Korean pottery on Japanese soilKAGOSHIMA, Japan ― Shim Su-gwan, 45, the descendant of a Korean pottery maker who was abducted to Japan 400 years ago, begins each day at a shrine to Dangun, the mythical founder of Korea.
Mr. Shim has never missed a day in the ritual of honoring his mother country at the shrine, saying he feels ultimate comfort in that place. Mr. Shim and his ancestors have remained firm in their national identity for four centuries.
About a 10-minute walk from the shrine, in southern Kyushu, is a pottery studio called “Shim Su-gwan Doyo,” where he produces the Shim family’s legendary pottery with 25 craftsmen.
Last December, President Roh Moo-hyun visited Kagoshima to hold summit talks with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and dropped by the studio. After the president’s visit, Mr. Shim wept until late that night.
“When I met the president in person, I felt deeply touched. I realized our mother country hasn’t abandoned us,” he said.
The Shims’ skillful hands created Satsuma pottery, named for the old designation for Kagoshima, and one of Japan’s three famous types of pottery.
Mr. Shim, who is the official heir to the family business, says the key to making good pottery is a “precise judgment of distance.
“The viewpoint when you look at pottery while making it and the view when appreciating a completed piece is different,” he said. “When you are making it, your eyes are about 30 centimeters (one foot) from your work, but when another person looks at the completed work it is from a distance of about one meter (three feet). So when you make pottery you have to consider how it will look from a meter away.”
Mr. Shim said he sees clear differences between Korean and Japanese pottery.
“Pottery reflects politics. Korean pottery is named for the era in which it was made, such as Guryeo cheongja, or Joseon baekja. The era is distinguished very clearly. Creating new things by denying the past is one noticeable aspect of Korean pottery,” he said.
“However, in Japanese pottery making, there is no such concept as denying the past. Japanese culture tends to preserve old traditions in each region,” he added. “Korean pottery is powerful, but lacks diversity. On the other hand, Japanese pottery is diverse but less powerful.”
Mr. Shim describes himself as “a man who has a Korean soul, living on Japanese soil,” and he has a unique view of the two countries, which share a complicated history.
“The origin of Satsuma pottery was from Joseon, but the soil of Japan nurtured it,” he said. “I think Korean technology and Japanese spirit combined together to create a new pottery. In my heart, Korea and Japan exist together. I don’t see either of them as superior than the other.”
Regarding the current conflicts between the two nations over the Dokdo islands and other issues, Mr. Shim said an emotional approach was not wise, and suggested that the countries resolve their disagreements in a civil way after calming down.
As part of the Korea-Japan Friendship Year festivities, Mr. Shim held an exhibition of his pottery in Kyoto on Thursday, the first time he has exhibited his craft outside of Kagoshima.
Mr. Shim began his career as a pottery maker after graduating from Waseda University. In 1990, he even came to Korea to learn how to make traditional kimchi pots.
Mr. Shim points out that he is the 15th generation descendant of an abductee.
When Japan kidnapped pottery makers from Korea during its late 16th century invasion of the peninsula, the abductions were perfectly planned beforehand, Mr. Shim said. “They already had their lists of people they wanted to take, by knowing who was highly skilled.”
In 1598, 80 Korean pottery makers were forcibly taken to Kagoshima along with a prince of the Joseon Dynasty. Shim Dang-gil, a pottery maker well known for his skill, was one of those people. After the war ended, the prince was sent back to Korea, but not the pottery makers.
In 1603, Shim Dang-gil established a pottery studio in Higashi-ichiki, Kagoshima. His work was called “habakari” or “only fire,” by the Japanese, meaning the pottery was made of “Joseon” elements, except for the fire that baked the ware.
Four hundred years later, in 1998, a memorable event took place. A flame was transported from Namwon, North Jeolla province, to Mr. Shim’s pottery studio in Kagoshima, meaning that the pottery could be made with “Korean” fire as well.
by Kim Hyun-ki