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What is Mingei? Who invented it?

Mingei, a traditional Japanese folk art, is rooted in an appreciation of the handcrafted utilitarian object, and a recognition of its innate beauty. In part a reaction to Japan’s rapid modernization at the turn of the century, Mingei is a practice and a philosophy that instills value in the everyday. 


The word mingei, meaning art of the people, was coined by a revered Japanese philosopher named Sōetsu Yanagi. As a young man living in Korea in the early 1920s, he was taken with the timeless beauty of Yi dynasty (1392-1910) pottery—a simple, rustic type made in numberless quantities over the centuries. Used for everything from tea cups to kimchi jars, the pottery was everywhere and taken for granted.


Yanagi, however, saw Yi dynasty pottery with fresh eyes, and he considered it among the most beautiful of manmade objects—equal to renowned scroll paintings of the East and paintings and sculptures of the West. His writings, lectures and conversations opened the eyes of Koreans to their long-dismissed and anonymous artistic legacy. In 1921, Yanagi opened a folk museum in a small building in the old palace in Seoul, filled with Korean pots and other crafts. It was the first museum of mingei in the world.  The objects in his collection included woodwork, lacquer ware, pottery and textiles – from Okinawa and Hokkaidō (Ainu), as well as from mainland Japan. Returning to his homeland, Yanagi began to collect Japanese crafts, believing that his own people, too, needed to discover and preserve anonymous objects of truth and beauty that they had lived with and used over the ages. In 1936, with potters Kanjiro Kawai and Shoji Hamada, he opened the first Japan Folk Craft Museum (Nihon Mingei-kan). It stands for arts of the people returned to the people. 

In certain important respects, therefore, what became the Japanese Folk Craft Movement owed much to Yanagi’s early interest in Korea, where he established a Korean Folk Craft Museum in one of the old palace buildings in Seoul in 1924. In the following year – after considerable discussion with his friends,  Shōji and Kanjirō – the phrase that they coined to describe the craftsman’s work was mingei . This was a hybrid term, formed from minshū , meaning “common people”, and kōgei , or “craft”. Yanagi himself translated it into English as “folk craft” (not “folk art”), since he wished to stop people from conceiving of mingei as an individually-inspired “high” art .


Realising that the general public needed to be educated in his understanding of the beauty of Japanese crafts, Yanagi set about propagating his views in a series of articles, books and lectures, and his first complete work Kōgei no Michi was published in 1928. In 1931, he started a magazine Kōgei  in which he, and a close circle of friends who thought like him, were able to air their views. Although Yanagi had formally declared the establishment of the Folk Craft Movement in 1926, it really only began with publication of this magazine, and the number of Yanagi’s followers increased considerably as a result of their reading its contents. In 1952,Kōgei was absorbed by a second magazine Mingei. In 1936, with financial assistance from a few wealthy Japanese businessmen, Yanagi was able to set up the Japan Folk Crafts Museum and three years later, in 1939, launched a second magazine, Mingei. This remains the official organ of the Japan Folk Craft Association founded in 1931.

There are, therefore, three manifestations of the Folk Craft Movement: (1) the Folk Craft Museum, which exhibits objects that are seen to be truly “mingei” and which Yanagi intended should establish a “standard of beauty”; (2) the Folk Craft Association, which promotes Yanagi’s ideals throughout Japan and publishes two monthly magazines; and (3) the folk craft shop, Takumi, which acts as a major folk craft retail sales outlet in Tokyo. 

Many of Japan’s traditional ways were destroyed following the country’s defeat in the Second World War. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 led to the Japanese Government instituting a system designed to protect what it considered to be the National Treasures of Japan and individual artist-craftsmen – popularly known as “national treasures”– who were deemed to be holders of important cultural skills . The spread of Yanagi’s ideas was helped by these developments so that, by about 1960,the concept of mingei had become known not just to a small group of people living in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, but — as a result of publicity by the media — to almost everyone in Japan.

