トップ » Vol.25 » 集団人間行動と陶器

Accumu Vol.25


京都情報大学院大学 講師
Andrew Vargo


I have always been interested in the economics and structures of group behavior. My current research focuses on how online communities aggregate knowledge and gate-keep their social systems. It can be nearly impossible to explain and predict how a community of practice is conducted. What we expect to be true is often false, and the readiest explanation for a phenomenon can be misleading.

During the summer of 2003, I was fortunate enough to go on a university group trip to Japan. At this point, I had no long-term plan to be in Japan. This month-long class was based in Kyoto, but had the oddity of having the first three days in Matsuyama, Ehime. In a jet-lagged haze, our small group of twelve students was treated to a barrage of new and esoteric experiences. With little context, we saw multiple sites of Kūkai’s temples in the Shikoku Pilgrimage (四国遍路), visited Matsuyama Castle, and saw cemeteries from the Russo-Japanese war. The lack of context is not criticism of the class leader. It is difficult to convey meaning or significance to beings who are quite nearly blank slates. In my case, every new experience was almost overwhelming.

On the third day of the trip, we all got on a tour bus and headed to a small town of about 20,000 inhabitants adjacent to Matsuyama called Tobe-cho (砥部町). We were told that we would be seeing a Japanese pottery, called Tobe-yaki (砥部焼). It was here that my life completely changed.

Entering Tobe-cho via the highway, it was impossible not to be struck by the incredible number of places, stores, kilns, and houses, exhibiting Tobe-yaki. I had never seen a town so dedicated to one subject as this. There were pieces of pottery in all directions and I distinctly remember thinking that every resident must have kitchens overflowing with a plethora of bluish-white vessels in their homes, apartments, and offices.

It is important to again remember that I had almost no context for what I was seeing. Rural Japanese towns and cities are extreme in their dedication to a local art, craft, or food. For example, if one goes to Aomori, you will be immediately struck by how many amazing prints and images by the great Munakata Shiko decorate the city; it is more than an image at the train station or a nice museum, it is the repetition of works available around every corner that is so striking. Visiting Uji city will leave many visitors convinced that the town’s economy is based mostly around green tea. To an uninitiated outsider, this type of dedication can seem excessive. Certainly, North American towns have themes and are proud of their local heritage and heroes, but not to the level or manner exhibited in Japan.

Being that this was my first experience, I thought that Tobe-yaki must be one of the most important ceramics in all of Japan. I was utterly convinced. Why else would they build so many places dedicated to it?

The pottery itself was somewhat hard to understand. The bluish-white of the pieces and brutishness of the vessels were handsome, but not what would be stereotypically “Japanese” in my opinion. Shigaraki-ware or Bizen-ware , with their dark and complex colors fit better into what a foreigner would expect. Tobe-yaki is, instead, almost clinical in its appearance; beautiful but utilitarian.

This makes sense given the history of the ceramic style. Tobe-yaki was started in the 18th century as a commercial good for the Ozu Clan and was exported to Qing China in the 19th century. While there were numerous artistic developments in the ceramic style, there was an emphasis on it being a utilitarian commercial craft. This does not discount the style, but this does not share the same romantic history as ancient ceramics styles dedicated to tea ceremony.









We spent around five hours in the town, visiting the museum and a local kiln. At the kiln group members were tasked with decorating their own wares, a very plain cup and plate set, with designs before firing. In all honesty, I was not particularly enthused to be doing this. For one, I was embarrassed by the designs of my compatriots, which were invariably some gauche imagination based on a children’s anime. My mind was blank as to what design I should paint on my wares. Looking at the delicate designs in the studio, everything I thought of felt horribly unoriginal or culturally insensitive. Is it inappropriate for an American student to represent the 日の丸 on a piece of ceramic? It seemed to me that it was. Eventually, I settled on a Macedonian Sun, using red and yellow. It was crude, but I felt it had some sort of weight. Certainly, better than something from Dragonball.

Of course, a classmate then asked me what anime it was from. Such is life for the pretentious.

The studio master was a young man who was cheerful and clearly happy about our presence. Towards the end of our stay, we learned about his history and about Tobe-yaki in general. He said that there were dozens of kilns in the area with hundreds of potters and I was even more convinced that this pottery must be incredibly popular in Japan!

