Morihiro Hosokawa, Part 1: Pots and Politics

Politics and the arts. Two spheres that usually exist in total separation. And yet there was a time when politicians also had tastes for the cultural and artistic, and, given that politicians are tasked with building the future of the nation, creativity is actually an indispensable skill for their work.

To discuss this and more, PingMag’s Tom Vincent met with former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who since leaving politics has begun a second career as a potter and calligrapher, and will also be exhibiting work at Art Fair Tokyo from March 22nd.

Our interview with Morihiro Hosokawa took place at the Eisei Bunko Museum. This table and chair were used when the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

You retired at sixty. That’s early for a politician, isn’t it?

Yes, it probably is.

There are many politicians still working in their seventies. It’s always a mystery to me why politicians have so much energy. I’ve read before that you wanted to pass a quiet life, tilling your field when it’s sunny and reading a book when it rains. Did you want to do that for a long time?

Yes, I wanted to do that earlier on. When I quit being governor [of Kumamoto] I bought some fields in Aso. I thought I’d retire there. That was when I was around 52 or 53. But then there was a national government committee on reform and I was pulled into that.

I’d been sort of flying the flag for regional Japan and so if they pulled me in to become the mediator, I suppose they thought I’d write an interesting report to say something to the government. I worked at the committee for a year without a break writing my findings. But it was almost all just torn up. That made me angry. Why had I worked so hard for this?

On the committee there was Kazuo Inamori and many other eminent people. So anyway, it made me angry. I thought there is no way I can carry on like this. I can just make a new party by myself. So that’s how I came to set up the Japan New Party. I held a press conference by myself.

Everyone said that I was being stupid like Don Quixote, challenging the giant of the LDP with its thirty-eight years in power, and the giant of the bureaucracy. They said it would be suicide. I had no friends in the Diet or the prefectural assembly, no friends at all. But I held a press conference by myself at the Sogetsu Hall and raised my flag.

You were really angry.

Oh, yes!

And then you overthrew thirty-eight years of LDP status quo.


When you were about to become prime minister…. You announced you were making The Japan New Party, at Sogestu Hall, which is a centre for the arts, of course – the world of ikebana flower arranging, and the head of Sogetsu at that point was a film director, right? [Hiroshi Teshigahara] You chose that kind of place to launch a political party, even though everyone opposed it. At the time, did you really think that you would become prime minister?

No, not at all.

As I thought, yes?

However, I had received a lot of support from people in the arts, Teshigahara and others. Well, other people told me it was best to stop doing something so stupid, but there were people like Teshigahara egging me on.

It really was a politician’s battle, and victory. And then there’s the era. This was the early Nineties, after the Bubble burst in Japan, and the Soviet Union had collapsed a few years before. There was the slight whiff of democracy coming from China. Right at this time you find yourself in the top position in Japan. I can’t imagine as a regular person what it must be like to become prime minister. There must be so much pressure.

Well, the LDP had become the opposition party for the first time in thirty-eight years. And it wasn’t the case like today with Abe that the governing party had overwhelming numbers. Rather, most of the Diet members were in the opposition parties. The chair was held by the opposition party, by the LDP. So parliament was incredibly tough.

And there were, how can I say, an awful lot of total obstructions. For example, even those times when I was going somewhere, to a summit meeting in American or going to China, a budgetary committee that would normally be from 10:00 a.m. to around five, would start at nine in the morning, and then go on until ten at night. Moreover, there were hardly any days off.

And then after ending at ten at night, I would catch a special plane to New York or Washington. It was every day and night like this so, for example, you might be heading to an APEC summit but you can’t prepare for it. Well, holding back sleep I would prepare on the plane.

Even with budgetary committees, the normal Diet rule is that by the regulations of the House of Representatives and House of Councilors, you have to give notice about what questions you will ask by twelve o’clock the previous night. But the LDP completely violated that. And if there was notice of the questions, it would just be a general outline. They would just write something like “the economy”, or “social insurance”. That’s all. So you had no idea what they would ask, if they would ask about, say, the bank rate, or what.

And then it wouldn’t end at five in the evening but drag on into the night, delaying my time for leaving the country. They played these kinds of pranks on me, it was tough.

Amid all this, you wanted some day, just some day to work on a farm.

Oh, I thought that right from the start to the end.

