Okinawa artist blows new life into recycles bottles
Stars and Stripes August 20, 2006
There’s an Okinawan poem that proclaims: “When life is blown into the reticent discarded bottle it starts to speak.”
It’s a saying that sums up the life of Seikichi Inamine. Recycled soda and beer bottles are the secrets to the success of Okinawa’s premier glassmaker.
Inamine is one of the few glassmakers on Okinawa who continues to use recycled glass as the base for his glassware. The bubbles produced by melting the used glass were seen as flaws by his more commercial brethren. As soon as purer compounds were more readily available following Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972, they discontinued the practice of using recycled materials that grew out of the island’s poverty following the end of World War II.
Inamine, 66, has been a glassmaker since 1954, learning the craft at several commercial factories on Okinawa. But he became disillusioned with churning out the same “pretty” glassware everyone else was producing for the island’s growing tourist industry.
“Ryukyu glass was becoming a mere souvenir item for tourists,” he said. “Is this what I wanted to make? I asked myself. Are these genuine Ryukyu glassworks?”
Okinawa, once known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, was devastated by the Battle of Okinawa, which left the island prefecture impoverished. Just after the war, glassmakers resorted to melting old bottles — many of them discarded by U.S. servicemembers — and reusing the material for common household glassware.
It was this tradition Inamine longed to get back to. There was something wondrous in the air bubble flaws of the glass he made in his youth.
Realizing that his soul was “made of glass,” he decided in 1988 to establish his own studio, “Mid-air Glass Blowing Studio Rainbow,” located in the Yomitan Pottery Village.
To this day, even though a wide variety of raw materials and colors are available, Inamine sticks to what he believes is genuine Ryukyu glassmaking.
“I use natural colors, mixing the original color of the bottles mixed with other natural ingredients,” he said. “The depth of color I get has no comparison. Discarded bottles already have their own color. For instance, beer bottles are brown, 7-Up bottles are green, whiskey bottles are black, etc. By adding natural ingredients, such as charcoal, curry powder, coffee or brown sugar, unique and original colors emerge.”
He also uses the air bubbles, mastering them to produce swirling designs that are unique to his glasses, dishware and vases.
“Making bubble-less glass out of used bottles was impossible,” he said, taking a break from the 150-degree heat of the kiln and furnaces in his studio shed. He sipped some cold water from a green glass with a purplish swath of bubbles encircling the middle.
“And so, I began to think that if this is something I cannot get rid of, I might as well make glass with nothing but all bubbles,” he said.
At first, his innovative products did not sell well.
“For the next three to four years, my family and I lived in poverty,” he said. “And then, a strange thing happened,” he said, smiling. He was encouraged to hold a weeklong exhibit of his bubbled glass in Kyoto. He was sold out in four days.
“All of a sudden, my bubble glass began to draw attention of people and began to fly off the shelves,” Inamine laughed.
He has since received many international awards for his crafts of glass and was
designated one of Japan’s contemporary master craftsmen in 1994.
“That award meant so much to me because it assured me that what I have done was right,” he said. “Discarded bottles may have ended their original roles in this world, but my job is to breathe new life into them, changing them into pieces of art.
“Each and every piece I craft is my dear child.”
In the workshop, Inamine and his six assistants scurry six hours a day, six days a week in what amounts to a ballet of melting, blowing and shaping glass into one-of-a-kind pieces of art. Without exchanging a word, they work swiftly and flowingly, moving from a kiln called the crucible to a pipe where the molten material is blown to size and then cooled and inserted into blast furnaces for further shaping.
And one-by-one the assistants bring the works in progress to Inamine, who sits at a workbench as he inspects the glassware, making adjustments by hammering, filing and shaving the red-hot material.
“When we decide on what to make — what colors and what shapes — they all have their own roles,” Inamine said of his staff. “Words are not necessary.”
Glassmaking is a race with time, he said.
“The shape is formed in an instant moment. What melts glass is fire and what forms glass is also fire. The finishing touch is also done by fire.”
After the desired color and shape of a piece is achieved, it is placed in a kiln for 24 hours at a temperature of 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even with 50 years of experience under his belt, Inamine said he is still learning.
Lately, he has begun to experiment with fusing glass and clay.
“The idea has been in my mind for the past 13 years,” he said. “When we built a new gallery here last year, the dirt dug out from the yard inspired me to use local clay for my glassmaking.”
He said his next challenge is to extract a purple color from Yomitan’s famous sweet potatoes.
“Harmony with the nature is the theme of my glassmaking,” he said.
Among his apprentices is Inamine’s 34-year-old son, Seiichiro, who decided to step into the shoes of his father.
“I am very pleased by his decision,” Inamine said. “I am proud that my son is taking over what I have devoted my life to.”
Glassmaking requires a lifetime commitment, he said. It takes at least 15 years for someone to become a full-fledged craftsman.
“That is the beginning,” he said, smiling again. “But there is no end in glassmaking. I am still learning.”
Know and Go
Mid-air Glass Blowing Studio Rainbow and its gift shop are open daily (though artists are off on Sundays) year-round from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Yomitan Pottery Village. From Kadena Air Base, turn left onto Route 12 from Highway 58 at the Kina crossroads. Look for a small sign that says “Village of Potters” in English. Turn right and follow the paved road to the left.