This resulted in enormous consumer demand for hand-made folk crafts, which many people thought included such things as tooth-picks and log cabins, as well as more mainstream crafts. This demand came to be labelled the “mingei boom” and continued until the mid-70s, since when it has gradually declined until becoming almost irrelevant to contemporary Japanese in the 2000s. Nevertheless, craftsmen who had been struggling to make ends meet before and just after the Pacific War, suddenly found themselves comparatively well-off; potters in particular benefited financially from the “boom”. With all the publicity surrounding folk crafts, new kilns were set up everywhere. So far as the purists were concerned, however, the day of the “instant potter” had come to accompany the other “instants” of everyday life in Japan – coffee, noodles and geisha. The average craftsman, they said, was interested in mingei for the money that was to be made from it, rather than for its beauty. It was little more than an urban elitist fad.

The mingei boom led to a number of paradoxes affecting Yanagi’s original theory of folk crafts.  Yanagi had argued that beauty would “be born” (rather than “created”) only in a “communal” society, where people cooperated with one another. Such cooperation bound not only one man to another, but man to nature. Folk crafts were in this respect “communal arts”. However, consumer demand for mingei objects led to increased mechanisation of production processes which, in themselves, relied far less on cooperative work and labour exchanges than they had in the past.  Mechanisation also led to less reliance on, and use of, natural materials – something that Yanagi had insisted upon as essential to his concept of beauty – something which also deprived modern mingei of its specifically “local” qualities. Both media exposure and consumer demand encouraged the emergence of the artist-craftsman intent on making money, and to the gradual disappearance of the less profit-motivated “unknown craftsman”. Consequently, mingei as “folk craft” gradually came to be seen as mingei as “folk art“.


The Mingei Philosophy

The philosophical pillar of mingei is “ordinary people’s crafts”. Yanagi theoretical and aesthetic proposition was that beauty was to be found in ordinary and utilitarian everyday objects made by nameless and unknown craftsmen – as opposed to higher forms of art created by named artists. In his first book outlining his concept of mingei, originally published in 1928, he argued that utilitarian objects made by the common people were “beyond beauty and ugliness”, and outlined a number of criteria that he considered essential to “true” mingei folk crafts.


Yanagi’s main focus was on beauty. The beauty of folk crafts, he argued, lay in: (1) the use of natural materials and “natural” hand-made production; (2) traditional methods and design; (3) simplicity and (4) functionality in form and design; (5) plurality, meaning that folk crafts could be copied and reproduced in quantity, leading to (6) inexpensiveness. Beauty was also be found in (7) the fact that folk crafts should be made by anonymous – or “unknown” – craftsmen, and not by well-known named artists. Finally, (8) there was the “beauty of health”, whereby a healthy attitude during the manufacture of folk crafts led to healthy crafts. In other words, beauty and folk crafts were the product of Japanese tradition – a tradition which he emphasised by saying that mingei should be representative of the regions in which they were produced and make use of natural materials found there.


Yanagi’s main emphasis was on beauty which, in his opinion, was unchanging, created by an immutable spirit. Sung period ceramics, or medieval Gothic architecture were products of the same spirit; “true” man was unchanging, unaffected by cultural or historical background. The present and the past were linked by beauty.  In order to appreciate such beauty, argued Yanagi, one should not allow previous knowledge, prejudice, or subjectivity to cloud one’s judgement. This could be achieved by means of what has been variously translated as “intuition”, “the seeing eye”, and “direct perception” (chokkan), whereby a craft object should be seen for what it is, without any prior knowledge or intellectual analysis coming between object and onlooker. It thereby directly communicated the inherent beauty of that same object.  If chokkan was an “absolute foot rule”, it also defied logical explanation and was, therefore, very much part of his “spiritual” approach to aesthetics and the appreciation of folk craft beauty. But chokkan was also a method of aesthetic appreciation that could be applied, and recognised, by anyone provided he or she perceived things “directly”. In other words, if chokkan was “subjective” or “arbitrary”, than it was not “direct” perception at all.

