Hiroe Swen in Japan: pre-Australian years

Chiaki Ajioka


Early life to the 1950s

Hiroe Swen was born in 1934 in Kyoto, as the elder of two daughters of the Takebe family.[1] For over a thousand years Kyoto was the centre of arts and culture, and the Takebe family had lived there for generations. Swen’s father was an industrial metalworker and her mother taught kimono sewing. Her great-grandfather on her mother’s side was a dealer of dyed goods and kimono, which her grandfather continued.

During the Pacific War, in 1943, like many people in major cities, Takebe family evacuated to safer countryside: Swen, her younger sister, their mother and grandfather went to the southern island of Kyūshū, while her father worked in Osaka. In June 1945, while the Allied bombing of Japan continued, the mother and two daughters returned to Kyoto. When the war ended in August 1945, Swen was eleven years old. Most of Japan’s major cities were burnt out, but Kyoto had escaped major damage. The immediate postwar period was the time of social and economic chaos throughout the country. To help the family finance, Swen’s mother began selling kimono. As the business grew, Swen began helping her with kimono designs.

Swen’s early artistic inclination was toward two-dimensional: she began studying oil painting while at high school. Being good with hands, after graduating high school she worked casually making and selling knickknacks. In 1953, she was advised that she made batik. Batik was not widely practised in Japan at the time, though there was some eighth-century batik in the Shōsōin Repository, Nara. Swen found someone who knew the basics of batik making, then developed her own techniques, and started selling designed batik accessories and fabric. One of her major customers, her classmate’s father, was handing his wholesale business to his son so he could concentrate on design, and he urged Swen to work in textile design. So, she became a full-time designer and was earning a good income until 1956, when she suffered from subarachnoid haemorrhage and was hospitalized for seven months. The illness was a catalyst for change in her thinking about life.

During her convalescence, in the spring of 1957 Swen submitted a batik work to Kōfūkai, an exhibition society for painting and craft.[2] Established in 1912, Kōfūkai is an association of plein-air oil painters, with the craft section added in 1940, and many of its Kōfūkai artists also showed at Nitten, Japan’s largest national fine art exhibition (see below). As she was familiar with some Kōfūkai painters, she decided to submit her batik work to the craft section. When the exhibition travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto, as an exhibiting artist she was helping at the gallery. It was then she saw the ceramics display. For Swen, who had not viewed ceramics as an art form, it was an eye-opening experience.

At this exhibition she met Hayashi Heihachirō (1923-1980), an associate member of Kōfūkai and a ceramics teacher at the Kyoto Craft Institute.[3] (Fig.1) With Hayashi’s encouragement, Swen began studying ceramics at the Institute. Three months later, she submitted a work to the Women’s General Art Exhibition, which was accepted and shown in Osaka.

The 1950s was an exciting time for art: the wartime restrictions on arts were lifted, dialogue with the West resumed, so expectation and optimism permeated the Japanese art scene. For women, the changes were even more drastic: immediately after the war, women’s suffrage was proclaimed for the first time, and the new democratic Constitution (1946) declared social equality for women. As the postwar confusion settled and the Korean War (1951-53) brought economic boom, there was a strong sense of energy. Against this background, more women took up art as professional occupation.


The Women’s Association of Ceramic Art

In ceramics, up to the end of the war, there had been few known women potters in Japan, and it was still unspoken understanding that pottery was men’s occupation. But it was inevitable that this would also change: in the same year she showed her first ceramic work, Swen joined Tsuboi Asuka (1932-2022), Saragai Hisako (1930-2021) and four other women potters to form the Women’s Association of Ceramic Art (Joryū Tōgei). Swen says: ‘If one of us, a woman, began practicing pottery, she would be ignored [by the ceramics establishment]. But if we got together, we’d attract attention. Being in a group would also make us feel stronger’. The leader of the group was Tsuboi, who studied under Tomimoto Kenkichi (1886-1963), the foremost pioneer of modern Japanese ceramics; Tsuboi first exhibited her work in 1953 at Shinshō Kōgeikai (later Shinshōkai: 1947- ), which was established around Tomimoto.[4] Joryū Tōgei enjoyed strong support of the Mainichi Newspaper from the start, and has become an important debut venue for aspiring women potters.

