Born in Kyushu, Tanaka Sajiro has always felt a deep familiarity with the local karatsu ceramic tradition. In his youth he was a competitive speedboat racer, but decided to escape that flamboyant lifestyle for something more cerebral. He first became entranced with Jomon and Yayoi ceramic vessels, which led to studies in archaeology and travel throughout Japan to participate in excavations. In addition, he has had a lifelong commitment to the practice of Zen Buddhism, having initially studied at Eihei-ji temple in Fukui in 1971. As part of his Zen training, Tanaka studied calligraphy, Chinese painting and iry, the way of tea, and ikebana. He believes the concept of evanescence is the main connection between pottery making and Zen spiritual training. In 1975 he received the Buddhist priest name Zenkai Hogetsu and named his studio Baireiho (mountain retreat populated by the gods).
It was Tanaka’s deep understanding and respect for ancient ceramics that led him to study with the renowned Kato Tokuro (1898-1985). In their initial meeting, Kato talked about Buddhism for hours but nothing about pottery. Tanaka soon realized that he was no match for Kato ‘s deep understanding of both Buddhism and the aesthetics of Momoyama ceramics. Another critical moment came when meeting with Hayashiya Seizo(b. 1928), Former Director of Musee Tomo and Honorary Member of Tokyo National Museum and a great connoisseur of teaware. Hayashiya said, when appraising Tanaka’s Korai teabowl “Seisho (Blue Heaven) ” in 2010, that he had never seen such a teabowl that challenged all previous tea precepts and revealed his “speedboat racer’s” spirit.
Tanaka digs his own clay, searching the local hillsides for new sources. He kneads the clay with his bare feet before working it on a kick wheel. All of his tools are self-made. It is his unique method of trimming the bases of teabowls that has brought him great acclaim. Tanaka has been a frequent traveler to Korea in order to study and create innovative Korean karatsu ware, even building a kiln in Ulsan, South Korea in 2003.