Handmade Culture:

Raku Potters, Patrons, and Tea Practitioners in Japan

Morgan Pitelka. Handmade Culture: Raku Potters, Patrons, and Tea Practitioners in Japan. University of Hawaii Press, 2005. 

This study of the producers, consumers, and patrons of Raku ceramics aims to interrogate the notion of “tradition” in the context of recent debates in cultural studies and history. Rather than seeing tradition as an invented product of modernity (a form of “false consciousness”), I examine the ongoing, diachronic process of inventing and reinventing the various objects and cultural practices that make up the tradition of Raku ceramics. I avoid the obsessive focus on certain luminaries in Raku and tea history that has marked previous insider studies by foregrounding the web of interactions between the Raku potters, their competitors, tea practitioners and Sen tea masters, merchants, warriors, and eventually, modernizing intellectuals. This interdisciplinary study makes innovative use of archaeological evidence, heirloom ceramics, tea diaries, letters, gazetteers, wood-block-printed books, hand-copied manuscripts, and Meiji and Taisho period publications on tea and Raku to create the first cohesive and comprehensive study of the Raku tradition to appear in any language

Far broader in scope than simply a book about Raku ceramics, Pitelka’s work adeptly challenges accepted notions about nearly every aspect of Raku’s history, making a major contribution to the emerging scholarly paradigm for investigating Japanese craft traditions. . . . The importance of Handmade Culture to an international understanding of Japanese culture is clear.


A superb study of the Raku house of ceramics. It emphasizes not the Momoyama origins of Raku, but the four hundred plus years of evolution that are, as Pitelka knows, responsible for Raku’s profound presence in Japanese cultural history. . . . [His] book is not a paean to Raku masterpieces, but instead performs the more significant task of identifying and discussing the issues behind this ongoing tradition. As such it defines the field and is essential reading.

—Artibus Asiae

[Pitelka’s] book brings insight and clarity to the fundamental questions that lie at the heart of our apprehension of the past.


An important, comprehensive, and cohesive study of raku pottery. Pitelka’s book has merit and importance for contemporary understandings based on mythnohistories, the assumptions that shape perceptions and appreciations. Handmade Culture demonstrates the value of deconstructing contexts of material culture through an analysis of institutionalized instruction, connoisseurship, and transmission of a cultural form as chanoyu shifts from a Japanese tradition to invite a global audience.

—Studies in Art Education: A Journal of Issues and Research

Pitelka has issued the first challenge to Raku orthodoxy, and his analysis is both responsible and courageous.

—Monumenta Nipponica

A meticulously researched yet highly accessible history of Raku. . . . Pitelka offers a new approach to interpreting Japanese ceramic culture, through the productive and social forces at work, and does so with considerable erudition and readability. . . . An exceptional contribution to English-language scholarship on Japanese culture.


In this study, Pitelka rewrites the history of Raku, calling into question the personality-centered myths surrounding the founding of this low-fire pottery tradition and offering in their place a compelling new narrative of patronage, consumption practices, and cultural significance. The historical sweep and expository clarity of his account will engage readers on many levels—not just scholars, but anyone with an interest in the arts of Japan.

—Christine Guth, Stanford University

In this eye-opening survey of 400 years of the production and consumption of Raku ware, Morgan Pitelka sheds new light on the history of the tea schools of Japan, and thus on the history of all modern Japanese culture. Armed with a deep and unsentimental knowledge of ceramics, he narrates the history of Raku within the context of the world of tea while maintaining a respectful but coolly informed distance, neatly bracketing the aesthetic and genealogical conventions that have long dominated orthodox histories of tea. The Raku method, eschewing the potter’s wheel to sculpt and carve tea bowls by hand and fire them in small kilns, is deceptive in its simplicity, which paradoxically enabled uniquely complex relationships between the potters and their Sen-school patrons. Pitelka tells an intriguing story, showing how ‘slippery historicity’ undermines orthodox genealogies, revealing that tradition is not invented but rather crafted, working constantly to adapt, compete, preserve, and innovate. The implications go beyond Raku, beyond tea, and beyond Japan, to force a rethinking of tradition itself as ‘handmade culture.

—Henry D. Smith II, Columbia University

Morgan Pitelka’s Handmade Culture, an interpretive history of the raku tradition, is both informative and innovative. It begins with the tradition’s local origin in late-sixteenth-century Kyoto, traces its emergence as a distinctive national discourse, and closes with an account of its survival in modern times. Pitelka’s attention to raku’s broader social and economic contexts, inspired by Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural production, offers a new approach to Japanese art history.

—Samuel Yamashita, Pomona College

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