The other half of Yanagi’s theory of beauty was concerned with the spiritual attitude of the craftsman (as opposed to that of the person appreciating a craft object). For crafts to be beautiful, he said, the craftsman should leave nature to do the creating; salvation came from outside oneself, from what Yanagi called “self surrender”. Tariki was not denial of the self so much as freedom from the self. Just as an Amidha Buddhist believed he could be saved by reciting the nenbutsu prayer and denying his or her self, so the craftsman could attain a “pure land of beauty” by surrendering his self to nature. No craftsman had within himself the power to create beauty; the beauty that came from “self surrender” was incomparably greater than that of any work of art produced by “individual genius”. 


The Evolution of Mingei into Boro

The term boro means worn down or ragged, describing a building or clothing, or it can refer to the tattered clothes themselves. The boro style is actually a perfect example of how simple and practical design celebrated by the Mingei Movement can have a unique aesthetic appeal. Instead of focusing on the fine silk worn by the upper classes, boro shows the beauty in the cotton and hemp clothing worn by the peasants, especially in the northern territories of Japan. Throughout the Edo period, people found innovative ways to recycle and reuse everyday objects, primarily out of necessity. This is another one of those ways, and fits perfectly with the principles of the Mingei Movement! Up until around the 1600s in Japan, virtually all clothing peasants wore was made from common hemp, which could be locally grown and spun. Cotton goods were first introduced to Japan from China starting in the 15th century, and in the 16th century Japanese farmers began to adopt Chinese cultivation methods to produce it domestically. Production initially started in the Kyushu area in southern Japan, but with demand for cotton growing rapidly, the cotton industry quickly expanded throughout the warmer regions of Japan. 


However, geographical limitations meant that little cotton would reach the northernmost parts of Japan, as the cotton plant could not grow there. During the Edo period (1606-1868), traders would sail up the coast of Japan to sell used cotton cloth, mostly a distinct indigo color that is closely associated with modern boro fashion, since it was easier to dye cotton indigo than any other color. Women in farming communities would buy up these cotton scraps, and use them to make noragi (farmer’s clothing), futongawa (futon covers), pillows, aprons, and other useful everyday items.

Seamstresses in northern Japan invented a sewing technique, called sashiko, where a simple running stitch is sewn in repeating or interlocking patterns, often through several layers of fabric. This allowed them to sew hemp fabric and cotton scraps together in a way that provided more effective and longer lasting protection from the cold. Furthermore, it also gave people an opportunity to make interesting and unique patterns in the fabric, adding an element of creativity that could distinguish one household’s cloth items from another’s. The same clothing might be used for as many as three or four generations! Instead of throwing out old cloth items, they would be patched over and over, to the point that one might not be able to identify the original fabric. With more patches, farmers could extend the life of their cloth items, add extra layers of fabric for increased warmth, and avoid wasting this valuable yet scarce resource. 


Boro has not always been appreciated in Japanese culture. After the end of World War II, these kinds of tattered clothing were viewed with shame as a symbol of Japan’s shortages and poverty. However, in recent times, people no longer associate boro with poverty, and instead recognize it as a symbol of a unique cultural heritage that should be celebrated. Many folk art collectors nowadays see these all as one-of-a-kind treasures, and some modern fashion designers are even attempting to replicate the boro style in their own clothing lines!

Examples of Mingei Craft 

1.Lantern  c. 1800s

A variety of stationary and mobile Japanese lanterns for indoor- and outdoor-use have long been an important part of everyday life in Japan. Fuel was generally wax or oil. When paper is applied to a frame of wood or metal enclosing an oil dish to make a light chamber, the result is an andon. These framed paper lanterns are noted for their elegance and the simplicity of their angular design. The use of papered sliding doors (shoji), which diffused the light source in Japanese interiors, may have influenced the development of Japanese-style lighting. In the daytime, these doors provided a shield against the harsh rays of sunshine, but still permitted adequate light into the interior. The same principle is applied with andon. They shield the bright flame and elegantly diffuse the light. 

