Editor’s note: The California Japanese Ceramic Arts Guild is presenting a tribute to founding members Joanne and Yukio Onaga during Nisei Week, Aug. 12-13 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, fifth floor, Room 502. Following is an article first published by the Little Tokyo Historical Society.


“Fire”  “Earth”  “Spirit” … basic elements of ceramics. Simple strong strokes combine fire and clay to create a spirit in art. 

This spirit has led to the formation of the California Japanese Ceramics Arts Guild and Little Tokyo Clayworks.


The creative efforts of the Japanese American Ceramics Guild, the Little Tokyo Clayworks, along with the many contributing ceramic artists including Joanne and Yukio Onaga, have been published so anyone interested in Little Tokyo and its cultural impact can see and appreciate the artistry and contributions of those involved in this art form.   

The guild’s history began with a ceramic art exhibit by the Onagas for the 1975 Nisei Week Festival. Sixteen studio potters and art teachers, along with one weaver and one student, were prominently featured in a display by Yukio Onaga at the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. Ten of these 18 artists expressed their desire to establish a more permanent organization in order to sustain the Nisei Week Ceramic Art Exhibit and to share common interests and ideas in ceramic art.  The word “Guild” was incorporated into the association’s name on the premise that each member would be committed to active, working participation.

Since then each year the guild has successfully participated in the Nisei Week Festival, making it the major project of the year. The annual festival included visits with leading ceramic artists such as Phil Cornelius, Pat Crabb, Joanne Hayakawa, Yoshiro Ikeda, Fred Olsen and Goro Suzuki. Westways Magazine featured the guild in their August 1979 issue. Workshops, benefit fairs, local exhibits and raku parties are all integrated component of the year’s activities. The guild members passionately share their individual spirit, fire, and earth in the beauty of ceramics.

Above and below: Little Tokyo Clayworks oepned in 1983, located at 106 N. San Pedro St. (now called Judge John Aiso Street) in Little Tokyo, near the Los Angeles Arts District.

Genesis of the Little Tokyo Clayworks and the Guild

Joanne and Yukio Onaga were serendipitous in the founding of the guild in 1976 and their vision was to showcase the work of local JA ceramicists not just once a year at the Nisei Week Festival, but year-round with a storefront to sell the unique and creative work of Nikkei artists, along with an exhibition space dedicated to showcasing specific artists. With the help and guidance of Tom Akashi, this led to the opening of a storefront in 1983 called Little Tokyo Clayworks in 1983 at 106 N. San Pedro St. (now called Judge John Aiso Street) in Little Tokyo near the Los Angeles Arts District. Joanne and Yukio ran the day-to-day business with a lot of help from dedicated volunteers Eleanor Komai, Rose Nishio as well as Tom Akashi.  

“Untitled,” high-fired stoneware with removable lid by Yukio Onaga

Key to both the guild and the clayworks in the early years was the dedication and contributions by a core group of committed Japanese American ceramicists including Sandy Kitayama, Rose Nishio, Mabel Enkoji, Mary Ichino, James Kobayashi, Eleanor Komai and many others.

Young artists, many of them graduates of the Otis College of Art and Design, began to populate the exhibits with works representing classic and modern trends, Japanese, European, and American techniques, and an incredible diversity of personal vision. Among this next generation of very talented artists were Evelyn Oi, Celeste Iida, Eiko Amano, and Reiko Berg, some of whom continue to work with the CJACG today.

At the time of the CJACG’s formation, Japanese American ceramicists of Southern California came from diverse backgrounds. For example, artists like Minnie Negoro were trained in pottery techniques during World War II at the Heart Mountain incarceration camp in Wyoming in order to prepare them to work in plants after the war. Others would study ceramics at Otis and other institutes of higher learning; some would take classes at community centers. Still others would receive their education and ceramics training in Japan and return to the U.S. Many would go on to become instructors themselves.

Yukio Onaga ran workshops on the special ceramic working called “raku firing.” He distributes guides to his students consisting of hand-drawn diagrams illustrating the interior workings of the kiln being used.  

Eiko Amano, representing the current generation of ceramic artists, has studied under renowned ceramicists and has produced numerous workshops. She has lectured at colleges, exhibited in galleries nationwide, and has her works held in many personal as well as corporate collections. 

Prior to the 1970s, most of the general population were not aware of ceramic art – especially those works influenced by the Japanese ceramic traditions. Much of the guild’s activity was concerned with exhibitions to broaden the exposure of Nikkei ceramic artists throughout the community. These exhibitions were carefully planned out during monthly meetings at members’ homes. As noted by the secretary in detailed written minutes, they discussed plans for future exhibitions and collaborations with other organizations, as well as donation drives and publicity for workshops. 

Working with ikebana artists and calligraphers, they would often host themed joint exhibits at the JACCC in Little Tokyo. Through their dedicated efforts, the works of Japanese American artists became much more well-known in the broader Southern California area.

Yukio Onaga’s “Untitled,” high-fired stoneware embellished with bamboo and feathers

Many members also submitted pieces to Joanne, Yukio, and Tom’s Little Tokyo Clayworks venture on Judge John Aiso Street, for exhibition and for sale. In addition to local member artists, internationally renowned artists would be invited to showcase their work alongside news about coming exhibitions, workshop opportunities from the studio, and a few classified advertisements from local potters as well as some humorous cartoons in a newsletter designed and written by Joanne. The little shop continued to operate for nearly 25 years.

During its lifetime, Little Tokyo Clayworks remained a steady presence in the community until 2008, when Joanne decided to retire. It was the only space in Little Tokyo dedicated to the uplifting and showcasing of Japanese American ceramics, and has not since been replaced. 

Auspiciously, we see a growing interest in the Japanese arts as well an interest in preserving the Little Tokyo historical area and we envision this as part of a greater trend in and around Little Tokyo and the Arts District. It is important to celebrate and preserve the legacy and continued community involvement of the artists of the California Japanese Ceramic Arts Guild and Little Tokyo Clayworks.

We also thank the current guild members, including Celeste Iida and Eiko Amano, for providing historical information as well as their continuing efforts in furthering the knowledge and appreciation of  Japanese-influenced ceramic art.

This project, dedicated to that very celebration and effort of preservation, is made possible through the dedication and resources of the Little Tokyo Historical Society, the Asian American Studies Center of UCLA, the generosity of Dr. Sanbo and Kazuko Sakaguchi, and the goodwill of Joanne Onaga and representatives of the CJACG.

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