester and gain ability in the basics of wheel throwing as well as a sense of timing that is required with the overall throwing, trimming, and glazing processes. In addition, students receive a one-week plaster press-molding class. When they have met the requirements, they are expected to explore their own direction.

Refining Skills, Choosing Directions

In the third year, undergraduate students continue with wheel throwing, but progress to harder forms, such as tsubo (the traditional Japanese large pot) and large platters in their first semester. When they learn to throw tsubo, the professor gives one example demonstration then leaves. It isn’t too long into the first time a third year tries to center 22 pounds (10 kg) of clay that the doctoral students and master-two students come along, to give one-on-one advice and demonstrations to the students. For the next week or so, it is common to see the Ph.D. students and master-two students gathering around a third-year’s wheel, keenly watching their technique and giving advice.

Third-year students must take a year-long glaze-making class, where they learn the chemistry and physics of glaze development and firing, and a month-long slip-casting class. In the second semester they continue to make progressively harder forms, such as tokuli, the traditional Japanese sake jar form, teapots, and plates, for which they make their own kotte, or wooden ribs. Halfway through the second semester, Professor Shimada introduces the third-year students to porcelain. The demonstration has the feeling of one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats, with his folksy demeanor and superb porcelain technique simultaneously calming the students and challenging them. The assignments at the end of the third year resemble the end of the second year, only this time they are using porcelain to make identical cups with handles and saucers.

Beyond their technical practice, the third-year students are in charge of the studio, including its daily cleaning, as well as placing orders for clay and tools for the whole studio. Because the kiln firings are communal, every Thursday we sit down for kama gohan or kiln dinner in the studio’s kitchen, prepared by the third-years, which provides a break between the kiln loading that takes a better part of the day and a night of firing.

Outside the studio, third-year students are required to take two research trips, one within Japan and one internationally. At the beginning of April, students take two weeks in Nara and Kyoto, the historical capitals of Japan, where they tour over 40 temples, castles, museums, tea houses, and more, receiving in-depth instruction about classical Buddhist imagery, art, and architecture.

In October, the students take an international trip that alternates between visiting a ceramics program abroad and the biennial International Society for Ceramics Art Education and Exchange (ISCAEE) conference, which is a consortium of ceramic departments from Japan, China, South Korea, Turkey, the UK, and the US that fosters networking and focuses on mentoring students. Through the ISCAEE conference, I was able to make the connections to complete my master’s degree at Tsinghua University in Beijing and start my Ph.D. at Geidai in Japan. Many of my Japanese classmates have studied in England and the US at schools that are actively involved with ISCAEE.

In the fourth and last undergraduate year, the first semester is split between throwing large 22-pound (10 kg) porcelain tsubo and large platters and time for the students to explore their own ideas. In the second semester, the students are given free reign for the first time to make work for their graduate exhibition, which is held at the Tokyo National Museum, located right next to Geidai in Ueno Park.

2 Professor Shimada helping a third-year student throw porcelain for the first time at his annual demonstration.

Continuing Studies

Most, if not all, students who complete their undergraduate degree in ceramics in Japan will continue on for a two-year master’s degree. The master-one students are relocated to Toride campus outside the city, where the entire first semester is devoted to designing and building their own traditional anagama wood kiln. Although supervised by the specialized wood-kiln professor, the design is entirely their own and when finished, they will fire it twice according to their own pre-approved firing schedule. Because of this experience, when the annual week-long Noborigama firing happens in November, the master-one students are in charge of the organization and preparations, are the team leaders, and are expected to directly instruct the third-year and second-year students in kiln loading and firing (overseen by the professors) over the course of the 72-hour firing. This year away from the main studio and professors forces students to rely on themselves, develop their own aesthetic, and hone their leadership skills. During their second year of the master’s degree, students are put in charge of the studio at the main campus at Ueno. They set the firing schedule for the entire studio, and organize and inspect the end-of-semester cleaning. The master-two students can fire any kind of kiln they want, but the firing must be communal and they must teach the underclassmen how to load and unload the kiln, as well as explain the basics of firing. Every hour, at the temperature check, you can see the students huddled around the firing graph, checking the progress, looking at the amps, and asking questions. During the unloading, the professors are also present, inspecting the work and discussing the firing with the students. Although the professors fire their own kilns, they sometimes join the student kilns, which demonstrates the trust they have in their students.

