Yuko Kikuchi: Where to find Mingei in Japan today


28 December 2021

“MINGEI — The Shape of Beautiful Living” Exhibition at ATELIER MUJI GINZA

In a Garland podcast, Yuko Kikuchi finds the spirit of Mingei in contemporary Japan, associated with MUJI department store and manga comics.

Yuko Kikuchi, Professor of Craft History at Kanazawa College of Art, shares her professional journey beginning with the Beat Generation in California. Moving to England, she was introduced to the Arts and Crafts Movement, through which she re-discovered the Mingei folk craft movement of her home country, Japan. She reflects on the Western critic of Mingei as elitism by identifying its evolution inside Japan into a modern commodity through MUJI and popular culture through manga comics. We also talk about Japan’s relationship to Taiwan, the unsustainability of craft in Kanazawa and the gender imbalance in Japanese society.

Yuko Kikuchi is Professor of Craft History and Studies at the Department of SCAPe (Sustainable Contemporary Art Practice and Visual Culture Studies), Kanazawa College of Art. Professor Kikuchi-san has contributed significantly to our understanding of the relationship between the art and crafts movement in Britain and Japan. In 1997, she curated the travelling exhibition, Ruskin in Japan 1890-1940: Nature for Art, Art for Life. This was followed by a publication based on her PhD, Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory: Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientalism. She has since focused particularly on the East Asian perspective on craft and design, including Refracted Modernity: Visual Culture and Identity in Colonial Taiwan, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press (2007).

The Anglo perspective on Japan

✿ Please tell us your path towards becoming a Professor of Craft History.

Yes, well, it’s going to be a little bit of a winding long story. But my first studying abroad in San Diego in US made me really go into the interesting idea about cultural translation. And then my teacher mentor at that time was Dan McLeod, who was one of the Beat Generation and he introduced me to the poet Gary Snyder, who was also an environmental activist. So my interest in Oriental and East Eastern cultures came from California. I studied Suzuki Zen and Okakura Tenshin Book of Tea and Zeami’s Noh philosophy and so on in English for the first time in my life, as taught by these Californian Beat Generation teachers. So it was very refreshing to see that this completely different perspective on my own culture. And so I developed this into my MA project on Gary Snyder and environmental ideas.

Then I have found an advertisement in The Japan Times for a Research Associate needed for the School of East Asian Studies at Sheffield University in the UK. At that time, I had no idea where Sheffield is, but I thought it is one year so I’ll just take this job and have a look at another perspective from Britain on Japan. Then one year was extended to two years and three years and by then I got interested in the local history of Sheffield and Yorkshire. And in my vicinity, there was a house which John Ruskin built as a museum for workers. Then I also became friends with my neighbours including a curator of Ruskin Gallery, Janet Barnes, and then the secretary of William Morris Society who was also living just behind my house. And so these things really happened coincidentally, and during the many meals and teas, we develop the idea of Ruskin’s influence on Japan.

And so I started doing research on that and the result was a travelling exhibition Ruskin in Japan 1840 to 1940 and co-curated by Toshio Watanabe, who becomes my future colleague and supervisor. Ruskin’s idea was very influential in modern Japan. It’s one way: Ruskin didn’t like Japan at all, but Japan liked Ruskin very much. And so the Mingei movement is now understood as a Japanese variation of the English arts and crafts movement. So from that exhibition, I’ve decided to do my research project on the Mingei movement.

With the comparative perspective, I’ve discovered the political and colonial aspects of the Mingei movement, which had never been discussed in an academic way. And also this includes the expansion of the Mingei movement to colonial Korea and colonial Taiwan and northeast China, including Manchuria. I’ve moved to London by then and from Sheffield, to do this PhD project at the University of the Arts, London. Then, I also started working as a research fellow for the project called Modernity and Identity in Non-Western art. This was led by Oriana Baddeley, who was a Mexican and Latin American modern art specialist, Toshio Watanabe and Partha Mitter, who is a pioneer in Indian modern art history. So it was a stimulating project about the comparison of modernities—plural modernity in visual cultures in non-western countries like Mexico, Japan, India, and all of the places that have similar experiences of disruption in their local visual culture, by direct or indirect colonisation, by Western imperialism.

