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Regional Feature 1 / Shigaraki, Koka, Shiga

A Trip to See the Origin of Disability Welfare
Shigaraki, Home of Ceramic Arts, Where Art Brut is Born

Interactions between Ceramic Arts in Shigaraki and Disabled People, as Seen by Ceramic Artist, Kuniko Kinoto

Shigaraki, located at the southern tip of Shiga Prefecture

Shiga Prefecture has Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan. Shigaraki town in Koka city is located southeast of the lake, at the southern tip of Shiga prefecture. It’s a small town on Shigaraki Basin; from Kyoto, take the Special Rapid Service train of the JR Biwako Line, which is about 20 mins, transfer to the JR Kusatsu Line at Kusatsu Station, and then drive alongside the Daido River among the mountains from the Kibu River by the Shigaraki Kogen Railway Diesel Car.

At the station, you will be welcomed by raccoon dog potteries lined up on the platform. It is a representative work of Shigaraki ware, and it seems to be a lucky charm meaning “above all others". Starting from the station, the city is full of pottery walking paths such as Suemi-dori, Kamaba-zaka, Hiirotsubo-zaka, and Rokuro-zaka. You can enjoy a stroll around potteries and pottery shops in the peaceful atmosphere of undisturbed woodland.

Historical Pottery Culture of Shigaraki

It is said that Shigaraki ceramic arts have a history of over 1,000 years. The reason is that the area was full of high-quality soil suitable for pottery and that it was surrounded by forests that could be used as fuel for firewood. It seems that there was an advantage as well that Kyoto, which was the center of distribution and a sustainable sale channel, was close to the area. In the Kamakura era, pottery became closer to people's lives, and needs have gradually changed from large items such as pots and jars to daily necessities such as bowls and cups. In the 20th century, braziers became popular, and later flower pots, umbrella stands, tiles and coffee cups were also produced. At present, lampshades are also made.

In this long history, requirements of the people for the types and styles of pottery have also changed. Each time, Shigaraki responded to the needs of the times, yet inherited traditional techniques. The open-minded Shigaraki culture of accepting change and creating new things seems to have had an influence.

The Spirit of Welfare, Passed Down in Shigaraki


Shigaraki's pottery and the history of disability welfare are closely related to Kazuo Itoga, also known as “the Father of Welfare for the Disabled”, and Taro Ikeda, the founder of the Shigaraki Dormitory. In 1946, Itoga established “Omi Gakuen” in Otsu city, Shiga Prefecture together with Ikeda and Ichiji Tamura. In 1952, Ikeda established Shigaraki Dormitory (currently Shigaraki Gakuen), a facility for children with disabilities in Shigaraki. The origin of welfare of disabled people in Shigaraki can be traced back to when 15 children with disabilities who graduated from junior high school but could not decide on their career path were welcomed from Omi Gakuen into this dormitory.




How can disabled people become independent and feel the joy of life? Ikeda, when he founded Shigaraki Gakuen, set 4 aims as the wishes of disabled people.
1. We want to work together
2. We want to be useful, not useless
3. We want to live with everyone
4. We want to lead a happy life together
Based on these 4 aims, he worked on vocational guidance in the local ceramic industry.

1955年には成人となった知的障害者の生活施設として、社団法人信楽青年寮(現・社会福祉法人しがらき会 信楽青年寮)が創設されました。目的は、「はたらく」こと。自立して、自然と社会に溶け込んでいくことを目指しました。

In 1955, the Shigaraki Seinenryo (currently the social welfare service corporation Shigaraki-kai, Shigaraki Seinenryo) was established as a community facility for adults with intellectual disabilities. The purpose of the facility is for “work”, and it aimed to become independent and be integrated into nature and society.


However, disabled people suddenly entered a small town with a population of about 12,000 at that time. Some people in the village turned thumbs down to the project. Meanwhile, the dormitory students were shopping at the same store as the local people and going to the only coffee shop in the village, talking loudly. At the time, the local people were bewildered by the newcomers and it seems to have caused various problems. It is said that the locals were reluctant to let them work for the ceramic companies.


Overcoming these barriers, Shigaraki has become recognized as a town for the welfare of the disabled, and this is all because of the hard work and continuous dedication of Taro Ikeda as a pioneer and other child support workers and vocational instructors.

