When asked to explain in simple terms who Kitaoji Rosanjin is, you’ll struggle to find words to summarize the numerous and varied artistic accomplishments of someone with such an illustrious career. In fact, it is difficult to find someone in the world with a larger variety of artistic talents than Kitaoji Rosanjin. Often referred to simply as Rosanjin, his artistic name, he is world renowned as a calligrapher, ceramicist, engraver, painter, lacquer artist, and restaurateur.
A short biography of Kitaoji Rosanjin's life and career
Fusajiro Kitaoji (his real name) was born on March 23, 1883 in Kyoto, the son of the head priest at a Shinto shrine. He began studying woodblock engraving at the age of six. In 1903, he moved to Tokyo to study calligraphy, winning first prize in a contest by the Japan Art Academy the next year. From 1908-10, he traveled to China to further his calligraphy skills. In 1919 he opened an art gallery in Tokyo and founded the Gourmet Club on the gallery’s second floor, where he began his shifting his focus towards food. Here, he began his tradition of serving food on his collection of ceramics. Unfortunately, the 1923 Great Tokyo Earthquake destroyed his restaurant and much of his ceramics collection, and so to deal with this, Rosanjin established a kiln to produce pottery to replace his old works.
In 1946, Rosanjin opened a restaurant called Kadokado-byo in the famous Ginza District of Tokyo. Patronage by American occupation forces helped establish Rosanjin’s international reputation, leading to Rosanjin accepting an invitation in 1954 to hold a solo exhibition at the New York City Museum of Modern Art. This led to exhibitions in Europe, where he even had opportunities to meet with European artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. In 1955, the Japanese government designated one of his works as an Important Cultural Property of Japan, and he himself was offered the status of Living National Treasure, but is one of the few people in Japanese history to decline this honor (twice!). The rumor is he felt insulted that the government had offered this status to a former studio assistant of his first, and this was how he chose to express his dissatisfaction.
While his reputation as an artist was almost unparalleled in his time, his reputation for rude behavior was also widespread. Some wonder if his tragic childhood (his father committed suicide upon learning he had impregnated a woman at the shrine, and his mother abandoned him as a child), was part of why he treated those around him, particularly the women, so poorly. He went through five tumultuous marriages and divorces, was known for his rudeness towards guests at his restaurant, and often berated restaurant staff and his own assistants.
Sadly, bureaucratic issues financially doomed his international tour, and he ended up receiving no money for the works that left his hands during his time traveling through Europe. For the last five years of his life, he was forced to produce lower quality works at a higher rate to stabilize his financial situation. He passed away in 1959 from liver cirrhosis, and was buried in Kyoto.
Jitsugetsu-wan (Sun and Moon Lacquer Bowls) by Rosanjin. ©Rosanjin.net
Kitaoji Rosanjin's philosophy towards art and life
Looking beyond his disagreeable temperament, there is a great deal to be gained from understanding Rosanjin's philosophy towards life, and how that influenced his art. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rosanjin intentionally avoided incorporating new Western ideas and techniques into his art, instead preferring to innovate only on the traditional style he had studied his whole life. In his early years as an artist, Rosanjin's fascination with Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Chinese wares led him to create works of his own in that style. Moving further along in his artistic career, Rosanjin also took pride in producing works using local styles from a variety of locations across Japan. This included Iga (Mie Prefecture), Karatsu (Saga Prefecture), Shigaraki (Shiga Prefecture), Bizen (Okayama Prefecture), Kutani (Ishikawa Prefecture), and Oribe (Gifu Prefecture). The last of these, Oribe, was the style that persuaded the Japanese Government to offer Rosanjin the status of Living National Treasure.
In 1935, he demonstrated his pioneering attitude towards art when he declared: “If clothes make the person, dishes make the food.” To explain what he meant by this, he elaborated: “Appropriate care must go into their selection, not only in terms of quality, but also to see that the size, depth, color and other aspects of the dishes harmonize. Some people argue that as long as the food itself is palatable the container doesn’t matter, but this is an ignorant line of thinking, like saying the sole function of clothing is to protect the wearer from heat and cold.” His philosophy towards his dishes can be summarized in the phrase, yo no bi, (用の美) meaning "the beauty of use." His art is not meant to simply be admired with the eyes, but rather it comes to life when it is in use, a novel concept in his time.
Afuki-kei Oribe-hachi (Oribe-ware fan-shaped dish) by Rosanjin. ©Rosanjin.net
Japanese society has traditionally valued conservation and frowned on waste. Rosanjin's personal dislike of wastefulness also came through in his style, also likely a product of the environment around the time of World War II, when resources were scarce. When cooking, he is said to have never wasted any part of a fish, and would even scold cooks for discarding radish peels. On the art side, if one of his pottery works came out wrong, instead of throwing it away, he would take it as an opportunity to show his creativity. He might, for example, add a fresh layer of glaze and re-fire the piece of pottery and create something new!
Kitaoji Rosanjin's lasting legacy
While he may have passed away decades ago, his influence on Japanese culture and art can be felt to this day. As recently as 2015, the National Museum of Art in Kyoto held an exhibition honoring Rosajin's work. While it may be difficult to find a chance to see some of his pottery works in person, as they tend to travel a lot, or end up in private collections, there are a few places in Japan you can go to almost anytime to learn more about him and his legacy. One of the best places to visit is the kiln he established in 1926 to replace works destroyed in the earthquake. The Kichuyo Kiln, previously known as the Hoshino Kiln, has been a destination for countless patrons of the fine arts and craftsmen from around the world interested in learning more about Kitaoji Rosanjin's artistry. This world-renowned kiln still produces pottery to this day, and if you visit through TOKI, you can even have the chance to learn about traditional Japanese pottery techniques and make your own unique piece of pottery. TOKI can even arrange to have your pottery shipped to you after it is completed and fired!
Tsubaki hachi (Camellia flower bowl) by Rosanjin. ©Rosanjin.net
Of course, Rosanjin's legacy is not limited simply to pottery. His influence on Japanese cuisine can also be appreciated by visiting a kaiseki restaurant in Japan and tasting food prepared by one of his few culinary disciples. Kaiseki, the finest of high-end Japanese cuisine, typically consists of around eight dishes served individually, with both the dishes and food tailored to match the season. (For a more detailed introduction, see our blog's article on Kaiseki.) Through TOKI, it is actually possible to enjoy a full kaiseki course at Tsujitome, a traditional Japanese restaurant that actually received a highly coveted 2 Star rating from the Michelin Guide. The head chef at this restaurant was one of the few who had a chance to study culinary philosophy with Kitaoji Rosanjin himself, and he is now one of the few responsible for passing on this legacy through his work.
If you have an opportunity to visit Japan, definitely consider taking some time to visit these places and learn about one of Japan's most celebrated artisans!