Portable paper lanterns called chochin came into use during the Muromachi period (1338–1573) and subsequently were produced in a great many styles. Many of these have an accordion-like appearance so that they can be easily folded when not in use.

This type of small, portable lamp could be used two ways. When the paper and wood frame is placed inside the box-like cover, light shines through the rectangular opening on the front, through the crescent moon cutout. When the cover is removed and placed under the papered frame as a base, the lamp functions as a small andon. These nightlights (ariake-andon) were intended to remain lit throughout the night.


2. Charcoal caddy

The tradition of using charcoal for heating, grilling, and the tea ceremony is deeply rooted in Japanese traditions and culture. As a result, the Japanese have created beautiful caddies (sumitori) to store charcoal to replenish the small fires in hibachis or braziers. This example is made from a dried gourd, though many of these containers are made of basketry. It was created by cutting an ovoid opening in the top of the large gourd, then attaching a bamboo handle. The gourd is a representation of Hotei, one of Japan’s seven gods of good fortune.

There are two different types of very pure, high-carbon Japanese charcoals: black charcoal (kuro-zumi) and white charcoal (shiro-zumi), which generate virtually no smoke or flames. The two types are achieved through different processes. Black charcoal is made from wood, typically oak, that is burned at extremely high temperatures over several days and then rapidly cooled. It burns hot enough for metal smelting and tool production. To make white charcoal, instead of firing the wood at a high temperature, it is fired at a low temperature for some time. Next, the temperature is raised; then the charcoal is quickly pulled out and covered with a white powder of ash, earth, and sand to help it cool. Chefs often prefer this long-burning charcoal when grilling foods such as eel (unagi) or chicken skewers (yakitori). 


3. Fireman’s hood

During the Edo period (1615–1868) fires, often referred to as “the flowers of Edo” because of their frequency, posed a constant threat in urban Japan. Densely packed rows of traditional Japanese houses built of wood, bamboo, and paper with straw roofs, were extremely vulnerable to fire. At the beginning of the Edo period there was no organized system for fighting fires. This began to change, particularly after 1657, when a terrible fire known as the Great Fire of Meireki, led to more organized brigades.

Firemen wore thick cotton coats, the insides of which were painted with elaborate designs including folk heroes or mythical creatures such as dragons to inspire courage and bravery in firefighters. In addition to their coats, firemen wore cotton hoods and hand protectors. They then doused these ensembles in water, which made the clothing much heavier, but provided better protection from flames.

A flag (matoi) signaled the presence of a fire to surrounding brigades to quickly come forth with water. During the Edo period, neighboring properties were commonly torn down in an attempt to prevent fires from spreading. Tools included fire hooks or axes to pull down burning or dangerous parts of a building or drag objects away from the fire, rudimentary water pumps, which first came into use in the late 1700s, and bamboo ladders.


4.Horse-eye motif plate 

Uma-no-me means “horse eye” in the sense of “bull’s-eye” a concentric-circle design, except that the horse’s eye motif is elongated. Depending on the size of the plate, five or six horse eyes form a continuous border around the undecorated central portion of an uma-no-me. Seto kilns offered these plates in large quantities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

For centuries, folk pottery was a necessity for many Japanese in provincial towns and cities. Unlike the ceramics made for the aristocracy and the affluent merchant classes, folk pottery was intended for daily use, during a time when industrial mass production of porcelain and stoneware did not yet exist. Craftsmen made some of the folk pottery; others were simply farmers working as part-time potters. Many of these pieces have a simple, organic beauty. Sometimes these coarse kitchen wares were made alongside refined porcelains; other pottery production centers were intended solely as folk kilns.