I wanted as soon as possible to get out of this world, tidy up what I had to do and retire quickly to the country, and live the life I’d really been thinking about, working when it was sunny, reading when it rained.

Morihiro Hosokawa’s residence in Yugawara, a leisurely place suitable for working in the field outside or relaxing indoors.

You discovered pottery after you retired, and thought maybe this was something for you. And then you went to see Shiro Tsujimura. That was quite a decision. I’d love to hear about your time at Tsujimura’s studio.

This is also a strange coincidence. I was looking through a book, wondering which modern potters fit my tastes.

And just where I opened it up there was Tsujimura. His artworks were really good Shigaraki pottery. I thought I’d ask him… If you go to just any old ceramic class you’re never going to become really good. I thought I have to have a good teacher. Like I said before, I’m a really thorough person so I phoned Tsujimura’s place straightaway. “This is Hosokawa from Yugawara.” But looking at his career, Tsujimura is not the kind of person who takes on apprentices, he’s a real wild man.

I thought if I asked to be his apprentice I’d be turned away. “I’ve seen your work in a book but I would like to see it in person,” I said. And he replied, “All right, come.” So I went to Nara and he came to meet me at Yakushiji Temple, and then from there to his place on the mountain, forty or fifty minutes by car from the temple. And then I just stayed there, an apprentice by intrusion. I didn’t care what he said, but before he could say anything I just put my luggage there and started staying there.

Just like that?

Yes, just like that. For a year and a half.

Morihiro Hosokawa’s tea bowls. (c) Yoshihiro Saito

In that kind of place? Did you know what kind of place it was from the start?

No, I didn’t. It was a terrible place. When I was there, there was no mobile phone signal. The toilet was outside. And it was a broken toilet, made by himself out of wood. He also made the house himself with his wife. There were gaps everywhere. The bats would come in through the chinks, and insects and moths.

And as extras, what I disliked the most was the three big dogs. Everyone, his two sons and wife too, would always eat meals at the Irori hearth, but there was just dog hair everywhere. My clothes and everything would turn white there was so much dog hair. For good measure, there were about twenty stray cats that would come and go too.

They would run around the place. Awful. The dogs and cats made lots of noise too.

And for a year and a half you put up with it?

I don’t think most people would put up with that.

I said it was a kingdom of the wild. Well, for meals or for anything, in the evening he’d say we have to go and get some food, so we’d go picking mushrooms in the woods. There was this big yellow mushroom. “You, you eat this first,” he said. It looked like it was poisonous!

And he was saying this to a former prime minister!

So, you stayed and trained with him for eighteen months…

But if I had gone to another ceramic artist’s place, someone with my kind of career, even if I made something terrible they would have said, “Oh, that’s very nice.” They would have praised me but I wouldn’t have become as good as I am now.

That’s where Tsujimura is incredible.

Right. He’s ten years younger than me. But he only ever said maybe three things to me. He’d spin his pottery wheel from around six in the morning, all day until around the evening meal time, at around seven, just throwing pots on his wheel. In all that time, he’d only say three things to me. “Nah. Chuck it.” That meant it was a bad one, throw it away. Then he’d say, “Old fool!”, and then if I asked something, he’d say, “You ask too many questions, old man.” Just these three things.

The studio was about 100 meters away from the house. Sometimes all kinds of department store and gallery people would come to visit Tsujimura, asking him if he would like to do an exhibition. They’d look at me. Oh, there’s an apprentice, they’d think. Then they’d go back to his wife, over at the house. “I see there’s a new apprentice in the studio. He looks just like that guy who used to be prime minister.”

She would keep quiet and smile. I would be covered in clay so probably they didn’t know just by a quick look.

That’s a great story. After a year and a half, when he told you you could leave, did you think that you had learned enough to make a go of it on your own?

No, I didn’t think that. Fundamentally I was studying how to turn the potter’s wheel while I was there. There are all sorts of pottery, Raku, Shigaraki, Karatsu. At Tsujimura’s studio I didn’t really learn other kinds, I couldn’t learn them there. I learned a bit about color, Kohiki and Hakeme, but mainly I was just learning how to throw pots. Later I went to other places for the other things.

After that, anywhere else was just easy?

Yes, easy. After that it was really easy.

Morihiro Hosokawa’s studio

Morihiro Hosokawa left the tough political arena for another that was perhaps just as tough, if not tougher. Find out more with the final part of our interview, coming soon.