What the Japanese folk crafts movement can tell us about the gap between rich and poor

Liliana Morais

16 November 2021

Ihoan tea hut, Kodaiji Temple, Kyoto. Photo by the author.

Liliana Morais looks critically at the decline of mingei and argues for a stronger social context for craft.

The Japanese word mingei is an abbreviation of minshûteki kogei, meaning “people’s crafts”. The compound word was created by philosopher Yanagi Soetsu in the Taisho era (1912-1926), a period of intense urbanization, industrialization, and the rise of a mass-consumer society in Japan. These rapid changes in the lifestyle of common people, added to the rise of nationalism, catalyzed a rekindled interest in Japanese traditions after decades of top-down government policies aiming to “civilize and enlighten” (bunmei kaika) following the Western model.

Yanagi Soetsu first became interested in the everyday objects handcrafted by common people during a visit to Korea soon after its annexation to the Japanese empire. Joined by educated, upper-middle-class so-called artist-craftsmen (yes, men), Yanagi started a movement that sought to praise, protect, and support the handmade production of everyday items with ties to a pre-industrial past. He advocated for craftspeople to continue the production of handicrafts following historical motifs, simple styles, and inherited techniques, and to avoid labor-saving technological devices. Yanagi was inspired by the taste of sixteenth-century elite tea masters like Sen-no-Rikyu, who praised the imperfect and rustic beauty (wabi-sabi) of the straw roof and wattle and daub dwellings, crude storage jars, and other commonplace functional utensils made by humble peasants for their use in everyday farm life. Proposing a radical different aesthetics that the previous fashion for luxurious imported Chinese wares, they engaged in a process we can call “aestheticization of poverty”.

Inspired by peasants’ dwellings, this tea hut (above) is said to have been commissioned by wealthy merchant, tea practitioner, and writer Haiya Shoeki in the seventeenth century.

the Arts and Crafts Movement called for a reintegration of life, beauty, labor, and society

Yanagi was also influenced by the ideas of art critic John Ruskin and socialist designer William Morris, the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement that took hold in late nineteenth-century Britain. Faced with a rapidly changing society brought by the Industrial Revolution and the consequent transformation of rural craftspeople into urban factory workers, the movement joined together university-trained designers, artists, and specialized makers in the production of beautiful functional works. Their goal was to challenge the then-dominant separation between fine arts and decorative arts that excluded the latter from the art academies, relegating their producers to a lower hierarchy than that of the genius and inspired artist. Informed by Morris’s socialist sympathies, the Arts and Crafts movement was spurred by a desire to change the life of common people. Advocating for labor as a source of pleasure and dignity and for high-quality objects to be available for the enjoyment of all classes, the Arts and Crafts Movement called for a reintegration of life, beauty, labor, and society. Unfortunately, their products, made in low quantities with high-quality materials and involving intense specialized handwork, ended up being accessible only to a few, often the industrialists profiting off the factory-made goods attained through cheap and repetitive labor. Ironically, William Morris’ own designs, originally woodblock printed by hand, are now easily reproducible with mechanical and digital printing devices in low-quality polyester fabric, and inexpensively sold at every other decorative arts museum in the world.

The light shed on mingei folk craft objects as aesthetically and functionally beautiful (from 1868 Japan imported Western notions of art that excluded crafts from the art world), allowed until then anonymous craftspeople the opportunity to show and sell their works outside the perimeter of their regions for the first time through the support and networks set up by the mingei leaders. This attracted the interest of an educated and urban Japanese upper-middle class, who consumed these products as tokens of Japan’s authentic and endangered traditions, leading to rising prices and the actual removal of these items from the everyday lives of their communities.

Yanagi Soetsu’s house, Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Mingeikan), Tokyo. Photo by the author.

Anthropologist Brian Moeran has thoroughly investigated this difficult paradox in his fascinating monograph Folk Potters of Japan (1997). The author explores how the reevaluation of local ceramics traditions by the mingei leaders altered the community life, social dynamics, and production process in the small pottery village of Sarayama, Oita prefecture, in the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.