In 1965, she produced a large rectangular dish with abstract design. (Fig.2) It was the first piece that gave her confidence as a ceramic artist, and she submitted it to the Women’s Ceramic Art exhibition. The work was recognized by two prominent Kyoto potters: Ishiguro Munemaro (1893-1968) and Kondō Yūzō (1902-1985), both of whom were designated as the Holder of Important Intangible Cultural Property (known as the Living National Treasure) in 1955 and 1977 respectively. Swen also studied with Yasuda Zenkō (1926-2011) who later became Nitten’s Board member.


Major streams of ceramics in postwar Japan: Nitten, Mingei and Dentō Kōgei



The national annual exhibition was established in 1907 as Bunten (or the Ministry of Education Art Exhibition), modelled on French Salon. Because of its authority, sheer scale, as well as issues concerning the selectors and selection process, it underwent restructures and renaming. After the war, it became a private corporation as the Japan Fine Arts Exhibition (Nihon Bijutsu Tenrankai) known as Nitten. Today, Nitten comprises five sections: 1. Western-style painting (Yōga); 2. Japanese-style painting (Nihonga); 3 Sculpture (Chōkoku); 4. Craft Art (Kōgei Bijutsu); and 5. Calligraphy (Sho – added in 1948).

As noted above, Tomimoto Kenkichi was arguably the most important artist in modern Japanese ceramics. Tomimoto was originally trained in design and architecture at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. His interest in William Morris (1836-1896) who advocated crafts ‘to beautify life’, he went to London to study. On his return to Japan, following Morris’s practice in crafts including stained glass, wallpaper, weaving and embroidery, Tomimoto began creating crafts following his own aesthetic. Eventually, through helping his friend Bernard Leach (1887-1979) with pottery, he began making pottery himself. Working outside Japan’s established ceramic traditions in the 1910s, he approached clay and glaze as his original and creative expression. At the time, craft was judged by the known conventional standards and the level of skill of the maker, so Tomimoto’s works that were informed by Western and Middle Eastern folk ceramics presented new possibilities for the medium, and as such inspired some young artists to take up ceramics as self-expression. To view craft as creative art with emphasis on originality and individuality was an occurrence across different media – lacquer, woodwork, metalwork, textile etc. – and became the mainstream. As a result, the prestigious government-run Teiten (as it was called at the time) added the Craft Art section in 1927.[5] Nitten’s modern craft is judged as creative art, and as such, is distinct from two other major streams – Dentō Kōgei or the traditionalist craft and Mingei.

Dentō Kōgei

Dentō Kōgei is run by the Japan Kōgei Association (Nihon Kōgeikai), which was established in 1954 with a specific purpose to ‘preserve and nurture historically and artistically significant craft skills’. It is the largest craft exhibition in Japan, and is organized by the Japan Kōgei Association, Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs and major private partners such as NHK and Asahi Newspaper. The Association’s members are around 200 with members centred around the Holders of Important Intangible Cultural Properties.[6] It also has a substructure of local branches which hold exhibitions with ‘historically and artistically significant craft skills’ as the selection criterion. No entry qualification is specified; Saragai Hisako, one of the founders of Joryū Tōgei is a member of Dentō Kōgei and Shinshōkai. Dentō Kōgei is the only craft organisation that enjoys support by the Japanese government via the Agency for Cultural Affairs. Its patrons also include tea-ceremony practitioners.


