During World War II, the Japanese coal mining magnate father of ceramics collector Kikuchi Tomo found that the national conscription of workers, which supplied him with coal miners, had forced a potter into his service.

"He thought it was just as important for the national welfare that ceramics should be made as coal mined," said Kikuchi, "so he built the potter a kiln and put him back to making ceramics. As a young woman, I spent many hours watching the potter."

Kikuchi (in Japan the first name is the family name) is heir to a great coal mining fortune. She is one of the few Japanese women to be active on three boards of directors. But more important to her is her rank of 10 in the mysteries of the tea ceremony, and her principal occupation as Japan's leading collector of contemporary ceramics.

Thanks to Kikuchi's money, her knowledge and her taste, an amazing selection of 300 works by 100 potters, from her collection of more than 500 ceramics, opens today in the Museum of Natural History and continues though April 3. From here, the exhibit goes on to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It will eventually form the core of a museum in Japan.

In looking at the show, the most important thing to remember is that in Japan, a teapot not only holds tea but contemplation. A tea hut is, as Kikuchi Tomo put it, "a battlefield for artistic sensibilities."

"We make no difference between a ceramic object made to be used and one made only to be admired," said Kikuchi. Except for a small group of young Japanese artists, most of the ceramicists seem to have escaped the feeling of many western artists that art must be useless. So it is that with a few minor exceptions, all the works in the exhibit can be defined as: teapot, vase, bowl, vessel, flask.

Hayashi Kentaro, president of the Japan Foundation, calls them "works, created from the earth and fire of our native land, used and cherished in our everyday lives."

Smithsonian designer Richard Molinaroli has installed the show to remind the viewer of this fact. Two settings suggest the tea house, with its tatami mats and floor cushions; a bamboo fence encloses the exhibition, and glass bubbles, chosen not to compete with the ceramics, are filled with flowering branches.

The strongest and most moving works are the unglazed stoneware in the medieval tradition with their "landscape of color and texture" produced by the firing. They seem almost torn from the earth and carry with them a power that shakes the viewer. A canister by Kaneshige Sozan has a particularly rich coloration. .

The ceramics, many of them celadons, which follow the Chinese traditions, are beautiful but less assertive, cooler, less impassioned. The most handsome is the deep blue vase bursting with silvery white stars by Shimzu Uichi.

The decorated porcelains in Kikuchi's collection are very famous in Japan, especially the elaborate "Phantom Dinner Set" commissioned by Kikuchi when the emperor and empress of Japan stayed with her at her country estate. Fujimoto Yoshimichi of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts worked two years to make the 230-piece service for 15.

This magnificent exhibit shows once again the preeminence of the Japanese genius in ceramics.