A Noble Tradition
by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore | 28 Aug 2014
Founded on conflict and connoisseurship, the Hosokawa clan has been at the forefront of Japanese cultural and political life for the last 700 years. Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore met Hosokawa Morihiro, the current head of the family, to discuss his family’s rich history, his current artistic endeavours and plans for the future.
In the year 1600 the military lord Hosokawa Yűsai was defending his son’s castle. Fifteen thousand soldiers bore down on the fort; fighting back with Yűsai were a mere 500 men. Prospects looked bleak.
Yűsai, facing death and exhausted after a two-month siege, was afraid that with him would also die the tradition of kokin denju, a secretly transmitted literary work to which only he kept the keys.
To mitigate this disaster, the emperor himself issued an edict that peace must be restored. In the cultivated and highly complex world of the samurai, the Way of Poetry stood equal to the Way of the Warrior.
More than four centuries later, the Hosokawa dynasty remains one of the most illustrious in Japan, famous as much for their dedication and patronage to the arts as for their military might. For more than 700 years their lineage has continued uninterrupted, a feat matched only by the Imperial family and a handful of other old feudal families.
Today, as in the past, the Hosokawas stand at the nexus of politics and poetry. Hosokawa Yűsai (1534–1610) was a warrior scholar; Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563–1646) was a leading disciple of the chanoyu or tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyű, who raised the act of drinking tea to an art form.
The current head of the family, Hosokawa Morihiro, 76, continues the tradition, having served as Prime Minister of Japan as well as being a virtuoso ceramicist, cultivating the craft in his home-cum-studio in Yugawara, two hours outside of Tokyo.
Trained under the master Tsujimura Shiro, the former politician has learnt the kata or “form” required for potters, a perfection of performance distilled over centuries. Now he makes his works in a small, cozy atelier that was once the last summer house of his late grandfather, Duke Konoe Fumimaro.
“In the middle of a mountain in Nara, I spent one and a half years sitting in front of a potter’s wheel [training]. By following the primitive conception of earth, fire and water – things that have existed from the earliest times – I was able to develop the aesthetic sense of the tea bowl naturally,” explains Morihiro. His ancestors were avid practitioners of the ancient tea ceremony; the family owns near priceless tea wares, exalted for their delicate perfection. But Morihiro is different: preferring a modern twist, he uses his boots to dent the soft clay before firing the pieces in the kiln.
Morihiro continues, “I admire Chojiro from the Momoyama-era and Koetsu’s tea bowls. I take the free spirit and aesthetics embedded in these works and try to incorporate them in my own way.” He also does not practice the traditional tea ceremony, but makes tea using his own methods, his favourite calligraphy and the tea utensils he has made so painstakingly.
If Morihiro is a creator of art, then his ancestors were collectors. For the family – whose nine-planet crest is emblazoned on objects ranging from armor to scrolls, many now in museums – collecting art and preserving literature was, and remains, an expression of nobility and learning. “The Hosokawa family is versed in letters and arms, and unlike other feudal families, my family especially valued the cultural aspect,” says Morihiro. “I feel privileged to be a part of the family that enjoyed practising the traditional Japanese Noh and tea ceremony, and also had a proud knowledge of the old Japanese poetry like the Kokin Wakashu and The Tale of Genji.”
Treasures they have amassed over 700 years range from manuscripts to handscrolls, books to paintings. A number of pieces are on display at the Eisei Bunko Museum in Tokyo. Founded by Morihiro’s grandfather Moritatsu in 1950, it sits on the property where the family once served the shogun in the days when Tokyo was known as Edo. The museum also contains a number of rare – often unique – Chinese artefacts and artworks collected by the family.
In order to raise funds for the museum, Morihiro is now selling a group of approximately 30 objects from the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), including furniture, porcelain, paintings and calligraphy. Highlights include an Imperial handscroll of autumn scenery by the prolific emperor Qianlong (1736–1795) and a set of albums exemplifying the ruler’s private scholarly pursuits.
The collection is marked by the Hosokawa family’s sensibility. Senior international specialist in Chinese ceramics and works of art based at Sotheby’s Japan, Ryoichi Hirano believes that the Hosokawas are different from the ordinary Japanese collector – a difference notable in the quality of the pieces now for sale. “Their taste has been refined over many generations and their collection shows great reverence for Chinese aesthetics. We call them bunjin, literati, in the traditional Chinese sense of the word,” observes Hirano.
For his part, Morihiro wants to share and pass down the years of Hosokawa history to the next generation. “We do not have any particular family precepts but have always cherished the value of simplicity,” he says. “If my ancestors had focused only on obtaining more land, property, estate or social status, the family would not have the standing we have today.” An understanding of culture, he adds, “is what brought us here.”