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Etsuko Urabe: Ceramic artist |

Arts and Culture

Etsuko Urabe: Ceramic artist

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

The Japanese Ambassador Toshinao Urabe and his wife, Etsuko invited the writers Charlson Ong, Sarge Lacuesta and his poet wife, Mookie, Ricky Soler and my wife and I to a princely dinner recently at the embassy residence in North Forbes. The embassy chef Ryohei Kawamoto prepared lapu-lapu and lobster sashimi, coconut crab fish ball in clear soup, lobster tempura and grilled beef. The special sake came from Fukushima.

Sarge Lacuesta remarked that Japanese distillers are now producing the highest quality whiskey to which I readily agreed, having been enamored with Suntory Imperial for so long. Indeed, Tokyo has now some of the best restaurants anywhere, having improved on the signature dishes of other countries. As Philippe Pons, the Le Monde correspondent in Tokyo, told me way back, French bread in Tokyo is better than the bread in Paris. I recounted how an Indian scholar, attending a conference at the International House with me, took me to an Indian restaurant in Roppongi and he said that the chicken tandoori there was better than the chicken served at the tandoori mecca in Old Delhi, the Moti Majal.

Ambassador Urabe, urbane and with wide-ranging interests, lived in the Philippines when he was a boy; his father then was in the Japanese foreign service and had served here. He retains fond images of Manila when there were no skyscrapers, no traffic jams and life was less frenetic.

All of us reminisced about our Japan experience; for me, I will write more about this in the very near future how Japan was in the ‘50s. We recalled those three great tragedies that struck Japan the other year — the massive earthquake and tsunami, and the dysfunction of the atomic power stations in Fukushima. The Japanese faced all these calamities with such stoicism and social cohesion that amazed the world. Had these happened elsewhere, in the struggle for survival there would have been food riots, anarchy.

How did the Japanese become such a disciplined, cohesive people?

Ambassador Urabe explained how the Japanese character was shaped. Much of that social discipline stems from the early realization of the Japanese that they must act in this manner if, as a people, or as a community, they are to survive. Indeed, here is a nation with hardly any natural resources, whose arable land is only 20 percent, the rest dominated by mountains. Yet, it became the second-richest nation in the world, until China overtook Japan the other year, the products of its technological advance and craftsmanship known all over the globe.

Dessert was Residence-style halo-halo. I recalled the Japanese sweet shop in Quiapo before World War II — such are still very much around in Japan but men are seldom inside; it is mostly women who patronize them now.

Then the pleasant surprise of the evening: the ambassador took us to a glass cabinet displayed in the dining room — it was filled with exquisite porcelain, with floral and other designs, plates, tea cups, saucers and vases. The ambassador said they were the work of his wife.

Etsuko Urabe graduated from Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo and has a license to teach kindergarten and elementary school. Her teaching career, however, was aborted when she got married in 1974 and, being a diplomat’s wife, she had to go where her husband was assigned — France, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Australia, Thailand, the United States, South Korea and Ireland.

Since childhood, the Japanese are surrounded by the most delicate and artistic ceramic products. Mrs. Urabe was not all that involved with the craft, however, until her husband was assigned to Thailand. There, she admired the work of the porcelain painter Maria Piada, who was herself trained in the Royal Copenhagen Manufacturing in Denmark. Maria Piada was her first teacher.

Then, in Paris, she came under the wing of another famous potter, Benedicte de Rousier of the Sevres Museum.

And finally, back in her native Tokyo, she returned to her tradition. She studied the Arita technique under master painter Fukuji Kitamura, who taught at Arita for a long time. The Arita style is easily recognizable because of its elaborate design and shape.

For the convenience of painters, they do not have to range the country in search of pottery. Porcelain, for instance, is readily imported and it comes in bags ready in various shapes. This is what Madame Urabe does. She chooses plates, vases and cups in whatever shape she wants, paints on them, glazes them and fires them. She elected to have an electric kiln which is not only compact and mobile, but its heat can easily be controlled unlike the bigger and often more difficult kilns which use wood or gas. I have, for instance, seen a potter in Kyoto with a large earthen kiln fired by a special kind of wood that the potter claimed gave his work its special aura.

As with most artisans, Mrs. Urabe can hardly wait to see her creation emerge from the kiln. For any porcelain painter, this is the moment of truth.

She has exhibited her work together with other hobbyists in Japan. She says that her primary motive in her craft, aside of course, from expressing herself, is utilitarian — that all her work can be used in the house.

I have heard the Japanese culturati define wabi sabi —that major principle in Japanese aesthetics, in so many ways. Ambassador Urabe abbreviated it by saying it means, “The simpler, the better.” It is obvious from her work that Mrs. Urabe does not follow this principle rigidly. We can see in her art elegant and complex influences; she says she gets her best inspiration from nature and nature is not always that simple; with an observant eye, she transforms them all —flowers, leaves, sceneries as she paints them.

Japan’s tradition in pottery dates back to thousands of years and is in constant development through the ages, absorbing influences from its neighbors, China and Korea. Pottery is the hobby and profession of thousands upon thousands of artisans. Their work is often displayed in department stores, galleries, in special ceramics shops. It is for the formal tea ceremony that some of the most beautiful pieces of pottery are used. Aside from its utilitarian popularity, the ceramics industry in Japan is now one of the world’s most modern and innovative with its products used as major components in electronics, communications, power and other major industries.

Contemporary ceramic art in the Philippines is not as widely appreciated as it is in Korea, Japan and China. Still, many hobbyists here work dedicatedly with almost no public appreciation. How I wish it will be possible for them to know Mrs. Urabe so they can exchange views on technique and creativity. And most of all, for more of us to see the work not just of a hobbyist — but a true artist.

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