Utensils were made from earthenware and stoneware. Traditional shapes for utilitarian purposes include large water jars, miso or saké containers, kneading bowls, and basins. Pottery dishes, plates, and teapots were also common forms. Artisans often accented wares with a poured or running glaze. Glazes, such as black, brown, yellow, green, and white were usually subdued in color. Ash glaze, made from wood or straw, is the most ancient, but potters may also use tin, iron, and lead glazes.


5. Stoneware jar 

Shimaoka Tatsuzō was one of the most prominent Japanese Mingei potters of the twentieth century. As a Mingei potter, he made works for everyday use such as plates, teacups, and bowls. Shimaoka was born in Tokyo in 1919 to a family of ornamental braid makers. Rather than enter the family business, he studied industrial ceramics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Shimaoka felt inspired after a visit to the newly opened Japan Folk Crafts Museum, where he encountered Mingei philosophy and objects for the first time. In interviews, Shimaoka compared its effect on his future as to “rain on soil.”

Shimaoka graduated from the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1941, served in World War II in Burma, and returned to Japan, moving in 1946 to Mashiko, a town with a tradition of pottery making located an hour north of Tokyo. He became an apprentice of Hamada Shōji, one of Mingei’s founding proponents. Inspired by the rope decoration of prehistoric Japanese Jōmon pottery, the hallmark of Shimaoka’s work was his use of rope-impressed patterning by pressing rope into the clay while it is still wet (3).

In 1950, the Government of Japan began to designate certain individuals or groups who embodied intangible national cultural values as living human treasures. In 1996, Shimaoka was designated a Living National Treasure for his unique contribution to Japanese pottery. 

6. Maneki neko

Distinctly Japanese in form and origin, since the mid-nineteenth century, maneki neko or cat figurines beckoning with a paw upraised in the Japanese gesture of drawing people forth, have served as a good luck charm in businesses and homes. These whimsical, lucky objects are believed to have the power to fulfill wishes for good fortune, prosperity, and well-being. Maneki neko are common sights in local Japanese and Chinese restaurant windows, where they silently beckon to potential customers to enter. The cat holds up its left paw in an effort to bring luck and good fortune to a business; it holds up its right paw to invite good fortune, health, and happiness into the home. Colors also have certain connotations. White represents happiness and satisfaction, while black symbolizes safety and helps to drive away evil. One of the distinctive features of many maneki neko is the bib attached to the neck. Bibs are frequently painted with classic symbols of good luck and fortune, such as coins.

By the end of the Meiji period (1868–1912), maneki neko in plaster and ceramic were being manufactured in numerous sites across the country. Maneki neko also began appearing to a lesser extent in copper, bronze, wood, stone, and iron. By the early 1900s, some of the more important manufacturing sites that made maneki neko included the celebrated Seto and Kutani porcelain kilns and the Bizen stoneware kilns. 

7. Rectangular box with lid 

For centuries, people have revered Japanese lacquer, a glossy coating used to waterproof and decorate wood. Employed since ancient times, by the Muromachi period (1338–1573), lacquer wares became accessible for common use and were widely sold in public markets. Such wares were typically plain, black, or red, and occasionally modestly decorated with designs painted in colored lacquer or paint. Negoro refers to a type of lacquerware in which red lacquer is applied over black. Over time, the red surface wears away exposing the black layers underneath, displaying a subtle blend of red and black.

The best work was reserved for special pieces—wine and food vessels made for weddings, New Year festivities and other important events. Because red is associated with joy and celebration in Japan, it was a popular color for these special-occasion wares.

Raw lacquer is from the sap of the sumac tree found in many parts of Japan. A sticky, poisonous substance, it can cause a skin rash with only brief contact. Lacquer requires a very humid environment in order to dry—a special wet room with extremely high humidity. However, once the pieces are dry, the lacquer is quite hard and becomes impervious to normal liquids, including alcohol and solvents. Lacquer may be used in its refined natural state for a clear finish or else with coloring agents added for an opaque, colored finish.