Though many graduates go on to start their own studios, every three years, an assistant professorship becomes available at Geidai for a recently graduated master-two student to continue developing their work.

Extra Activities

Throughout the year, we have several annual events and host visiting artist and historians. These activities range from academic to social and provide students with experience beyond the technical practice both inside and outside the studio.

Once per semester, the studio will have a compulsory tsubo test with the ranked results posted publicly. Twice per semester, the students present on the concepts and developments of their work. Starting with the Ph.D. students and working downward, students explain technique development and what they hope to accomplish for the semester. At the end of the semester, there is a critique of the work made. The professor brings bring a pail of water and picks a third-year teapot to test how it pours water to remind students to consider the purpose of what they are building.

3 Students unloading pots from the university’s Noborigama wood kiln.

Every summer, Geidai holds its annual school-wide festival, in nearby Ueno Park. The ceramic students have three days to sell their work in one of the most popular places in Tokyo. This is often the students’ first experience meeting potential buyers and selling their work.

At the end of the summer, we have our annual Mitsukoshi Department Store Exhibition, which provides the opportunity for students, starting from the fourth years on up, to exhibit next to the professors and alumni. Given the limited space, it is quite common for department stores in Japan to host exhibitions in the fine arts and traditional crafts, and most department stores have spaces specially devoted for these types of exhibitions.

The studio has a special partnership for people interested in ceramics as a hobby and runs several events a year in relation with a group called The Friends of ISCAEE, which consists of mostly retired people interested in learning something new. The group holds workshops, usually twice a year, with month-long classes meeting every weekend on a single style of Japanese ceramics, like Oribe or overglaze techniques. The Geidai students are the teachers, which allows them to gain experience and earn a little pocket money. In addition, many of the workshop attendees come to student exhibitions and become patrons to the students. They also help with some occasional funding for an annual trip to one of the traditional ceramic production areas in Japan.

Clay: A Precious Material

My Japanese is a work in progress, so as a conversation topic I like to ask my classmates why they chose ceramics as a major. Recently, my curiosity was pleasantly rewarded when a classmate answered that he “wanted to discover his Japanese identity.” In my own conversations with Professor Shimada, he asked me if I knew why ceramics were so revered in Japan. When I expressed that I did not know, he responded that historically Japan lacks gold, precious stones, and oil; “the only precious material we have is mud.” For centuries, the most precious material for the Japanese has been clay, and its infinite variations of possibilities, sparked by the human touch. I think Geidai routinely produces great ceramic artists because the students understand that they are entering into a tradition much larger than themselves, one that will influence them much more than they will influence it.

Throughout human history there have been very few instances or cultures that have not had ceramics for even the most basic of functions. To date, the earliest ceramic shards found were discovered in Jiangxi Province, China, in 2012. The fragments date to 20,000 years ago—that’s about 10,000 years before the agricultural revolution. That opens up the possibility ceramics didn’t come about because of the advent of agriculture, and perhaps the reverse was true.

We talk about the invention of the wheel, but maybe we should be talking about the invention of the bowl. Sitting down at my wheel, I think about how pottery went from a necessity of human survival to a means of human evolution, then to an art form; how that has to be one of the most singularly beautiful of all of human achievements; and how I am connecting to not just my time and my culture, but to all times and all cultures. It is indeed a responsibility.

the author Maggie Connolly is a Ph.D. candidate at Tokyo University of the Fine Arts in Tokyo, Japan.

Topics: Ceramic Artists