WWII ceramic grenades show a painful blend of art and war

August 15, 2022

TOKYO — With Japan running out of iron at the end of World War II, military leaders looked for other materials to make grenades. A choice became the traditional Bizen pottery of Okayama Prefecture, and the master craftsman at the time was ordered to make them.

Grenade shells made by Toshu Yamamoto (1906-1994), who would be designated a Living National Treasure as a ceramic artist, were donated by his eldest son to the Okayama Prefectural Museum and the Bizen School Board before the 77th anniversary of the end of the war on August 15.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yuichi Yamamoto holds a Bizen hand grenade made during World War II by his father, in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture.

Yuichi Yamamoto, 86, hopes the artifacts will convey a time in history when the art of pottery – which should improve life – was almost used to destroy it as a weapon of war.

The donated grenade shells are about 8 centimeters high and 6 centimeters in diameter, and weigh between 240 and 270 grams.

At the end of the war, the Japanese army ordered the potters of Japan to produce hand grenades as a replacement for iron. Yamamoto was among them.

“The sound of ‘bang! pan!’ still echoes in my head,” Yuichi said, recalling the test firings of grenades conducted near his home. “Shards of shrapnel would be driven deep into the wooden planks of the enclosure.”

The war ended before the Bizen hand grenades were actually used, which relieves Yuichi, who is the official custodian of important prefecture-designated intangible cultural properties.

“It’s consoling that our pottery didn’t harm people,” he said.

After the war, Yamamoto helped his father smash the grenades with a hammer. The fragments were buried with whole grenades that did not shatter.

US occupation force personnel once came to ask questions about explosives. But after learning that they had been eliminated, no action was taken against the family.

Bizen’s hand grenades would not be seen again with the naked eye until 1988. During a renovation of their home, several hundred were found in the ground. Toshu donated about 200 to the Bizen city government, saying, “That’s what you get when art mixes with war.” It is a terrible memory, but it must be preserved.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Toshu Yamamoto (1906-94)

After Toshu’s death in 1994, grenades were largely forgotten. But in June of this year, Yuichi was cleaning up his basement when he found the rest of the grenades.

Before his death, Toshu made his feelings about grenades very clear. “I don’t recognize them as works of art. They cannot be sold,” he said.

Deeply concerned that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could start another world war, Yuichi made the decision to donate the grenades with the idea that they could play a role in teaching the peace.

On August 2, he handed over approximately 400 hand grenades and 830 fragments to the Bizen City School Board.

The process gave him a chance to carefully review the grenades. Picking them up, he marveled at the craftsmanship, the near-uniformity in size and thickness.

Most other ceramic grenades would have been made from dies, but he again admired his father’s skill with the potter’s wheel.

“Once the war breaks out, even highly skilled artists will be used as tools of battle,” Yuichi said. “I hope we never see a time coming for such painful pottery again.”

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