Korean pottery thriving in Japan

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Korean pottery thriving in Japan

“The mountain is long and long, the water is far and far. Missing my parents more and more, and a lonely wild goose is crying and crying.”

Yun Seon-do (1587-1671) wrote this poem in 1616 when he was 29. He was in exile in Gyeongwon, Hamgyeong Province at the time. All he could see were endless mountains and rivers, and he missed his parents greatly. His poem reflects his love for his parents and loneliness during his exile.

In 1616, in the Saga Prefecture of northern Kyushu, Japan, a serious event took place. Potter Yi Sam-pyeong from Joseon discovered quality kaolin clay in Izumiyama, Arita, and baked the first white pottery in Japan. It became the origin of the world-famous Arita porcelain. I visited Saga Prefecture for a weekend trip, and the first thing I found in Arita Station was a sign that read, “2016 is the 400th anniversary of the Japanese porcelain industry.”

When I told a tour guide at the station that I was from Korea, he said, “Master Yi Sam-pyeong is the savior of the people of Arita!” I had mixed feelings and couldn’t bring myself to say, “In fact, your ancestors abducted the master.” The two invasions by Japan in 1592 and 1597 are also called “wars of pottery” as Japan abducted so many potters from Korea. They transferred the porcelain culture to Japan and played a pioneering role in creating the Japanese pottery boom in Europe.

I took Myongji University professor Yoo Hong-joon’s “Essays on Visits to Cultural Sites in Japan” with me, and the book helped me throughout the journey. You see what you know, indeed. After reading the book, I visited the Izumiyama Kaolin Mine, a memorial of Yi Sam-pyeong and Touzan Jinja, a shrine to Yi Sam-pyeong. Thanks to the book, I made a point to look for the haiku poem by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) on a plaque in the shrine, which reads, “Enjoying the moon that lets you relax along the clouds.”

However, Yun Seon-do’s poem for his parents would be more appropriate than Basho’s haiku to be placed below the memorial for Yi Sam-pyeong at the shrine for the pottery master. In the same year that the poem was composed, Yi Sam-pyeong discovered the clay after missing his hometown and family for so long.

I felt frustrated. There must have been more Korean potters who were saved from abduction, but the Korean pottery industry did not develop further or gain an international reputation. It is regrettable that the techniques were not transferred to future generations. Also, a bitter question remains. Do we remember any of the potters who stayed in Korea?

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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