A Season for Glass – Glass Artists in Japan

November 15, 2011

By Brad Copping

I have recently come to understand that there is a season for glassware use in Japan and that season is summer.  With the onset of warm weather many Japanese homes will put away the ceramics and bring out the glassware with its transparent, light-catching qualities, providing a suggestion of refreshing coolness, revealing another layer to the depth of refinement within the culture.  My all too brief experience last fall with Japan and some of the glass artists working there left a lasting impression, as have the sounds and images from Japan, which I, like many, became obsessed with on March 3, 2011.  With the passing of the first season of glass since the devastation in north eastern Japan, I thought Contemporary Canadian Glass magazine (CCG) should check in with some of the artists I met in Japan and get their thoughts on the catastrophe and its ongoing consequences.  In addition to this, please also check out Rika Kuroki’s article March 11th – Then and Now and Tomoko Doi’s piece, translated by Ryoko Sato, entitled 3/11 Earthquake in Japan – Glass and Ceramics.


We lost many lives and the city from the tsunami. Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Photo by Kanami Ogata


Kanami Ogata, who was featured as part of the recent CCG article Sandbox, A Japanese Art Collective, was born and raised in Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, where her parents and family continue to live.  And although she now lives in Yokohama she has spent a great deal of time since the disaster helping her family.  She says that, “My family and birthplace were devastated by the Tsunami but my family survive. Now I help my family to live – debris removal, bureaucratic procedures… and Miyagi prefecture is located next to Fukushima prefecture where the nuclear energy plant has had a big accident.”

The building and boat were destroyed by the tsunami. Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Photo by Kanami Ogata


As a result, the people living in Miyagi are also greatly concerned about the radiation.  “We are listening to ‘There’s no need to worry about it’ from the government of Japan and the electric power company.  But, we hang in doubt.  Tokyo, (a half hour north of Yokohama) is farther from Fukushima than Miyagi, but people living in Tokyo hang in doubt also… we feel alarm.”  This alarm may prove to be justified as very small radioactive hot spots have been found in both cities according to a recent article from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.


Street in Ishinomaki destroyed by tsunami. Photo by Kanami Ogata


Ms. Ogata, whose student participation in the Niijima International Glass Art Festival was awarded with a scholarship to the Pilchuck Glass School, did manage to get away to attend Bertil Vallien’s class in Session 5.

Insect specimens washed away. Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Photo by Kanami Ogata

Harumi Yukutake, an independent artist who has taught for 10 years at the Toyama City Institute of Glass Art and has been a Member of the Institute of Environmental Art and Design in Japan since 2002, also wrote to me earlier in the summer with her thoughts on the disaster.  She says:

The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami resulted in catastrophic damage to northern mainland Japan. Tokyo, where I reside, was not immediately affected yet many have experienced a very confused market distribution and transportation system, which threatened our daily life.  Then the Fukushima nuclear plant failure followed to increase the anxiety.  What seemed “normal” doesn’t feel normal after realizing the base of our convenient life.


Tsunami damage in Unosumai near Kamaishi-city. Photo by Harumi Yukutake


9/11 was caused by a despicable human act whereas 3/11 was caused by natural forces.  However both resulted in the same questioning of the social structure.  Isn’t the social structure based on others’ sacrifices?  The traumatic experience caused a mental shift to the residents of Japan, at least a big one for me, and people strive to do what they are capable of doing in their own field.  Art feels powerless immediately after such disaster, but art has excellent ability to reveal the essence of reality and present a dream and hope to people.

Tsunami damage in Unosumai near Kamaishi-city. Photo by Harumi Yukutake

I visited Kamaishi-city of Iwate prefecture, one of the areas most severely destroyed by the tsunami.  The city organized a revival plan advisory meeting with various voluntary professionals to create a more attractive cityscape than existed in the past.  This study group is to be continued until the government makes a decision regarding a basic plan in September, and will keep us busy drawing pictures throughout the summer.


Tsunami damage in Unosumai near Kamaishi-city. Photo by Harumi Yukutake


Fear regarding natural disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanoes, won’t be exhausted in Japan, though my current concern is the confused politics which obstruct the shutting down of nuclear plants in danger and delay in pulling people’s hopes and energies back up.  It seems the human disaster is worse than that of natural causes.

Tsunami damage in Unosumai near Kamaishi-city. Photo by Harumi Yukutake

To see more of what has happened this past summer in Unosumai near Kamaishi-city, check out this high-speed video, 69 days in 3 minutes.

Peter Ivy and his wife Makiko Nakagami live and work in Toyama, which is on the west coast of Japan across what is known as the Japanese Alps.  Peter is a transplanted American and has built his own studio where he creates both sculpture and functional glassware.  He writes: 

You know its funny.  We here in our corner of Japan are quite disconnected from the whole event.  Of course during the time of the tsunami and nuclear disaster we were very concerned, but once the outcome became clear the issue barely made the news.  Many people here offered housing for people in need – but I did not hear of even one person taking someone in.  Many people have donated work and/or money for relief, which of course has been necessary.  But the majority of the expense of such a disaster is, in actuality, the preparations necessary to make sure that it does not happen again.  For example, the quake in 1995 in Kobe, though similar in magnitude, did much more property damage and resulted in many more deaths.  Tokyo and other metropolitan areas shaken in March survived very well in comparison.  This must be due in no small part to the lessons learned in Kobe.  Structures were redesigned, new codes implemented.  Likely many buildings/bridges were retrofitted with new technology.  All at great expense, no doubt. 

Of course cleaning up the nuclear spill has been and will continue to be expensive.  But in comparison to getting all the other aging but still needed nuclear plants up to the task of withstanding the next big tsunami, there is still much to be done here.  It is a very heavy and long-term expense. (Editor’s note: there are 18 power stations with over 60 operating reactors as well as 11 research reactors in Japan.)  Gas prices will remain high.  Highway tolls will not be reduced as planned.  Much is being done but we are not really privy to the inner workings of it.  So I often have heard from outside of Japan about how much suffering there is here.  But, honestly, I have seen only slightly more of it than you.  It is not a part of daily life here for us and for probably 95% or more of the population in Japan it was just something that we saw on the news.  Of course we worried more about it.  And we know someone, people close to the disaster area, and worried about them.  But unlike most from outside Japan seem to think we have not been in contact with any of the difficulties of the disaster other than the many smaller quakes which rumbled though our area in the following months.  I guess that what I’m trying to say is that for most of Japan the suffering and difficulty that has resulted from the disaster is more akin to a dull long pain like that of a puncture wound.  My hat is off to the Japanese.  The fact that this earthquake did not result in much greater damages and death is a testament to their communal resolve.  Behind closed doors, further preparations are being made for future disasters of such magnitude and extremes will be gone to as they are implemented.  The working classes will pay for them.  Life is expensive here because it is a communal given that everyone’s life is valuable.


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