The Mingei style can also be traced in the 1910s in the practice of Tomimoto Kenkichi and the British potter Bernard Leach with inspiration from European and Middle-Eastern folk pottery. In 1920, Leach returned to Britain with Hamada Shōji (1894-1978) to establish a pottery at St Ives.[7] Hamada originally intended to become a painter, but chose the clay as his medium. He studied ceramic techniques with Kawai Kanjirō (1890-1966) who shared his aspiration. Hamada found his direction in the works by Tomimoto and Leach, and decided to accompany Leach in order ‘to see Japan from outside’.  At St Ives, they tried to achieve the non-individualistic quality of folk pottery such as slipware – what Hamada called ‘health, naturalness, beauty’ or, in the words of Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889-1961), ‘born, not made’.[8] Tomimoto also admired the beauty of folk ceramics and joined the Mingei group’s activities. It became clear, however, that by the 1930s his belief in originality and the sophistication and refinement of his work was irreconcilable with the Mingei ideal.[9]


Postwar Australian pottery, Japan, and Swen’s arrival in Australia

Bernard Leach esteemed the simplicity of Song period stoneware as his ideal, while working and exhibiting in Japan and in Britain. He thus positioned himself as a modern creative potter within the history of world ceramics. In 1940, he published A Potter’s Book as a synthesis of his techniques, views and aesthetic. In the book Leach claimed that historical ceramic works embody not the individual maker but the culture which produced them, and argued that the individual potter should use the local material and aim at expressing ‘naturalness’ in works. He supported his point with examples from ancient to contemporary, from around the globe. His words resonated with the Arts and crafts ideal, and at the same time, provided young potters with an aesthetic standard by which to assess their works. Thus, The Potter’s Book became a bible for potters, many of whom were returned soldiers, in Britain, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and beyond, and the style the book advocated became known as ‘Leach-Hamada (or Mingei) style’. As a result, Mingei enjoyed strong exposure outside Japan, to an extent that the style became synonymous with Japanese ceramics.

In the postwar English-speaking countries, Bernard Leach and his book represented a major trend in studio pottery alongside the Bauhaus-inspired modernist trend. In Australia, when the Potters Society of New South Wales was formed in 1956 by ceramics teachers including Peter Rushforth (1920-2015), it embraced the aesthetic and philosophy expounded in A Potter’s Book.[10] In the 1960s, Australian potters were able to meet Mingei artists hosted by the Potters Society: Leach in 1962, Kawai Takeichi (Kanjirō’s nephew 1908-1989) in 1964 and Hamada in 1965. Australian potters also began visiting Japan, where they ‘discovered’ a whole range of ceramics practice. Les Blakebrough (England/Australia, 1930-2022) studied various styles in Kyoto during 1963. For Blakebrough, a major inspiration came from Tomimoto’s work and philosophy.[11] Blakebrough was in charge of the Sturt Pottery, Mittagong, NSW, and wanted to invite a ceramic teacher from Japan. He asked Kawai Takeichi who arranged Shiga Shigeo (1928-2011) to come and teach at Sturt. Shiga arrived in Australia in 1966. Shiga had been trained as a kamikaze pilot, and was about to fly out on a mission when the war ended. He returned to Niigata prefecture where he grew up, and began ceramics under Saitō Saburō (1913-1981) who had been trained under Tomimoto. Shiga later moved to Kyoto where he became close to Kawai. After teaching at Sturt, he established his own kiln in north of Sydney, and returned to Japan in 1979. When Swen came to Australia, she and Shiga became close friends although their respective styles remained distinct.

