When artist Matthew Richards first set foot on Japanese soil, he had no idea that it would be the start of a lifelong relationship. As a twentysomething Penn State engineering student, Richards' academic aspirations left him disinterested. Eager to reignite his pursuit of knowledge, he dramatically shifted tack, drawn to the language, culture and traditions of a country then entirely foreign to him. From 1988 to 1989, he lived in Hirakata-shi in Osaka prefecture, about halfway between Osaka and Kyoto, as part of a study abroad program. He found a deep connection, returning in 1990, where he lived in Imazu for two years, before settling in Yasu until 2007. En route, he was enraptured by the art of his adopted home and found favor among artists, who became protagonists in a loosely scripted play of developing artistic merit.
Richards explains the origins of his interest in Japan, on living abroad for nearly two decades, his Japanese mentor, the meaning of Ryu no Sakebi and how the Lancaster, Pennsylvania–native landed in Cleveland via the Land of the Rising Sun.
OhioAuthority: What first drew you to Japanese culture, including its arts, language and history?
Matthew Richards: I Switched majors while I was studying Engineering at Penn State. I decided I wanted to learn a language, and I picked Japanese. Why Japanese? My grandparents and my dad lived in Japan in the late 50s and brought back a bunch of Japanese items and stories, which I grew up hearing about. I never thought about going to Japan, but when I was browsing through the list of languages Penn State offered, I guess subconsciously Japan stuck out. Soon after beginning language classes, I realized that in order to learn the language, I needed to learn the culture; and the best way to do that was to study in Japan.
OA: When you traveled to Japan, did you initially plan on staying there for nearly two decades or did that evolve naturally?
MR: Initially the study abroad program took me over there for one year. After that, I returned to finish my studies at Penn State, graduated and almost immediately returned. I did not plan on staying for another 17 years, but that is how it worked out.
OA: When you arrived in Japan, how did you meet up with pottery masters and how did those mentorships develop?
MR: During that first year in Japan, I took pottery classes in the afternoon at Kansai Gaidai. I did not do much pottery after that until I moved to Yasu, where I lived for 15 years. When I moved there, I got the itch and asked around about pottery teachers. Literally within hours, I was being introduced to a potter whose studio/home was a 5-minute drive from my house. We became friends, and I studied with him as a hobby for 15 years. Since we lived 35-40 minutes from Shigaraki, one of the most famous pottery regions in the world, I had plenty of exposure to all sorts of techniques and materials.
OA: Tell me more about the potter you befriended…
MR: His name is Yutaka Tsuji. He is now 56 years old and was 38 at the time I met him, if my math is correct. Why did he take a liking to me? I am not sure. We just became good friends. I met with him both times I returned to Japan after moving back 3 years ago, although I have not spoken with him recently.
OA: What would a typical lesson/session with your Tsuji entail?
MR: Actually I really only had two formal lessons. He then handed me a borrowed potters wheel and some clay, and told me to work on my own at home. I would glaze and fire at his studio and we would also work together on Anagama (wood kiln) firings. I suppose he felt I knew enough and should just practice on his own. He had worked for the city hall as a civil servant, and gave it up to work on pottery and had almost no formal lessons himself. Perhaps he felt I should take the same route.