Interactions between Shigaraki and Disabled People, as seen by the Author

I have been dreaming to become a ceramic artist since graduating from junior high school, and in 1995 I got a job at a Shigaraki potter. The reason for choosing Shigaraki as a place for training was mainly because of the conditions of the place, which was suitable for making pottery; the clay used for pottery was plentiful, the materials used for pottery were easy to prepare because there are many potteries, and it was affordable to rent a large house, where a kiln could be placed, etc. In addition to these reasons, it was also fascinating for me to be inspired by the ceramic artists from all over the world who would come to the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park.

It was quite common, at that time, for the local people to see disabled people working and spending time in Shigaraki. There was a disabled person at the place where I got a job. Making a raccoon dog pottery at the workshop, no one ever introduced him as a disabled person, and I would interact with him as just someone who was my senior at the workplace. The person was not a dormitory resident of Shigaraki Seinenryo but had come to work from within the prefecture on the introduction of his parents.

It seems that disabled people have become a part of Shigaraki town over a long period of time, and nowadays, not only abled and disabled people, but also various people of different nationalities or backgrounds are coexisting in harmony. This is what makes Shigaraki stand out as a borderless town.

"Disabled People’s Arts and Culture Festival Grand Opening" Workshop: Source of Expressions

As one of the projects of “Disabled People’s Arts and Culture Festival Grand Opening”, which took place on February 7-9, 2020 in Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture, "Workshop: Source of Expressions” was held with the objective to let the world know about the attraction of Shigaraki town. Participants of this event were mainly art experts from various countries. I interviewed Yuki Matsui and Hitomi Ishida (both are independent living support workers) from the festival's executive office, Social Welfare Organization Glow, to find out more about the workshop program that was held on February 9.

Social Welfare Corporation Shigaraki-kai, Shigaraki Seinenryo: The Origin where Life and Creation, Welfare and Arts Meet

The workshop program started at 10 am with a visit to Shigaraki Seinenryo. Shigaraki Seinenryo was established by Taro Ikeda in order to support disabled people in April 1955. As of March 2020, 55 people with intellectual disabilities who have been divided into four groups—pottery group, formative arts group, stock farm group, and green egg group—are engaged in interactions and creative activities with local people. The pottery group is the oldest among them, and it was their big mission to connect many people to local employment as a place for disabled people to experience the local community.

“When the participants of the workshop program arrived, the dormitory residents warmly welcomed us. They proudly showed us their works which was memorable”, said Matsui. During the tour, the participants seemed fascinated by the fact that tableware for daily use and works of art were being created in the same place. It seems the production of tableware for sale at welfare facilities and artistic creative activities are usually done separately in other countries, so many were surprised.

Daisuke Ishino, who works for the facility, gave the group a lecturer so that the participants could better understand the characteristics of Shigaraki Seinenryo. Ishino said; “The concept of art by disabled people did not exist 40 years ago”, and he talked about the situation when Shigaraki Seinenryo was established. “It was considered strange for instructors to support people to create artistic works in a period of time where working on production activities was thought to be best practice. But at one point the work caught the eye of a famous artist and flashed light on the activities. However, there are still a lot of people who are doing their best besides creating artistic works, and we aim to offer satisfactory support to everyone without any distinction.” Ishino explained how they view creative works from the standpoint of offering support.

/Daisuke Ishino Talks about the History of Shigaraki Seinenryo

In addition, Chitaru Kawasaki, a ceramic artist, talked about the history of Shigaraki and ceramic art as an instructor for about 30 minutes. Participants were highly interested in the train teapots. Train teapots were potteries used to carry tea inside produced in Shigaraki from around 1950. It is said that at its peak, 60,000 were produced per month and sold like hot cakes. Replicas of those at the time were also exhibited in the lecture.

/Chitaru Kawasaki, a Ceramic Artist, Introduces Shigaraki Town

Walking Paths of Pottery
Taking a Walk and Experiencing Times Unchanged

In the afternoon, the participants walked around Shigaraki town. Starting from Shigaraki Station, there are several walking paths in the town. It is collectively referred to as the “pottery walking path” and has pottery paintings embedded on the ground. It seems that these participants from abroad were very impressed with the Roman letters written on the paintings such as “ROKURO” and “TSUBO”.

