Raku Firing - the past and the present of the incredible Japanese ceramics technique

Updated: Nov 23

Raku ware (楽焼, raku-yaki) is a type of Japanese pottery traditionally found in tea ceremonies. An attentive eye can recognize raku-fired pottery by its lead glazes, hand-shaped, and relatively porous clay body. These characteristics result from low firing temperatures and the removal of pieces from the kiln, a type of oven used by ceramists, while still red/orange hot.

Raku fired wares are intrinsically linked to the Japanese philosophical concept of Wabi-Sabi and Zen Buddhism. Its rise marked a critical point in the historical evolution of Japanese ceramics.

Michael Lancaster and Barbara Harnack, husband and wife artist team and founders of Calliope Art and Craft Gallery, have been firing Western-style raku together since 1980.

In this article series, Michael covers the rich history of Japanese and American Raku and the profound connection with the tea ceremony in Japan. In the second part, he shares his secrets about their Raku style and materials used.

Raku 楽: the origin

Wabi-sabi and Raku Ware

Meiji Restoration

American Raku

Post-firing reduction

A harmonic Raku firing dance

Raku Fired Ceramics
"Button Hole" Raku fired piece by Barbara Harnack

Raku 楽: the origin

The term Raku is derived from the Kanji character meaning "enjoyment" or "ease." For fifteen generations, it has been the title and seal used by a dynasty of potters whose work established the oldest tradition of Japanese raku (make a clay bowl -

Tanaka Chōjirō (長次郎) (1516-?1592), the father of Raku, is a figure still shrouded in mystery. All we know for sure is that he was not Japanese, probably originally from Korea or China.

There are two plausible stories of how he arrived in Japan: Toyotomi Hideyoshi, also known as the second "Great Unifier" of Japan (Toyotomi Hideyoshi - Wikipedia), dreamed of conquering China. He needed to cross through Korea first to accomplish his vision. When Hideyoshi received refusals to his demands by Korea to travel through the country, he instead invaded Korea. Chōjirō could have been captured during the war and brought back to Japan. According to other traditions, he was the son of one Ameya, who is said to have emigrated to Japan from Korea or mainland China.

Historical evidence shows he was a potter, and he was called to replace the broken tiles roof of Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Jurakudai palace in 1574.

All the ridge tiles needed to be handmade; Chōjirō came up with the clever idea of building a Kiln on-site to fire new tiles promptly to replace the broken ones.

He came up with a novel technique of firing and cooling these tiles in a matter of a few hours. He created what potters call an "open clay body", a mixture of clay that can take rapid expansion and contraction. He brought the temperature up quickly in the kiln and then pulled the piece out to cool it. It is fascinating for the history of Raku to see how Chōjirō cooled the tiles. He used rice husks to create a small fire that was cooler than the tiles; therefore, it would hold the heat around while the tiles rapidly cool underneath, slowing the process down.

His work pleased Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Chōjirō's successor received a golden emblem with the kanji character for raku 楽, which officially established the Raku dynasty of potters.

The current Raku grandmaster is Kichizaemon XV, and he is still a direct descendant of Chōjirō and his lineage (Raku History).

Wabi-sabi and Raku Ware

Wabi-sabi(侘寂) is a Japanese philosophy concept centered on accepting transience and appreciating imperfection as beauty.

Many aspects of Japan embrace this view. From products of art to Japanese architecture and tea ceremony, a central function in the Japanese culture.

In the later Muromachi period (1336 to 1573), the drinking of green tea was a festive gathering enjoyed mainly by the Japanese upper-class, with a predilection for expensive wares of Chinese origin known.

As Zen Buddhism from China sprouted in Japan, a new style of Japanese tea ceremony, known today as Wabi-cha (わび茶; 侘茶; 侘び茶) emerged. Wabi-cha matured as part of a movement to honor local wares and more sober styles (Wabi-cha - Wikipedia).