Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Potter and the Poet

Digging through the disarranged piles in a thrift shop recently I came upon a piece of hand-turned Japanese pottery that looked at first glance like an interesting piece. Not wanting to betray too much interest to the shopkeeper standing close by counting her money, I circled the clay pot pretending interest in the surrounding clutter on the same shelf. The object of my pretended disinterest was a Japanese sake bottle or tokkuri with a handsome blue-green glaze. In calling it a sake “bottle” I mean to say that it is a kind of bottle or carafe used for serving Japan’s customary rice wine. It was the traditional curved shape that caught my eye, a design of grace and function that allows for an easy grip when pouring the sake.

When I finally did sidle over and pick up the tokkuri, the potter’s stamp on the bottom showed a name I recognized, but not in the field of ceramics. Very clearly scratched into the center was the name ‘Dôkan.’ Well, I knew I wasn’t holding a piece of work made in the fifteenth century by the samurai-poet Ôta Dôkan and with a nine dollar price tag. Were that the case I might have fainted dead away with my good luck. Not much question the bottle was old, but nothing even close to fifteenth century. Whatever its provenance, there was no question is was worth the asking price. One tiny drawback (you can’t have everything) was the missing cups. Tokkuri are always made with a set of sake cups and this one had only one remaining. Small and breakable, the others had been lost along the way.

Dôkan, the name on the sake bottle could be explained by a number of guesses and mine is that whoever the potter was, he used the name as an artist, perhaps paying homage to the historical Ôta Dôkan—not an unusual practice in the Japanese arts. To my knowledge the well-known Dôkan was not a potter, though impossible to say he didn’t try his hand. Had he done so, his signature or stamp would not have been applied in the carefully stroked style of Chinese characters on my bottle. But for a while I did wonder.

Ôta Dôkan (1432-1486), was a Japanese samurai warrior-poet, military tactician and Buddhist monk. Born Ôta Sukenaga, he became a Buddhist priest in 1478, and adopted the Buddhist name, Dôkan, by which he is known today. Dôkan is best known as the architect and builder of Edo Castle (now the Imperial Palace) in what was to become the city of Tokyo. As a samurai general, he had a reputation as a bold military strategist but political intrigues proved deadlier than any battlefield. Despite years of distinguished service, Dôkan’s clan leader proved fickle and sentenced the warrior-poet to death after hearing false accusations of disloyalty during a conflict within the clan. In his death poem he wrote: Had I not known that I was dead already/I would have mourned the loss of my life.

With the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in the early seventeenth century, Edo Castle became the center of the shogunate government. When the shogunate was displaced at the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the newly named Tokyo became an Imperial capital with an Imperial Palace rising from the former shogun’s castle stronghold. Each year on October 1, Tokyo celebrates the anniversary of its founding with a festival in honor of the memory of Ôta Dôkan, the man recognized as the founder of Japan’s modern capital.

An interesting story of how Dôkan began to write poetry…

One day while on a hunting trip Dôkan was caught in a sudden shower. Seeing a shabby dwelling nearby he dashed to the doorway and shouted to the girl inside to lend him a straw cloak. Without speaking, the young girl offered instead a branch of the flowering kerria tree, whereupon the hunter returned home wet and angry at the girl. Later that night he related the story to one of his followers, who in turn told of an old poem by Shinno Kaneakira in which the kerria is compared to poverty and suggests something like, “I am sorry. Being but a poor girl I have no raincoat to offer.” Shocked by the story and shamed by his lack of wit, Dôkan began to contemplate poetry.


  1. What a nice piece of pottery no matter the age. Exactly why there is anticipation when going to an estate sale and the like. There's always a chance to find something that will become a touchstone.

  2. Lovely pictures and a lovely story of Dokan.

  3. Nice post! I like the story about how Dokan started in poetry. I have a similar gourd-shaped bottle with the same Dokan marking at the bottom, and was trying to find info about it. Mine is colored like these:


About Me

My photo
Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America