The year Shiga arrived in Australia, in Kyoto Swen met her future husband Cornell (1930-2022), a Dutch graphic designer who migrated to Australia in 1951 and was on a holiday visit to Japan. They married, but remained in Kyoto for two years – for Cornell to familiarise himself with Swen’s family and vice-versa. During that time Swen produced ceramics full time. In the same year, wishing to test her own abilities, she submitted Vase with line design to Nitten. (Fig.3) Although it commonly took repeated submissions before one’s work was accepted by this prestigious exhibition, her piece was accepted at the first attempt as one of the 519 works in the Craft Art section.[12] A prominent craft historian and critic Yoshida Kōzō took notice of her work alongside eight other ceramic pieces. He commented:

Each of these works demonstrates a good feel for mass and the beauty of balance. While effectively utilising the nature of the material, and showing unrestrained creativity, they explore a new territory for craft. In these works, I detect a prototype being created for Nitten craft, which cannot be found in Mingei or Traditional Crafts. There is a harmonious synthesis between the pure plasticity for which today’s Nitten is aiming, and a function to decorate new architectural space…[13]

At the time, however, Swen was unaware of Yoshida’s recognition. She was not interested in reviews, as she had no intention to become a ‘Nitten artist’; she proved her abilities to herself, and it was Swen’s first and last submission to Nitten. She also left the Women’s Ceramic Art. This was due to her active dislike of personal frictions and of compromising her integrity within a group or institution. Throughout her career – both in Japan and in Australia – this trait appears to have steered the course of her life and work.

Swen’s work belongs to the modernist craft tradition of Nitten. But she also acknowledges that, at a deeper level, her sensitivity was fostered within Kyoto culture: its centuries-old artistic traditions seeping through all facets of people’s everyday aesthetics. Swen brought to Australia this cultivated standard of beauty. It is for this reason that her aesthetic judgement, as well as her skills, has been trusted by her colleagues and students alike. Her students used to say, ‘If you really want to know your work’s worth, ask Hiroe.’ For those who would listen, Swen’s sharp eye for beauty was particularly valuable in Australia where connoisseurship in ceramics was less developed than it was in Kyoto.

For this essay, Swen selected some works by Japanese artists whose works resonate with her. (Figs 4-6)


Fig. 1
Hayashi Heihachirō 林平八郎 (1923-1980)

Flower vase 花器 (date unknown)
(Details of the work unknown)

Exhibited at Nitten
Reproduced from Gendai no kōgei sakka ten. Kyoto: The 8th International Craft Conference & Kyoto, 1978.
(Despite efforts, we were unable to identify the copyright holder.)




Fig. 2
Hiroe Swen

Untitled 無題

10.05 (ht) x 60 x 32cm

Collection of the artist


Fig. 3

Hiroe Swen

Vase with line design 線花瓶

Exhibited at the 9th Nitten
Reproduced from Nittenshi vol. 29, 1996, 271.






Fig. 4
Kawai Seitoku 河合誓徳 (1927-2010)

Born as Sakai Seitoku in Ōita prefecture as a son of a Buddhist temple. During the Pacific War, trained as a navy pilot. After the war, studied Japanese-style painting, then ceramics at Arita and Kyoto. Studied under Kiyomizu Rokubee VI. Submitted works at Nitten from 1952 as well as Japan Contemporary Craft Artists Association (1961-). Married into the family of the ceramic artist Kawai Einosuke (1893-1962) and became Kawai Seitoku. Works shown at overseas exhibitions including the New Craft section of The Australian Bicentennial Exhibition in 1988.[14] Sōei (Reflection of grass) won the Prime Minister’s Prize at the 13th Japan New Craft Exhibition in 1991.[15]

Sōei  草映

31 cm ht

Oita Prefectural Art Museum
© KAWAI Tokuo 河合徳夫



Fig. 5

Fujihira Shin 藤平伸 (1922-2012)

Born in Kyoto. Father was the head of a ceramic workshop in Gojōzaka, the city’s pottery production centre and a close associate of Kawai Kanjirō (see above Mingei section). First submission to Nitten was accepted in 1953, and continued to show at Nitten, winning the First Prize and Hokuto Prize in 1957. Appointed professor at the Kyoto City University of Arts in 1973.[16]

Water Jar (Mizusashi) 水指

19.8cm ht

Collection: Chadō Shiryōkan, Kyoto
© Fujihira Shin Memorial Museum (Fujihira Miho, Director)