Drawing on Moeran and others’ work, I would like to summarize some of the common developments that have arisen from the encounter between rich and poor, center and periphery, in the past centuries:

  1. A craft object is made in a traditional community for everyday use of the people that make it or is exchanged for other necessities, using local materials and inherited techniques. Objects are strongly related to and derived from people’s needs, lifestyle, taste, and views of the world.
  2. An intellectual, critic, or collector discovers the community, drawing attention to the objects produced there through writings, exhibitions, and so forth.
  3. As people from outside the community buy the object without direct knowledge of its producers or conditions of production, the object enters the market, thus becoming a commodity in the Marxist sense.
  4. Makers start needing to produce more to answer growing demand. They may introduce advanced technology to produce objects cheaper and more efficiently. Producing more means larger quantities of raw materials are needed, which may lead to the depletion of natural resources. When that happens, raw materials start to be collected elsewhere, or cheaper artificial alternatives are introduced.
  5. Promotion of the craft object outside the region might lead to the popularization of the community that produces it, drawing tourists to the area, which can have serious environmental and social impacts, if in mass quantities and unregulated.
  6. As money enters the community in unprecedented quantities, people’s lifestyles are permanently altered. Makers, who once had made a variety of objects as a complement to other activities, start dedicating themselves to only one type of craft production full-time. With some makers getting more attention and selling more than others, inequalities with the community widen.
  7. The changing lifestyles and development of a money-centered economy leads to members of the community becoming consumers themselves. They can now buy cheap industrial products while making craft objects to sell to tourists and collectors, who are willing to pay higher prices for them. The objects no longer fill a function in the community that produces them. Separated from their original context and meaning, objects might lose their aura of “authenticity”, thus becoming “tourist art” (see Clifford, 1998).
  8. Cheaper copies of the object are produced, attracting uneducated consumers. Materials, process, and labor involved in the making become irrelevant, leading to what Marx calls commodity fetishism (consumers don’t know who, where, and how the object is made; they fetishize the final product).
  9. With rapid changing market trends and economic recessions, demand for the object wanes.
  10. Some collectors may still buy the perceived “authentic” object to sell to the wealthy or exhibit at galleries and museums elsewhere as a token of a nostalgic countryside, exotic culture, or romanticized past. The local government puts into place policies to guarantee that the techniques and skills used in the making of the object are passed down to future generations, sometimes leading them to become performative. The result is often the production of a simulacrum of a perceived “authentic” object. The making process and appearance of the object might be anachronistically and artificially stuck in the past to maintain its aura of authenticity, rather than evolving organically with people’s lives.

Is there a solution to this impasse? I believe a conversation about the place of crafts in this dichotomy between rich and poor cannot happen without questioning our current global economic system, which relies on environmental exploitation, land expropriation, unequal access to recourses, and wealth inequality between north and south, east and west, center and periphery for its maintenance.

Ainu fishing tools, Kussharo Kotan Ainu Folklore Museum. Photo by the author.

In 2019, the Ainu of Hokkaido were officially recognized as indigenous peoples of Japan, 120 years after government assimilation policies have driven their culture to near extinction. Expropriated from their lands and made to settle elsewhere and become farmers, the tools used in their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and its associated rituals can now only be seen in galleries and museums. In 2009, aiming at recovering the skills, knowledge, and meanings attached to the objects that once had been part of their ancestors’ everyday lives, the Hokkaido University Museum implemented a project aimed at exploring the relationship between contemporary Ainu-heritage artists and the materials and objects made by their ancestors (see Yamasaki & Miller, 2018).

A people’s craft for the future

In the post-war era, mingei became a synonym with cheap and old-fashioned handmade goods bought by middle-aged educated urbanites as souvenirs from an increasingly exploited and depopulated Japanese countryside that relied on tourism for economic survival.

In recent years, interest in mingei has resurfaced amongst an environmentally conscious and young urban middle-class, who came to see crafts as an ethical and personalized mode of production and consumption. The rise of lifestyle consciousness, that is, the awareness that the things that surround our everyday lives play an important role in our sense of well-being, has also contributed to this trend. Sadly, more often than not, these developments tend to be cannibalized by capitalism itself.

