Treasured tradition

Mr Hiroshi Sakaida (far left) inherited the Kakiemon kiln's legacy from his late father; the streets of Arita (left); and craftsmen in the Kakiemon workshop (below).
Mr Hiroshi Sakaida inherited the Kakiemon kiln's legacy from his late father; the streets of Arita (above); and craftsmen in the Kakiemon workshop.PHOTO: ARITA 400PROJECT
Mr Hiroshi Sakaida (far left) inherited the Kakiemon kiln's legacy from his late father; the streets of Arita (left); and craftsmen in the Kakiemon workshop (below).
Mr Hiroshi Sakaida (above) inherited the Kakiemon kiln's legacy from his late father; the streets of Arita; and craftsmen in the Kakiemon workshop.PHOTO: KAKIEMON KILN PORCELAIN
Mr Hiroshi Sakaida (far left) inherited the Kakiemon kiln's legacy from his late father; the streets of Arita (left); and craftsmen in the Kakiemon workshop (below).
Mr Hiroshi Sakaida inherited the Kakiemon kiln's legacy from his late father; the streets of Arita; and craftsmen in the Kakiemon workshop (above).PHOTO: NATASHA ANN ZACHARIAH

Mr Hiroshi Sakaida would blend in well with the average Japanese salaryman. With his floppy hair, circle-rimmed glasses and a typical office-wear combination, the 47- year-old looks like he would be more comfortable behind a desk than keeping a kiln fire going.

Except that he is known in Japan as Sakaida Kakiemon XV, a recent successor to the famous Kakiemon porcelain kiln, and is slated to receive the prestigious Living National Treasure title later on. It is an honour bestowed on those who are skilled in their craft, across eight categories such as pottery, metalworking and dollmaking.

The Kakiemon name has existed for four centuries, and the kiln's successors take on the same first name as its founder. Mr Sakaida no longer uses the name Hiroshi and goes by the title, Sakaida Kakiemon XV.

The Kakiemon style, dating back to the mid-17th century, is known for combining a milky white base called "nigoshide" with a colourful palette of red, yellow, cobalt blue and turquoise green. The first craftsman, Sakaida Kakiemon I, also discovered the secret of enamel decoration on porcelain and was given the title for perfecting a design of twin persimmons.

The last Sakaida Kakiemon - Mr Sakaida's father - took on the title in 1982, becoming the 14th to assume the title. He died two years ago of cancer when he was 78, passing on the kiln's legacy and business to his only son.

My father never asked me if I wanted to be his successor. I just had to be.''

MR HIROSHI SAKAIDA on taking over the Kakiemon kiln's legacy from his late father

The dynasty's legacy is intimidating, as the work of the Kakiemons before is often called pristine and excellent. Yet Mr Sakaida was matter-of-fact about taking on the title: "I had no doubt I would be the successor, but the term was vague to me as a child. My father never asked me if I wanted to be his successor. I just had to be.

"When he died suddenly, I still did not have enough understanding. But now, I'm even more determined to succeed."

The road to the title was a lonely one for him as a young protege. He paints a stark picture of a strict father, who barely interacted with his four children. Mr Sakaida, who has three sisters, says: "It was my mother and grandmother who took care of us. At dinner time, my father would come in, eat and leave. I didn't know where he would be... maybe in the studio or at the kiln."

At 17, he had his first "real" conversation with his father. It was over in 10 minutes. They talked about Mr Sakaida's plans for university and school entrance examinations.

The Japan Times reported that he went to Tama Art University in Tokyo to study Japanese painting on his father's advice, but left after only a year. He returned home at 26, after spending time in Tokyo, and got familiar with the pottery wheel for the first time, despite growing up around the clay material.

Father and son delved into business matters when the younger man was 30.

Mr Sakaida, who was encouraged to draw as a child, says: "The conversation was related to design... about what kind of pattern will work."

In retrospect, he feels his father's distance was his way of preparing him to be the next successor.

Through others, he discovered another side to his dad. "He always pointed out the negative points of my art. But when I ask other people, they told me my father was shy and considerate of other people."

As a son in awe of his father's work, Mr Sakaida adds: "Through his artwork, I feel his boldness, yet his work is delicate. The design is subtle and humble. It's gorgeous... that reflects his character."

Now a father himself, Mr Sakaida is more hands-on with his children. For example, he ferries them to school regularly. He has a daughter, 10, and a son, four, who he says will become his successor.

Mr Sakaida is still finding his own style. In a Dutch documentary, The Successor Of Kakiemon, he says self-deprecatingly that the craftsmen have more talent than him. He also raised a few eyebrows when he announced he would not use red - a colour that is the emblem of the Kakiemon style, reported The Japan Times.

His intention is to return to the 17th-century style, when Kakiemon porcelain was a hit and exported to Europe by the Dutch Eastern Trading Company.

He says emphatically: "I'm not going to drastically change the Kakiemon style. But when each successor takes over, he has his own ideas. I want people to remember the long history of Kakiemon, but they will feel my changes."

Natasha Ann Zachariah

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2015, with the headline 'Treasured tradition'. Print Edition | Subscribe