Japanese Folk Art

02Oct07

I picked up the hardcover book Japan Crafts Sourcebooks from the “Artists and Fleas” market in Williamsburg on Saturday the 29th. It was only $10 although it was listed at $40 on the inside cover, and even Amazon.com has only used copies for $26 or so.

The book was produced by the Japan Crafts Forum and published by Kodansha. It details the old centers of Japan’s folk crafts and explains about them. It covers ceramics, lacquerwares, metalwares, cloth, paper, and other traditional folk arts.

I’m really intersted in folk arts, or as it is called in Japan, mingei (民芸) or literally “art of the people”. I will not go into depth here, but the movement’s founder was the philosopher Yanagi Soetsu, the author of The Unknown Craftsman.

The Japanese movement had its ideological anticedents in the larger arts and crafts movement at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, so it was global in scope. Yanagi soaked up these ideas and after visiting Korea and returning to notice the quick disappearance of traditional crafts in quickly modernizing Tokyo, he launched the movement in 1926. Recent scholarship has shed light on the way this ordering of art borrowed from Western colonialism and positioned Asian folk arts like Korean arts as subordinate to Japanese folk arts, basically aiding Japan’s cultural as well as socio-economic imperialism over Asia. Wikipedia sums it up this way:

…scholars such as Yuko Kikuchi and Brian Moeran have uncovered power relations and ultra-nationalism that lie at the core of the formation of Mingei theory. In 1927, Yanagi put forward the “criterion of beauty in Japan” [nihon ni okeru bi no hyojun] in The Way of Crafts [Kogei no Michi]. During the years of rising militarism in Japan, Yanagi Soetsu extended his application of the “criterion of beauty” to the crafts of the Okinawans and the Ainu in the Japanese peripheries, and to those of the colonies including Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria. Those scholars argue that Mingei theory, far from being an oriental theory, is a “hybridization” and “appropriation” of Occidental ideas such as that of William Morris (1834-1896) which Bernard Leach (1887-1979) introduced during his stay in Japan in 1909. Whereas Leach helped Japanese artists to rediscover their Oriental cultural origins in Occidental eyes, Japan applied orientalism to its own art and projected the same orientalism to the art of other oriental countries such as Korea. Yuko Kikuchi terms it “Oriental Orientalism”.

I think that while true, (and it is important to keep the movement in its historical context and see how it may have ideologically aided Japanese imperialism) this line of argument tends to overlook the positive aspects of the Mingei movement, which helped also to preserve and protect traditional Japanese folk arts to this day, something that normally Westerners love to criticize Japan for supposedly failing to do. Many other countries failed to adequately protect their folk art traditions in the face of Western cultural hegemony and modernization.

If in Japan and curious about seeing folk arts, in Tokyo definitely visit the Folk Crafts Museum (民芸館), or if you find yourself in Osaka, you can visit the much larger, and in my opinion better, Osaka Japanese Folk Arts Museum (大阪日本民藝館). If you are adventurous, you can go visit some of these centers of folk arts production. Most are in the countryside, but some like Kiyomizu-yaki pottery can be found in Kyoto, near the famous Kiyomizu Temple. In Tokyo, many prefectures also have stores selling goods from their prefectures, including many traditional crafts. Iwate Prefecture has one in Ginza, if I remember correctly, where you can buy Nambu tetsubin:

I am particularly interested in ceramics and have already been to a lot of these centers. I hope to visit more in my next trip.

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One Response to “Japanese Folk Art”


  1. 1 Obituary: Shimaoka Tatsuzo « Neo-Literati

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