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NIPPONIA No.32 March 15, 2005

Living in Japan
Expressing a Fascination with Japan through Pottery
Im Saem
Written by Takahashi Hidemine
Photos by Akagi Koichi

Saem's pottery is a marvelous blend of Japanese and Cambodian cultural sensibilities. He exhibits and sells some of his work at a famous department store in Tokyo.

One of Japan's most famous pottery and porcelain centers is located near the city of Seto in Aichi Prefecture. The history and traditions of ceramics are so closely tied to this region that one Japanese word for "earthenware" is setomono (Seto ware).
One of the many potters working there is a 55-year old Cambodian, Im Saem. He came to Japan 30 years ago and has been making pottery ever since. His work is popular now, and has been exhibited in different parts of the country.
"I work slowly, one piece at a time, figuring out how I want it to turn out as I go along—I don't have a fixed idea of the shape or color before I begin," he smiles, looking up from his spinning potter's wheel. His hands seem to understand what the clay is saying, and this guides his creativity. His technique involves taking all the time he needs to make something original.
Saem was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and majored in Cambodian literature at university. After graduating he enrolled at the Royal University of Fine Arts, Phnom Penh, to study oil painting, something that had fascinated him since early childhood. That is where he discovered ceramic art.
"I was astonished when I saw an exhibit of Japanese pottery. You see, Cambodian food is served on large plates, but Japanese bowls, dishes and plates come in all shapes and sizes. Many are made by hand, giving them a human touch. When I saw that, right away I wanted to get to know Japanese pottery."
He arrived in Japan at the age of 25, under a two-year comprehensive program to study pottery at a factory in Seto. But he realized that two years was not long enough and arranged for his studies to be extended for another four years.
"Most of my training was at a factory where ceramics are mass produced according to set patterns, and we had to work quickly. I learned the basics there, but wanted to make things according to my own taste."
After finishing the training program, he married a Japanese woman, Eiko, whom he had met in Japan. With her help, he opened an atelier called Apsalas Pottery Studio when he was 31. Becoming an independent ceramic artist was fine, but he had to sell his works to live. So he took some of them to show and sell at earthenware shops in different parts of the country.
"It was quite the trip because they were so heavy! That's when I realized that pottery is hard to use when it's heavy. I knew I'd have to make lighter, easier-to-use pieces."
Im Saem at work in his atelier. He has created many superlative works, and is glad for the support of the locals and the opportunity to use the excellent clay from the Seto area, where he lives.

He decided to blend different types of clay together to make a light variety. And he began using more red dyes, to create a warm feeling for pottery used during winter. Pottery is usually fired twice, but he began applying red coloring after the second time, then firing it again.
"Cambodia doesn't have four seasons, so the changing of the seasons in Japan was new to me. I was also impressed by the deep green colors so prevalent around hot springs and waterfalls. So I try to express the colors of Japan through pottery."
This is how Saem's style developed. He says he found the Japanese language difficult to learn, so he tried to express himself through pottery.
He and his wife live in their home next to the atelier. He wakes up every morning at 5 and works until 6 in the evening. In his spare time he does oil painting.
"I hope to stay in Japan all my life, and to keep improving my pottery, because I'm still not completely happy with it."
Slowly and meticulously—that is Saem's way of creating masterpieces that convey aspects of Japanese culture.

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