Master Leach
Author: Maha Harada
Specifications: ISBN  978-4087710113
464 pages
13.7 x 19.5 cm / 5.4 x 7.8 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Shueisha Inc.
Tokyo, 2016
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This is a novel inspired by the life of British potter Bernard Howell Leach (1887–1979), who lived and worked in Japan for about a decade early in his career. Leach was born in Hong Kong, the son of a colonial official, but spent the first three years of his life in Japan before returning to the British colony. He then went back to Japan in 1909 after receiving an art education in London. Having gotten to know the Japanese sculptor and painter Kōtarō Takamura when he was in London for a year of study, Leach decided he wanted to act as a cultural bridge between the two countries. He started out teaching etching, which was his sole artistic specialization when he arrived, but he became drawn to Japanese ceramics for their simple beauty and soon took up serious study. He made the acquaintance of, and received support from, Japanese philosopher and aesthetician Sōetsu Yanagi, who shared his interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement inspired by British designer William Morris—a movement that focused on the utilitarian beauty of objects made by anonymous craftspeople for use in daily life rather than those considered “high art.” After a year away in Beijing, Leach returned to Japan, where he set up his own kiln and established himself as a potter.

The story is told from the perspective of Kamenosuke Oki, who becomes Leach’s assistant. Born in the port town of Yokohama, Kamenosuke is raised singlehandedly by his mother until he is eight, at which time she dies from an illness. The restaurant where she was employed takes him in, and when they put him to work at the age of ten, he quickly picks up English through his contact with foreign diners. When Kamenosuke is 16, Kōtarō Takamura, who happens to visit the restaurant as a customer before setting out on his overseas travels, recognizes the boy’s artistic and linguistic skills and persuades his father Kōun Takamura, a well-known sculptor, to take him in as a houseboy. Then, one year later, the 22-year-old Leach visits Kōun’s residence, and Kamenosuke’s invaluable services as an interpreter lead to him becoming Leach’s live-in assistant. The two establish an inseparable master-disciple relationship, and their artistic adventures take off from there.

When Leach moves back to his ancestral England in 1920 and establishes the Leach Pottery on the outskirts of St. Ives, Kamenosuke accompanies him. Together they build the first noborigama climbing kiln to be constructed in the West—a kiln in the traditional Asian style with multiple chambers arranged side-by-side up a slope. They seek out the best clays, prepare them, throw their pots, fire the kiln, and wait eagerly for the finished pieces to emerge. Sharing both joys and sorrows, they spend a highly fulfilling time together. In December 1923, just a few months after the Great Kantō Earthquake, Kamenosuke says farewell to Leach and St. Ives and heads home to Japan, where he hopes to carve out his own path as a potter. Nearly 15 years have passed since he and Leach originally met.

The work offers an exhilarating portrayal of the single-minded determination that takes hold of the artist as he pursues his aesthetic ideals and craft. With the story set in an era when there still remained a tremendous gap between East and West, long before the highly globalized world of today, the deep friendship that formed between the two potters feels all the more precious and inspirational.