Fig. 6
Nishikawa Minoru (1929- )

Born in Kyoto. Graduated from the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1948. Studied under Kanō Mitsuo (1903-1970) and Kusube Yaichi (1897-1984), both prominent Nitten artists. Awarded the First Prize and Hokuto Prize at Nitten in 1964. Works are in various overseas collections including Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University. Member of the International Ceramics Academy.[17]

Lamplight ともしび

50 ht x 20 x 16cm

© NISHIKAWA Minoru 西川實




(January 2023)


[1] The following account is based on various sources: a chronology compiled by Shinozaki Mayumi; record of public interview organised by Canberra Japan Club (2017); personal contacts by the author (2017-2021).

[2] https://kofu-kai.jp/history/short (viewed 16.9.2021)

[3] Hayashi was a student of Kiyomizu Rokuwa (Kiyomizu Rokube’e V, 1875-1959), a seminal modern ceramicist in Kyoto and a leading Nitten artist since the establishment of its craft section.

[4] Tsuboi’s direct teacher was Tokuriki Magosaburō (1908-1995), the eldest son of a family of artistic lineage. Tokuriki studied under Kawamura Seizan (1890-1967) and Tomimoto Kenkichi, joining Tomimoto in founding of Shinshō Kōgeikai in 1947: http://www.shinsyoukougeikai.jp/new1.html (viewed 3.11.2021)

[5] But Tomimoto did not exhibit at Nitten: he was invited to join Kokugakai, a painting society, to establish the craft section in 1926, which held its first display also in 1927. After the war, in 1946, Tomimoto resigned from Kokugakai and helped the founding of Shinshō Kōgeikai. (see below)

[6] https://www.nihonkogeikai.or.jp/about

[7] Hamada returned to Japan in early 1924 after the news of the Great Kantō Earthquake (1.9.1923).

[8] See Ajioka 2018. ‘Global Mingei: its pre-WWII origins’ in TAASA Review vol.27, No.3, 4-6.

[9] In the 1930s, Tomimoto and the ‘Mingei group’ both exhibited at Kokugakai, but the Mingei group left the association when the Japan Folk Crafts Museum was built in 1936. In 1946, the Mingei group decided to return to Kokugakai, which prompted Tomimoto to resign in protest.

[10] See Cochrane, Grace 1992. The Crafts Movement in Australia: a history. Kensington, NSW: New South Wales University Press, 79-80.

[11] Personal contact on 14 May 2009, Sydney.

[12] The number of accepted works in each section for the 1966 Nitten is as follows: 1 – 396; 2 – 783; 3 – 330; 5 – 1,014. The craft section included ceramics, textile, glass and other media, but the list of works does not give medium description.

[13] Nittenshi vol. 29, 1996, 426.

[14] 「河合誓徳 日本美術年鑑所載物故者記事」(東京文化財研究所)https://www.tobunken.go.jp/materials/bukko/28481.html(Viewed 14 Oct 2022)

[15] http://www.nihon-shinkogei.or.jp/sinkougeinituite/13/13.htm (viewed 27 Jan 2023)

[16] http://fujihiramiho.com/fujihirashin.html (Viewed 14 Oct 2022)

[17] https://kogei.kyoto/artists/nishikawa_minoru.html; http://www.utsuwadouraku.com/x_i/i117.html (Viewed 14 Oct 2022)

Chiaki Ajioka

Chiaki Ajioka

Dr Chiaki Ajioka was formerly the Curator of Japanese Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Prior to that, she worked as the principal Japanese subtitler at SBS Television. She also served as a Board member of the Australia-Japan Foundation (DFAT) 2012-15. Chiaki has published, given lectures and curated exhibitions on modern Japanese prints and crafts, and now works as Japanese art consultant and translator for public institutions and private collectors.

In this project, Chiaki contributed an essay and subtitled two videos.