Nonetheless, knowing who makes what and how seems like an important first step in the annihilation of the commodity fetishism that leads to labor and environmental exploitation. Given the opportunity (that is, a stable job, living wage, and enough disposable income), most people will choose to invest in more expensive but high-quality goods that last longer, investing in their care and repair, thus decreasing consumption, waste, and their environmental impact. Direct connection between producers and consumers, through open studios, art festivals, and other maker-centered and material-centered initiatives, is crucial to make this happen. We need to build more opportunities to bring objects out of the realm of the untouchable museum and into people’s lives in order to strengthen this relationship between people and handmade things.

Craft is not just about objects. It is about human connection.

Craft is not just about objects. It is about human connection, an essential element in guaranteeing long-lasting health life according to recent research. Craft is also about the time and dedication spent making something that will add to the lives of both makers and users. It is about care for others, respect from others, and pride for the result of one’s efforts. It is about a connection with the materials and, by extension, the environment in which those materials dwell. It is about the aesthetic experience attained not just through disinterested contemplation in worship-like places that are most museums, but via all human senses.

Knowing how things are made and knowing the people who make them is to understand the time and care invested in fostering a skill that permits the seemingly magical transformation of raw materials into everyday objects that bring meaning and pleasure to our everyday lives. As a culture, we urgently need to reevaluate our bias for so-called “intellectual” aptitudes over tacit abilities and offer the much-deserved dignity and respect to people who make things that are essential to living, starting with food.

Food seems like an important element in thinking about how we relate to craft and how craft relates to living. The slow food movement has been accompanied by a resurged interest in handicrafts. This is no coincidence. Much of craft is connected with sociability and its rituals, such as those involved in the process of eating and drinking, especially with others. For craft to flourish and remain meaningful in the lives of those that produce them, we must deprioritize economic growth and give priority to people’s happiness, well-being, and regular opportunities to enjoy the good life. For that, we need to recover that which makes us human: to gather around a campfire with a cup of our favorite drink to tell stories about the past and imagine a better future.

Gathering around a campfire in Cunha, a town in countryside São Paulo (Brazil) where crafts are an integral part of the daily lives of the people who make them. Photo by the author.

References and further reading

Brandt, Kim. 2007. Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Clifford, James. 1988. “On Collecting Art and Culture”. In The Predicament of Culture. Harvard University Press, pp.215-229.

Clammer, John. 2015. Art, Culture and International Development: Humanizing Social Transformation. London and New York: Routledge.

Fischer, Edward F. 2014. The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Well-Being. Sandford University Press.

Kikuchi, Yuko. 2004. Japanese Modernization and Mingei Theory: Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientalism. London/ New York: Routledge Curzon.

Moeran, Brian. 1997. Folk Art Potters of Japan: Beyond and Anthropology of Aesthetics. Surrey: Curzon Press.

Morais, Liliana Granja Pereira de. 2016. Cerâmica em Cunha: 40 anos de forno noborigama no Brasil. Instituto Cultural da Cerâmica de Cunha.

Rennstam, Jens. 2021. Craft and degrowth – An exploration of craft-orientation as a mode of organizing production and consumption for addressing climate change. Paper presented at the EGOS colloquium, Amsterdam. 

Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Yamasaki, Koji & Miller, Mara. 2018. “Ainu Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: Replication, Remembering, and Recovery”. In New Essays in Japanese Aesthetics, edited by Nguyen Minh. Lexington Books, pp. 139-152.

Yanagi, Soetsu. 1972. The Unknown Craftsman: a Japanese Insight into Beauty. Kodasha International.

About Liliana Morais

Liliana Morais holds a B.A. in Archaeology and History from the University of Lisbon (2007), an M.A. in Japanese Culture from the University of São Paulo (2014), and a PhD in Sociology from Tokyo Metropolitan University (2019). She is currently an Adjunct Professor at various universities around Japan. She was a curator of the exhibition From Japan to Brazil: the Voyage of Oriental Ceramics, held at Caixa Cultural Salvador. In 2014-5, she worked as a research collaborator at the Cunha Ceramics Cultural Institute, where she published the book Cunha Ceramics: 40 years of Japanese Ceramics in Brazil (ICCC, 2016, in Portuguese). As a researcher, she is interested in looking at art and material culture through the lens of mobility, transnational migration, and transcultural exchanges. Her scholarly work is based on qualitative research methods such as ethnographic fieldwork, participant observation, and oral history.

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