Morihiro Hosokawa, Part 2: Pots and Politics

Following the first installment earlier this week, here is the final part of our interview with former Prime Minister of Japan, Morihiro Hosokawa. We spoke to the former statesman, and now potter and calligrapher, about the arts and what is today’s zeitgeist.


Your ceramics are Azuchi-Momoyama period, aren’t they? That’s the period you are looking at… trying to challenge. If we speak of England, that era was Elizabeth I’s time. And England then means Shakespeare. On the other hand, Japan is Hideyoshi, Rikyu. And Chojiro or Koetsu and people like that. Tea, tea houses and… the origin of what is now the tea ceremony. What an amazing period. Five hundred years later, it’s incredible to feel that you want to take on that period.

The Azuchi-Momoyama period is the most… As you say, Europe is interesting, Shakespeare is really interesting during this time. In Japan, it starts with Nobunaga Oda and goes on for a short fifty years. But in this time we had Rikyu, Chojiro and Oribe.

Just a short time but the period was suffused with a free spirit of the unconventional. Even in this short time there were all these interesting things, all these big people.

So we cannot even compare Oribe or Chojiro or Koetsu with what came later, like Ninsei or Kenzan, or Takatori. You just can’t compare them. The period that came after was really kind of just unchallenging things that, true, did have a “Japanese” spirit, the only thing they did have was this Japanese spirit, but they just don’t hold a candle to Shino, or to, for example, Hagoromo tea bowls.

So I really think the spirit of an era is very important. Like with Brahms, for example, in his era there was so much concentration on music, it’s the result of the zeitgeist. And with pottery too, when there is just so much being created one after the other, I think that is the spirit of the age.

Well, with that era, I mean, unless there’s a big drive or a spirit of the age, no matter how hard you try I think it will be difficult. But even so, I want to get close to that era’s things, I want to go beyond that. I feel this strongly. That’s what I’ve been doing.

Thinking about this spirit of an age and Japan today, for the arts, society, politics and economics, what kind of era is it? Well, we can’t really see it, ourselves, but…

I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of era it is today but I think it’s a boring one.

I’ve been in Japan for twenty years now and it’s really changed in that time. At the end of the Eighties it was still the Bubble, the time when Roppongi was really wild. There were lots of American things, which to a European felt quite odd. Twenty years on, it seems that those kinds of things have started to disappear. I don’t know if it’s that questions about what kind of country Japan is are starting to return. But I think that Japan today is in a really interesting place, both for the art world and also economically, politically and sociologically.

I don’t really expect much. I just feel that the spirit of that time is headed more and more in a bad direction. I feel that up ahead there likely also isn’t much hope either. What can one do. Well, I just do my best to fight against the stream, and do what I can. Never mind what other people are doing, I just work hard at my own thing. There’s a Japanese kind of… aesthetic, perhaps, which I think it’s good to hold on to, maybe, as you go about things.


Morihiro Hosokawa’s tea room in Yugawara

You were just saying how Chinese politicians were all poets. I thought that was interesting. Are Japanese politicians or the top corporate people, those who are leading Japan, are they interested in the arts?

I think very few. Almost none among politicians. Even with finance people I think there are hardly any poets.

Yes, I think so too.

But not only politicians, I want the people at the top of the business world to be poets. A romantic vision is important, isn’t it? Especially with political leaders, without romance I think they are totally unqualified for the job. It’s the same with heads of corporations, always just people without any romance at all.

Why do you think it ended up like that?

I think it’s education.

I feel the same thing. You can’t measure the arts by numbers, not in terms of degrees or percent. You have to feel. It’s hard to build a scale. It’s not just in Japan, but unless there is a measuring rule, you can’t get recognized or rated. I think the education system is also like that. What should we do about this?

I think it’s important to return to the children’s education of long ago. That was what the people in the Meiji period, and at the start of the Showa period, Soseki Natsume, Ogai Mori and so on, that was the education they all received.

It was like that all through the Edo period. There was a fundamental moral law, for example, the five Confucian virtues. That’s what I was told when I was a child. It’s common sense but teaching that kind of thing from parents to their children, through something like literature. Or something basic like, for example, the Kokin Wakashu, there are things that really refine sensibility in the poetry, so we should teach that. And history. It’s really about teaching the fundamental things properly. In Britain you probably still learn that kind of thing, no?

Well, I don’t know about that. I think it’s getting less and less. Since my time at school I think it’s got more like Japan, with an increase of the things that can be calculated or measured. It’s a real shame.


Morihiro Hosokawa’s calligraphy, the characters for “motsuryo”

Recently I wrote some calligraphy, the word “motsuryo”, and gave it to Mr. Otomo. The era today is all about measuring by quantity. Everything uses that as criteria, just having lots of money, how much did you earn, how many people came? This word “motsuryo” has a meaning. A long time ago there an important monk called Rennyo. A young disciple called Doshu came to him and asked Rennyo to let him be his disciple. “Well,” said Rennyo, “then go to Lake Biwa and draw out all the water.” And Doshu said, “Right, I’ll go now.” He took a ladle that was there and started to head towards Lake Biwa. Rennyo saw this and said, “Well, you show some promise. I’ll make you my disciple.”

In other words, taking a ladle to go to Lake Biwa and draw out the water is impossible, but ignoring that, ignoring quantity, he left for the lake. I think that is very important today for our era where everything is about quantity.

That’s a wonderful story.