Design Inspirations: Otagaki Rengetsu

One of my female heroes, not just in the world of pottery but as a life role model. The stories of her read like a Japanese folk tale, full of hardship and lessons to be learned. To me her bold abstract art reflects her courageous and free spirit. In the Edo period many women artists were successful in areas such as poetry and painting but their works often followed the rules set by male predecessors. Going against the norm, Rengetsu created her own style in pottery and became famous for it. Born an illegitimate child of a Geisha and a Samourai, Rengetsu was given to the Otagaki family to be brought up in the buddhist temple Choin’in in Kyoto. She was also a servant at Tamba Kameyama castle from the age of eight. She learned many skills in her early life including martial arts, poetry, sewing and the game of go. Tragically many members of her family passed away before her including two husbands, five children and her adopted father Saishin. She wept at her fathers grave for a long time until some people complained saying the grave is not a place to live. She picked herself up and found her way into pottery in her early forties. At first her pots were clumsy and unpopular until she realized that creating with clay is like magic, like a lotus flower blooming from the earth. She created her first lotus shaped pot and inscribed it with one of her poems. She was always humble about her work, apologizing for the clumsiness in design. She writes;

“As a pastime Bringing clumsy Fragile things to sell At Uruma market, How lonely!”

It was said that her works became so popular that when visitors went to Kyoto the souvenir they took away was Rengetsu-ware. She became rich but continued to live a very simple life. She was beautiful, men and customers would come to her home continuously. To repel men she disfigured herself by pulling out teeth and moved from shack to shack so as to be able to work alone. Her kindness and generosity seemed to run deep, she donated her wealth to the homeless and would literally give the clothes off of her back when she saw people in need. She built a bridge across a river to benefit everyone around her. When she was robbed in the middle of the night she offered a light to the robber so he could see better, saying she had no items of value but he could take whatever he needed. At the age of 60 she adopted a deaf child, Tessai. She taught him what she knew. In times of famine he helped her to donate money and give porridge to those in need. In 1853 when the US warships came to Japan to open up Japanese ports to trade it was clear that Japan was behind when it came to technological and medical advancements. Rengetsu believed that this invasion could actually be good for Japan and provide the introduction of a more modern system. She wrote;

“Coming like spring rain falling, America shall be gentle as moisture on the land For the good of our people”

She believed that if Japan had had Western medicine, then her husband and children would not have died.

Rengetsu’s words influenced many people and are filled with feeling and compassion. After the Meiji restoration in 1867, even though the Tokugawa Shogunate had essentially fallen they still had power and influence. In 1868 The Emperor officially stripped Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobo of all power and shortly after the Boshin War began with the battle of Toba - Fushimi in Kyoto. The Satsuma clan led by Saigo Takamori defeated the Tokugawa army leaving bodies strewn on the streets. Rengetsu was left angry and felt it was a pointless loss of life.

“When I hear the reports My sleeves become wet with tears Along the roadside, bodies in the open Whose children are they?”

“Foes and Friends Weather they win or lose how miserable Since I feel they are people of the same land”

By this point Rengetsu was famous and had friends in the Satsuma clan. Saigo Takamori became part of the Oligarchy that ruled under the Emperor's name. He created the Satsuma-Cho-shu alliance that set about to destroy the last remnants of Edo and restore imperial rule. Saigo Takamori traveled to Edo with the intention of destruction. It is said that Rengetsu managed to pass Saigo, who was also a poet, a note that might have changed his intentions of guerrilla warfare and he accepted the “Edo Muketsu Kaijo”, the bloodless step down of Edo rule.

Despite all of the hardships in her life she carried on and set about to spread kindness and joy to others. She continued to better herself and gain knowledge throughout her life. I can only imagine how difficult it was to live in feudal Japan, especially as a woman. She remained strong despite a lot of unwanted attention and left a timeless legacy of words and art that seem to me poignant considering we still live in times of war and destruction. I don’t know what my future is as a foreign female potter in Japan but I will continue to learn as she did, and spread joy and kindness where I can.