30. Setomono

May 4, 2021 - Roger W. Lowther

Everyone in Japan knows the word setomono (セトモノ), because you find it on quite a few boxes you get in the mail. It means “fragile,” but it also literally means “product of Seto.” Seto is an art village known in Japan for its ceramics with over a 1,500 year history, longer if you count the indigenous people who lived there before that time. And today that pottery tradition is alive and well.

Last week, I went to Seto to assist my teammate Peter Bakelaar, who runs an art gallery there called Gallery NANI. Seto was having their large annual festival. Streets were blocked off to traffic and filled with tent after tent of artists selling their pottery. The items I saw were amazing! Some pieces were so intricately painted that I was afraid to touch them. Others were made to look like they were made of solid metal. The most impressive were those that worked designs into the pieces not with paint but with different kinds of clay rather than paint. It reminded me of the wood working tradition of mixing together different kinds of wood, some light, some dark, to make toys, furniture, or pictures. Except that, it looked much harder to do that in clay!

My wife Abi and teammate, Christina, traveled to Seto to give concerts all day during this festival. They performed in Peter’s gallery using the “tsunami violin.” The exhibit “Scars: The Path Toward Healing,” which we talked about in a previous podcast, remembers hope and healing through the arts in the 10 years since the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11, 2011.

During this festival in Seto, Peter made the main attraction in his gallery the large “kintsugi” piece in the middle of the room. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of pottery repair, but this time Peter made it out of wood. It’s hard for me to describe, but the gaping wound in the wood gradually healed with each successive layer of gold painted wood. He invited people to participate in the piece, even during the concerts, by pushing nails into the wood. Each one represented a person who died in the tsunami, 19,000 in all. It was a beautiful display of the healing that can come from wounds and scars.

While in Seto, I had a chance to visit one of the clay mines in the area. At the top of the hill, the clay layer was down about 30 feet from the surface and made of the highest quality of clay I have ever seen. It was exactly like what you would buy in an art store. I grabbed a handful from the ground, made a little figurine, and placed it on a rock to dry in the sun. That clay was really heavy.

1,500 years ago people found this layer of clay as it came out near the river that now runs through the center of the town. And over the centuries, they dug further back into the hillside following the layer.

Pottery is a huge part of Japanese culture, so different from the wood and stone culture of New England where I grew up. Tea kettles, cups, bowls, plates, and dolls. Even tiles for the roofs of Japanese homes. Many of the walls in Seto are even made of pottery.

It’s fascinating to me how periods of Japanese history are defined by different types of pottery. The Jomon Period (10,500–300 BC) was known for making pottery by coiling ropes of clay and firing them in open fires. The Yayoi Period (300 BC–300 AD) was known for simpler pottery with no patterns. It was named for a region of Tokyo where this kind of pottery was first found. The Kofun Period (300-538 AD) is known for its roofed kilns, tunnels that went up the sides of hills. Because these kilns were enclosed, they were able to reach much higher temperatures. Also, the pottery was made using a potter’s wheel for more uniformity.

Growing up in Western culture, I was taught to think of history in terms of the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Of course, Japan also went through these periods, but instead of stone and metal, the early history of civilization in Japan is defined by its pottery!

In Genesis 2, the Bible talks about the gold and onyx buried in the ground and the bdellium found in the plants. From the very beginning, before the fall, God provided resources not only for men and women to eat but to make things beautiful. In Seto, the ground we walked on was begging to be used to make things. It was so easy to see and appreciate this gift to us, to delight in making in this world and see God’s call to do it for the sake of his glory. The clay-rich ground of Seto is just one more example of how God loves us and provides for us.


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