So I was doing this work at the time when Britain was also promoting cultural diversities and redressing race, gender equality framed by the heightened interest in post-colonial theories. At that time, we listened to Edward Said lectures in person, and also Homi Bhabha, who was still in Sussex, before he moved to the US, and so we had a very stimulating environment there. Then, as a natural outcome, we established the TRAIN Research Center. TRAIN is an acronym of “transnational art, identity and nation”. So it’s extended this idea of plural modernities and identity formation in non-Western countries. So that was around 2004.

And I began developing transnational medicine and emphasizing the intersectionality of race and gender, involving black artists with Caribbean ancestry relations, such as Sonia Boyce or Latin American art historians like Oriana Baddeley. And Japanese art historians like me and Toshio Watanabe worked together to develop the transnational framework for visual culture studies. So my interest in the Mingei movement and transnationalism really developed in this very stimulating working environment.

But two years ago, I had to move back to Japan to take care of my father who’s now 93 and got a job at Kanazawa where there’s a strong interest in crafts. Since then, I created a new department SCAPE and updated a very old fashioned Aesthetics and Art History department with my experience of developing transnational visual culture studies and critical craft studies.

Mingei today in MUJI and manga

✿ Our current issue has an article by Liliana Morais, which reflects on the elitist character of Mingei. How do you respond to this critique?

Liliana and I are friends and we talk a lot about it. She also teaches part-time at Kanazawa College of Art. This idea of elite culture is more understood outside Japan. There are many variations of the Mingei movement abroad, and they will remember the original Yanagi version of Mingei.

Whereas in Japan, the Mingei movement is revived and rebranded now. But if you look, if you ask anybody who’s interested in the Mingei movement or the name Mingei, they would say they never heard of it. Soetsu, they don’t know who he is. And what is this theory about and so on? Their starting point is the Yanagi Sori, his son, and designer, and it’s a very modern and Scandinavian look, Japanese modern design, that’s where they are interested in the word Mingei. What they think is Mingei objects. So the Yanagi and the elitist sort of idea is completely forgotten by this new generation of people who are interested in Mingei. They’re interested in their Mingei through MUJI. Because MUJI is trying to promote kind of this design idea inspired Mingei in their project called Found MUJI. And they have a great exhibition all the time in Ginza, its flagship.

Liliana would say this is capitalist cannibalism, and it is. It is through MUJI they found something interesting for them. And but this is quite different from what Yanagi thought about Mingei.

And besides MUJI there is manga. There was a very big manga hit called Golden Kamuy which is about Ainu. Liliana is also interested in how Ainu is placed in the centre of cultural discourse now. This manga Golden Kamuy introduced Ainu objects, and especially the Attush robes. In each volume, they have got some explanation about these costumes and how it was made and then why and so on.

Currently, MoMA Tokyo is having an exhibition about Mingei. This is very unusual, because it’s a fine art gallery, a white cube, presenting a Mingei exhibition. The language they use is like “new design”, “mass consumption”, and “tourism for a new audience”. It attracts a lot of people, particularly the younger generation in their 30s and 20s. They don’t know anything about Yanagi. So they go there to learn about this movement. And they don’t know anything about the Japanese World War. They don’t know anything about Japan’s colonies. So they all learned a little bit from this exhibition. And that’s what I’m just witnessing.


✿ You pay particular attention to Yanagi’s time in Taiwan, which is also the subject of your later research. How would you characterise the relationship between Japan and Taiwan?

Taiwan and Japan share a lot of history. It was Japan’s colony for 50 years, from 1895 to 1945. So we still have the people who were born between: the Taiwanese born here and then Japanese born there. And so there are lots of shared cultures and legacies. But we haven’t had enough academic research or collaboration on the Taiwanese and Japanese cultures.

