Kitaoji Rosanjin, “Plateware is the Kimono of Food”
—Why do I make my own ceramics and lacquerware?—
In this month’s installment of Flavors Past, we return to the work of Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959), Japan’s quintessential early-twentieth century eater, potter, and all-around connoisseur of food. (For more on Rosanjin, check out the May 2016 edition of the Gohan Society newsletter.) This selection from his collected writings, based on an outline of a speech he delivered to a group of prominent chefs at his pottery kiln in 1936, explores the relationship between plateware and cuisine, the artistry of Japanese food presentation, and Rosanjin’s personal motivations for incorporating ceramics into his passionate pursuit of the perfect meal.
“In cooking, preparing sashimi and the like, we pay careful attention to skill with a knife and the color and shape of garnishes. These sorts of things give food a feeling of beauty, and when we look at them as a whole, they surely make food more delicious. In this sense, the beauty that we respect in food is exactly the same as the natural beauty that we value in paintings, architecture, and the like. The beauty of cuisine and the beauty of art have a single origin and share the same content. Thus when making food beautiful, all of you pay daily attention to the plates on which you serve your food, working hard on every aspect. Those who think deeply about food also think deeply about plateware. This is only natural.”
The fact that Rosanjin felt compelled to lecture a group of Japanese chefs on the beauty of food presentation and the importance of choosing the right plates illustrates a core negotiation at the center of cooking more generally. While we dedicate care and commitment to perfecting the food itself, there will always be elements of our practice that we must entrust to others. While many in the culinary industry have come to see these collaborations with farmers, fishermen, and in this case potters as fruitful and productive aspects of cooking itself, Rosanjin suggests that chefs and potters may, on a deeper level, be doing the same thing. Beauty, for him, is at the core of all artistic pursuits, and by seeking that beauty in both what we do ourselves and what we ask of those around us, both the food and the dishes achieve new heights.
“The more I handle plates and dishes, the more I learn that no matter the circumstances, you cannot make quality plateware haphazardly. First off, you need to pay attention to studying the famous craft pieces of the past. Even though they may be damaged, there is still a lot to learn from these famous dishes. To accomplish this, I held as many of these objects of the past in my own hands as I could and used them as a basis and a reference for making my own plates. I traveled to China and Korea and tried my hand at studying ancient pottery, all toward the same goal. This grew and grew, and finally I even went as far as starting a museum about it. For this reason, my collection is a bit different from other collections in that it is meant to be a direct reference both for making dishes and for the art of cooking.”
Rosanjin understood his exhaustive research into historical ceramics as a contribution to the culinary world, as a way to reinvigorate modern Japanese cuisine by turning back to the traditions of presentation as he saw them. This tendency to look to the past as a source of artistic inspiration was very much a product of his time, and he shared this impulse with members of the Japanese folk crafts movement that rose to prominence in the 1920s and ‘30s. Attention to the famous (and not-so-famous) dishes of the past, combined with the hands-on experience of holding and making, helped Rosanjin arrive at his ideas about the beauty of both plateware and the food we arrange on it. More than anything else, such beauty was about care and precision, which extends beyond the realm of food.
“This is not limited to plateware. It is the same for paintings, writing, and of course cooking. For example, when you pick up a knife and slice a fish, the food you create lives or dies based on that single line you cut. If done with care, the knife will leave a proper line. When done without, it will leave an ugly one. This is neither about whether the knife is sharp or not, nor whether one’s arm is skilled or not. It is a question of the person. Put simply, if done by a graceful person, the line and form will be graceful…In writing, painting, ceramics, and cooking, what emerges, in the end, is the maker. For better or worse, it is ourselves that appear. When I think about this for a while, I find that I cannot delegate almost anything to other people.”
Rosanjin wants us to be much more than chefs and potters. He wants us to express the grace and beauty that all artistic pursuits share, and in doing so to express ourselves. A chef’s care in cooking exposes his or her inner character, and Rosanjin encourages us all, no matter our pursuit, to become well-rounded people capable of recognizing the shared artistry in food, ceramics, and more. We control what we can and trust in the integrity and self-expression of those to whom we delegate. Offering us a rare glimpse into his own feelings, Rosanjin also admits how hard it has been for him to follow his own advice—to collaborate and entrust parts of his practice to others. He closes by bringing us back to the harmony between food and plates, which for Rosanjin is at the center of what Japanese cuisine ought to be.
“If food were merely about eating, it would be fine to heap our food on leaves like they did in ancient times. But if we want to go beyond this, it is necessary to choose vessels for our food. Plateware and cuisine have an intimate and inseparable relationship. They are said to be like husband and wife…The point I most want to emphasize is that people who cook should also study plateware. After plateware, one should also know about writing and painting, architecture, and so on. This is how to make genuine Japanese food.”
 Excerpted and Translated from Kitaoji Rosanjin, Shunkashūtō Ryōri Ōkoku (Tokyo: Chūō Kōron Shinsha, 2010).
Josh Schlachet is a Ph.D. candidate in Japanese cultural and culinary history at Columbia University with a focus on the history of food and health in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He got his start in food at the Culinary Institute of America and followed his passion to Kagoshima and Tokyo, Japan. The Gohan Society’s mission is near to Josh’s heart, and he wants to thank every one of you for your interest and support.