An annual Saga Prefecture spring pottery fair has started in the town of Arita.

The renowned Arita event is attracting large crowds, despite concerns about possible repercussions from the April earthquakes that damaged wide areas in central Kyushu around Kumamoto Prefecture.

This is a milestone year for Arita. It is the 400th anniversary of the birth of Arita ware, also known as Imari porcelain.

The history of Arita ware began when warlord Nabeshima Naoshige, the founder of the Saga domain (the current Saga Prefecture and parts of Nagasaki Prefecture), went to the Korean Peninsula to fight in national unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Korean expeditions in the late 16th century. Nabeshima returned home with a group of Korean craftsmen, which included potters.

In 1616, one of these immigrant Korean potters, Ri Sampei (Yi Sam-pyeong), discovered an excellent clay mineral for ceramics in Arita and started the first domestic porcelain production in Japan. His offspring established the glorious tradition of porcelain production in the domain.

According to Shohei Kanagae, the 14th-generation descendant of the founder of the tradition, the sixth successor shut down the pottery operations, but Kanagae’s father, the 13th, revived it.

“Neither I nor Arita ware would exist if the founder had not come to Japan,” Kanagae’s father liked to say.

Kanagae is now working hard to polish his pottery skills in Arita. When he visits South Korea for pottery exchanges or exhibitions, he is eagerly welcomed by people who know the story of Ri Sampei.

“Welcome back home,” they often tell him.

Kanagae was shocked when he encountered a group of people shouting, “Get out of Japan,” near the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo. It was the first time he witnessed a “hate speech” demonstration.

“Thankfully, the founder was venerated as the father of porcelain production in Japan, and even a shrine has been erected and dedicated to him,” Kanagae says. “The relationship between Japan and South Korea went sour only when Hideyoshi sent troops to Korea, and Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula. In the other periods, the two countries always maintained friendly relations.”

Throughout its history, Japan has adopted and refined many things from the Asian continent and Korean Peninsula, including pottery, writing systems, statutes and religions.

What’s the point of quibbling about cultural and racial differences and ranting about which elements of Japanese culture are unique to Japan and which came from Korea?

As I touch porcelain plates and vases made by the 14th successor of the founder of Arita ware, my hands feel the weight of the four centuries of the history of cultural fusion.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 1

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.