Alongside the road, there are stores with pottery items such as flowerpots, pots, and braziers, a unique studio, and a large climbing kiln, etc. A large climbing kiln, which is indispensable when talking about Shigaraki pottery, is built on a slope on a hill-like terrain. The attraction of this kiln is that the burning of firewood produces works sprinkled with ashes. It is unbelievably beautiful to see the works with the ashes that had melted during the firing of the kiln layered over the works. The shop called “Ogama”, where the group visited next, still has a climbing kiln that was actually being used before. One participant said, “I was really impressed to see the climbing kiln, which I had only seen on video.”

Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park: Communication across Countries beyond Languages and Backgrounds through Clay

In the afternoon, the group moved to the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, where participants, potters from Shigaraki Seinenryo, and staff members from the Ceramic Cultural Park together experienced pottery making. The Ceramic Cultural Park is located about 2 km east of Shigaraki city. On the vast site, there are facilities such as the Shigaraki Industry Exhibition Hall, which introduces Shigaraki's industry, the Ceramic Art Museum, which promotes various ceramic arts, and the Creative Exhibition Hall, where potters from around the world work and come to stay, and visitors can enjoy the place according to their purpose.

In the pottery workshop, the participants were divided into four groups and tried making pottery. Everyone worked together in a group, deciding on a theme and using 40 kg of clay which was placed in the middle of the table. Matsui commented, “We didn’t have a common theme so the finished works by each group were very different in style.” One group decided on the theme of “Shigaraki Town” and created a comprehensive work, while others grouped together the works of potters from the dormitory and the works of the participants and combined them into one display.

“Everyone seemed to travel back to childhood and was very focused on their works,” says Ishida. “It seems that members of different nationalities and work histories were able to enjoy communicating through interacting with the clay,” she reviewed the events of the day.

After listening to how the co-production went, I felt that it was a place of interaction that was different from the discussion at the World Forum and that it was also a place to understand each other. It is not the language that connects people, but the production itself. I heard that there was also a work that was derived from someone else’s work, which then made up the whole work. In the process of trying to make something from the clay, there was work to understand each other. Through the clay, people from various backgrounds are able to gather and share the same time to get to know each other. This is a microcosm of the history of Shigaraki's involvement in the welfare of disabled people.

Shigaraki has a traditional form of vase called “Uzukumaru (squatting)". This name is given because the vase is intentionally crushed from above when it is produced. Shigaraki ware is attractive because it does not pursue the perfect shape. The aesthetic sense of Wabi Sabi, which does not see beauty in the perfect shape, may be due to the heartwarming atmosphere of this town.

In Shigasaki, every day at 8 am, 12 pm and 5 pm, the government office plays the song “Yuyake Koyake”, signaling the potters working hours. Shigaraki is a quiet town, but when you take a walk, you will hear the sound of the machine that kneads the clay and the sound of small trucks carrying large works. I imagine that the participants enjoyed the vibrancy of the ceramics town not only visually but also audibly.


When I was working at the production of Shigaraki raccoon dog potteries, there was a time when I was having trouble communicating with my disabled senior coworker at work. It was difficult for me to understand what the person was trying to say, therefore I was working according to my interpretation and understanding, and then one day the senior coworker became very angry with me. It was when I noticed that he was starting over everything I had worked on that I realized the reason why he was angry. It was because my work was not neat, and I also felt the difficulty of communicating verbally.

From then on, I relied less on verbal confirmation, and I would look carefully at the works that this person had made so that I could do the same. By doing so, it became possible to work together and get along very well without exchanging words. The people living here have been used to clay on a daily basis since a long time ago. It may be called “language as a sense”.

I came to this town after the formation of Shigaraki as a town which progresses with disabled people, and I was spending time recognizing that this was Shigaraki's norm. However, following this workshop program, I realized that various historical background and events were connected to the formation over time of Shigaraki.

If you have the opportunity to visit Shigaraki, I would be very happy if you could encounter the handicrafts and arts, including the raccoon dog pottery, and remember that the welfare of disabled people mentioned here is related to the clay and background of this pottery town.