8. Saké shop sign

On crowded city and village streets, shopkeepers had to compete for their customers’ attention. Wooden shop signs (kanban) with pleasing designs played an important role in catching the attention of people passing by and attracting customers. Many signs took the shape of the items for sale. This wooden saké shop sign from the Meiji period (1868–1912) proudly announces the Ishikawa Saké Shop and further reads: “Beautifully blended pure sake.” As further enticement, it uses a culturally popular smiling female face: Otafuku or Okame, the Goddess of Mirth, to entice potential patrons.


9. Daruma figure

This wooden figure is a mold for making hollow, papier-mâché Daruma tumble toys. Papier-mâché Darumas, which the Japanese have produced for centuries, are nearly as ubiquitous as maneki neko. Takasaki City in Gunma Prefecture northwest of Tokyo is the leading producer of Daruma dolls in Japan. Daruma is a rotund doll based on Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who brought Zen Buddhism to China from India or Central Asia. Daruma tumble-toys are made of hollow papier-mâché weighted with clay at the bottom so they always return to an upright position after being pushed over.

As the story is told, the doll appears legless, due to the legend that Daruma’s legs wasted away during his many intensive years of sitting in meditation, which lead to his enlightenment. Others say he is simply sitting in a zazenmeditation position with his legs crossed and his arms tucked into the folds of his bright red robe. The figure’s wide staring eyes refer to the tale of Daruma cutting off his eyelids to prevent himself from falling asleep during his long period of meditation.

New, papier-mâché Darumas have blank, white eyes. This allows the purchaser to make a special wish or set a goal. When the wish or goal is made, one eye is painted; when the wish or goal is fulfilled, the second eye is painted. Once both eyes are painted, these papier-mâché figurines are commonly burned at temples at the end of the year and a new Daruma is obtained.


10. Carp lantern

As an island nation, fish have long been an important part of Japanese culture. Over time, a number of fish, particularly the carp (koi) have developed important symbolic meanings in East Asia, including Japan. The carp symbolizes strength and resilience. Like salmon, carp swim upstream struggling over the rapids to spawn. Legend has it that schools of carp tirelessly worked to swim up a waterfall, one of which succeeded and was rewarded by being transformed into a dragon. Thus, the carp symbolizes worldly advancement and perseverance. Parents wish for their sons to have the bravery and drive of the carp to achieve all of their aspirations.

Fish are a popular subject for many whimsical folk toys. Like so many Japanese folk toys originally sold at temple or shrine festivals, many served as good luck charms rather than play things. Such toys were intended to invite good fortune and ward off evil. Toys such as this lantern were probably meant to instill the perseverance of the carp. Lanterns of this type date from the end of the 1800s when they were first used as decorations in summer festivals.


Onta Ware

This is a kiln that has been in operation since the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868).  Since that time, it has produced in great quantities of everyday dishes for the general populace. Yanagi visited the small mountain village where Onta ceramics are made and was deeply charmed by the artisans’ techniques that had been carried on for 300 years. Upon setting foot in Onta you will notice a distinct yet strange sound and smell right away. The solid thumping sound that fills the air at a steady pace while the faint aroma of something burning wafts down the streets… The Onta district in Oita prefecture became a pottery town in 1705.  It has a population of 59. Ten different kilns stand on both sides of the 150 meter-long road, and they create ceramics using secrets handed down within their own workshops.The mortar (karausu). Clay is softened with this old-fashioned, water-powered device. Another symbol of Onta is the common-use kiln.  The techniques of the artisans have been protected and handed down amid their communal life in this village. 


The village is a tightly-knit community, with families of potters going back generations. The work such as the purification of the earth is done by women, while men are responsible for actually creating the wares. Pieces are never signed by an individual but only with the sign of the Onta village. This is to signify that the production of a single vessel was the combined work of the community, not just one person. Ontayaki is made without the aid of any mechanical or electric machines whatsoever. Just as it was made in the past, these handicrafts are made solely from the strength of humans and nature. The pottery that is made today has inherited this unchanging quality, just as pottery made in the future will too.