Nissan Seminar: An anthropological approach to hybridity and tradition in contemporary global Japanese ceramic practice

Convenor(s): Professor Roger Goodman and Dr Giulio Pugliese

Speaker(s): Dr Robin Wilson (University of Oxford)

An anthropological approach to hybridity and tradition in contemporary global Japanese ceramic practice


The current global expansion of Japanese craft, in particular of wood-fired Japanese ceramics, holds both methodological and ethnographic interest for the anthropologist. Oxford University Kilns is a research project based at the University research woodlands (Wytham Woods) and consists of three large working Japanese anagama kilns. The anagama is a type of wood-fired ceramics kilns dateable in Japan at least as far back as the twelfth century, yet still used today in ceramic centres such as Bizen and Mashiko to produce high-value art pieces as well as functional items for the domestic and global markets. Far from studying a disappearing ‘archaic’ form of making, this form of kiln has recently spread from Japan and is expanding worldwide, pushing artisans from different cultural traditions into contact with each other’s work and generating new ceramic traditions.  The aim of the research is to engage with the global community of potters by providing a real-work setting for firing ceramics.  As an anthropologist, Robin Wilson was invited by the Living National Treasure of Bizen to initiate the project at Oxford, and then to train in Bizen and elsewhere in Japan to fire these large and unusual kilns.  The Oxford Kilns have operated since 2015.

Robin Wilson, in 1992 completed doctoral studies in biochemistry that was funded by Porton Down, British Nuclear Fuels and the NERC, based on thermophillic bacteria collected from active hydrothermal systems above volcanoes in Melanesia and Polynesia. That fieldwork required an ongoing personal negotiation with local indigenous groups of a social licence to operate in order to collect scientific samples. He acquired language skills and community-based local knowledge from fieldwork in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, that led to a change in direction and a research post in anthropology and developed a practice of skilled craft-making (shield carving and so on) as a research method capable of creating alternative pathways to conversations between conflictual groups. Robin Wilson is a tutor at the Bodleian Bibliographical Press and has been an artist-in-residence of the University since 2012. He runs the Wytham Woods Studio and Workshops and is Chair of the Oxfordshire Crafts Guild.