Oh, it’s another day to present you the finest of Japanese arts and crafts from PingMag MAKE! Here we go: Hasami is a traditional pottery town in Nagasaki. The local porcelain is fine, of the purest white and made by highly skilled craftsmen. There, the Hakusan Porcelain company has been making porcelain tableware for eight generations, but their modern forms and minimalist styles employed in their work seem to be clearly very different from the other kilns. PingMag MAKE spoke to president Keiichi Matsuo about his design-based approach to traditional crafts.
Written by Takafumi Suzuki
Translated by Claire Tanaka
Hakusan Porcelain is certainly a departure from the work made by other ceramic manufacturers in this region. You really have a distinctive line.
That’s true. The late designer Masahiro Mori was on staff here and he pulled us along ever since he joined us in the 1950s. That is something of a legacy for us now.
A kiln that started collaborating with a designer in the 1950s! You were certainly ahead of your time.
Well, when my father came here to Hasami to marry into my mother’s family, he wanted to find a way to make something where he wouldn’t have to compete with other manufacturers, and what he found was design. That’s why when university professors and people from the prefectural research institute come and ask me, “We want to profile your company as a success story, so could you tell us why you were able to succeed?” then I really don’t know what to tell them. (laughs) We always just used design as the base and built up layers of “Now, now, now,” and that’s how we got to where we are today.
But how did Hakusan Porcelain get the idea to hire a designer way back in the 1950s?
As the story goes, the famous industrialist Konosuke Matsushita was disembarking from an airplane after a trip around the world when he said “This is the beginning of the Design Era.” My father heard that and thought, “Oh, so that’s what era it is. But, what is design? If Konosuke Matsushita says it’s the Design Era, then it must be so. OK then, let’s hire a designer. I wonder where we find one of those?” Back then there certainly weren’t any designers out here in the backwoods of Nagasaki. (laughs) But when my father asked the director at the Ceramic Research Center of Nagasaki, he said they had one oddball designer on their staff.
And that was Masahiro Mori!
Yes. Back then, ceramics companies didn’t take weekends off. But that place was a prefectural government facility, so they had half days on Saturdays, and all day Sunday off. So we had him come to our company on Saturday afternoons and Sundays and got him to oversee the design. He was working two jobs at once.
But eventually he became a full-time employee of Hakusan Porcelain, isn’t that right?
Yes. Mr. Mori didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t free to design whatever he wanted at the prefectural facility. That’s why after they got to know each other better he asked my father directly: “Hire me. And let me do product development the way I want to!!” The truth is, though, that in the factory, Mr. Mori was looked upon with suspicion. I think the craftsmen working here felt that he was an imposition. But his passionate attitude towards the art of making things was so powerful. My father was a great man to be able to absorb that passion.
That’s how your company was able to become popular thanks to design…
Our company’s peak was around 1980-81. But after that, our yearly product sales fell more and more. By that time, I was in charge of the place. I didn’t know the reason why we were doing poorly, so it just kept getting worse and worse. And then the economic bubble burst, and the rest of the country’s economy went bad. I worried and fretted. I didn’t think the company had a future. We had a very tough period.
So it wasn’t all roses for you, then.
No, it wasn’t. But just as I was starting to wonder what I was going to do with this company, I had one job I had to take care of. That was a couple of international trade fairs going on in Frankfurt and Milan at the start of 1998. It was just when I thought the company was going to go under, so I really felt awful, like a cow being led to slaughter. (laughs) But when I went, there were household goods manufacturers from all over the world gathered at the fair, and buyers from all over the world were there buying things. It was incredibly powerful. I was really overwhelmed by what I saw there.
You felt the raw power of the world market.
Yes. A little company like us, always worrying, “What should we make? Where to sell it? I wonder if there will be anyone to buy our product?” suddenly felt silly and stupid. I thought, “With the volume of products we make, we’ll manage.” So I came home with a skip in my step. (laughs) But really, nothing had changed at the company. What changed was how I felt about things.
What happened after that?
After that, we participated in an event called the Tableware Festival. It’s an event where people compete at table settings. At that time, manufacturers weren’t allowed to participate directly, but we figured we’d take the risk of getting in hot water with our distrubutor and took part anyway. And it turned out to be an incredible event. It was ten days long, and even though there was an 1,800 yen entry charge, about 300,000 people with an interest in tableware came to the event. And these discerning end users were right before our eyes, taking our products in their hands and reacting to them. Some people even said they wanted to buy them and take them home. What surprised me was how many people said to me, “This is your first time here, isn’t it?” And when I asked them how they knew, they answered “Because I would never forget products like these.”
Up until then, we’d always been going through a distribution network, and that was where things had gotten stuck. So I went back to the company and made an announcement in front of the employees. “Starting next year, we’re going to start presenting our products at events where the general public can give us direct feedback, so let’s make some new items with that in mind!” And that’s how we started doing craft where you can meet the craftsman. After we started doing that, we started getting more and more requests from wholesalers that wanted to carry our products.
That’s how your products began selling again?
Yes. There are two reasons why something won’t sell. Either you’re making something that people don’t need, or what you’re making isn’t being seen by the right people. Just making something isn’t enough. Publicity is important too. Getting all the businesses in Hasami together and saying “Let’s all band together and make the Hasami Brand!” is going at it all backwards. Each company has to put their own name out there, and interact with the end user. If one, two, three, four companies all work hard and manage to get a following for themselves, then people will start to notice, “Hey, all these great companies are based in Hasami! Hasami must be an amazing town!” And that’s how you make the Hasami Brand. The seller doesn’t make the brand, it’s the buyer who decides.
Lastly, please tell me your thoughts on doing business as the eighth generation at the company.
I used to think, “I’ll do something even bigger and better than what my father and Mr. Mori did!” but now I feel that it’s my job to keep things going. I mean, when you really think about it, this kiln wasn’t made by those two. Before them was my grandfather, who brought the kiln here from where it had been, deep in the mountains. Then there was my great-grandfather before him, and before him, and before him. When I think about all the ups and downs that have happened over such a long period of time, I realize that there’s no need for me to be stubborn about trying to splash out.
Thank you, Keiichi Matsuo, of Hakusan Porcelain for your wonderful stylish tableware!