A few days later, I arrived in Kyoto to start studying Japanese and visit various locations for my class. I was doing a home-stay in Fushimi-ku, in a mid-century house with a beautiful and historically significant garden. The host-family was not only wonderfully kind, but hey also had their home appointed with wide-range of ceramics. Out the various styles, none even closely resembled Tobe-yaki. I asked them about their collection and what it was lacking, and they claimed they had never heard of the style.


This was certainly an anomaly. How could it possibly be true that a family, well educated and interested in Japanese art, could not know about Tobe-yaki? But, as I began to ask more and more people, such as my teachers at school, it began to dawn on me that the pottery was not well known. That is really when I began to realize that I did not even begin to understand what I had seen and experienced in Tobe-cho.

At the end of our trip, the items that we had decorated where sent up to Kyoto and given to us. Everyone unwrapped their plain cups and dishes with their designs, but I received something different. My pieces had broken in the kiln (thankfully), so the studio decided to give me a very pretty wall-vase with a delicate flower design.

I was thrilled. Now, I had an actual physical representation of Tobe-yaki that I could show my family and friends, and instead of having my embarrassing designs it had something that invoked what I had seen in the town. And now I was also completely confused. What was Tobe-yaki and why was it so heavily represented in the town? Was it the result of the sunk-cost fallacy, where the promise of Mingei stardom had fooled the town into supporting an unknown art? Or was there a bigger industry that was supporting a show of local pride?

a picture of the sun design that I tried to make. 太陽をモチーフに私が器に描いた絵
a picture of the sun design that I tried to make. 太陽をモチーフに私が器に描いた絵








Upon arriving home, I set about researching everything about Tobe-yaki. The World Wide Web was still young, but I could access enough materials and translate enough Japanese to gather all sorts of information. I learned about the Mingei (民芸) art movement, Yanagi Sōetsu, Hamada Shōji, and Bernard Leach, and I slowly pieced together a speculative version of why Tobe-yaki existed as it did. I wanted to find out more, and so, after convincing a school friend, applied for and received a research grant to study Tobe-yaki. Our primary interest was in researching and documenting the socio-economic significance of the ceramic on the local population and economy.


Receiving the research grant allowed us to visit Shikoku and study the town on-site. It was a very challenging experience. After a few weeks of note-taking, photographing, and interviewing residents, I started to realize that I was getting no closer to understanding why Tobe-yaki existed the way it did. There did not seem to be a strong financial incentive for the dedication and it was clear that while the town was hungry for tourists and visitors, relatively few stopped by. But I did keep hearing how important the ceramics were to the residents. Simply, the residents of Tobe-cho were happily devoted to Tobe-yaki.

I think that this is an important thing to remember when studying group behavior. The quest to neatly explain everything based on pure financial reasoning or typical cost-benefit analysis is foolhardy. Indeed, when we consider how humans volunteer their time to create online encyclopedias of knowledge, the idea that they do so for free is surprising (we also know that when they are paid, they do not do as good as a job as when they volunteer their efforts for free).

After our on-site research, we went to Aoyama Gakuin University for what was supposed to be four months. I started studying economics and Russian Studies. I found that Aogaku was an incredible and supportive atmosphere, one that encouraged me to do more research and to study interesting things. It was here that I began to become interested computer-human interaction and online communities.

I am grateful that I found Tobe-yaki. It helped introduce me to Japanese culture and to the field that I love working in. And, it started one of my favorite hobbies: going to a small town in Japan and discovering the local specialty.


a cup indicating the package that was for the person (me) with the broken vessels. 窯で器が割れてしまった参加者用に用意されたカップ
a cup indicating the package that was for the person (me) with the broken vessels. 窯で器が割れてしまった参加者用に用意されたカップ





アンドリュー ヴァーゴ
Andrew Vargo
  • 京都情報大学院大学 講師
  • ノースセントラルカレッジ 文学士 — 日本と東アジアの研究
  • ミシガン大学 修士(情報科学 — 情報経済学,経営学,政策学専攻)
  • 京都大学大学院 博士(情報学)課程在学中
  • 元Lenovo先端システム設計センターに研究インターンシップとして勤務