So in 2000, we started this project, Reflected Modernities, the book we published in 2007. And that was a very interesting Taiwanese context that radical cultural changes happened under the DPP, at that time the opposition party but now the ruling party, to emphasize Taiwan history and identity. This is informed by Aboriginal culture. Taiwan’s multiculturalism looks beyond really beyond Han Chinese centred cultural discourse. And, interestingly, also the Japanese colonization, past and legacy.

At that time, there wasn’t any curriculum teaching Taiwan art history, or Taiwanese culture. It was only Chinese art history and Chinese culture. And that was centred on mainland China. So all the contributors for this book were the pioneers of curriculum and policymaking changes to Taiwanese history, Taiwanese art, and Taiwanese centred discourse.

A very important contributor was LIAO Hsin-Tien, who’s now the Director of the National History Museum. This was a very productive collaboration because we have good language programs. One shared aspect was Mingei. In the Japanese discourse, it is told how Yanagi discovered the beauty of Taiwanese Mingei. And he collected and appreciated and created the words for evaluation.

But actually, there was a very important key person in Taiwan, Yen Shui-long. He’s a very multi-talented person. He is an oil painter, designer and educator, and then the leader of the Mingei movement in Taiwan. He was Japanese at that time. He was trained in Tokyo School of Arts and studied in Paris with the other Japanese painters, and came back and worked with Yanagi and guided Yanagi’s study of Taiwanese Mingei. This is what we are excavating: the forgotten persons in colonial history. And so there are more things we need to do. Because we need to rewrite the Japanese side of art history because there are no Taiwanese Japanese artists included in the main Japanese art history at the moment. On the Taiwanese side too, there are lots of people who are transnational and educated some percentage in Taiwan and some percentage in Japan.


✿ Now you have settled into Kanazawa, how would you characterise the position of craft in that city?

Kanazawa is a very unique city, as I presented in my paper entitled “Towards a sustainable culture of crafts: Kanazawa’s regional perspective and the big picture” at the Jockey Club ICH+ innovative heritage education program summit. Kanazawa is such a unique city and very, very obsessed with the crafts. There’s a unique historical background: from the seventeenth century, the warlord Maeda clan’s story is about crafts, and how they used craft as cultural and diplomatic means. And they received the UNESCO designated status of City of Crafts since 2009.

There are lots and lots of problems too. The city’s model of crafts and craft activities is unsustainable. So firstly, the living national treasure system is frozen and closed. And so there are many living national treasure master craftsmen working in Kanazawa, and Ishka prefecture. But these are artificially protected and supported by the government. But this is not really sustainable because master craftsmen have an average age is 78. Young people are not interested in it anymore because it is a closed world. And no new information is coming in. And women are not welcomed. It is a very male-dominated world. So this is not really the 21st century.

Also, there’s not much information exchange. Digital communication is not present in this crafts community. They’re very closed. They don’t have common terminology to communicate even with the other regions who are making similar things. So they have to develop standardised terminologies for crafts, materials, skills, and so on. And as well as translating into English, it’s very important to communicate with the outside world.

And where I’m working, higher education has got a big problem, because they’re continuing a very old method of making, but there’s no questioning. So at the undergraduate level, they are providing a high skill, education, skill-based education, and MA and PhD degrees. But if you look at these degrees, there are no critical questions in there. The PhD dissertation consists of personal diaries or notes of the making process. So the problem is that there are no critical questions. So they just keep making something as told by the old masters or the old teachers, and this is a problem. The city’s administrators, who should really communicate through UNESCO’s network, don’t speak English at all. They don’t hire anybody who can bridge between worlds.

Future work

✿ So what are your plans for the future?

As an educator in higher education, what I could do first is introduce critical studies on craft. And so that’s why I founded a new department to connect with discussions going on in the world.

I am doing two projects currently, both overlapping. One is funded by UK Government HRC funding, called Women’s Leadership in Designing Social Innovation, Mutual Learning in the Asia Pacific. This is led by Joyce Yee at Northumbria University, and I’m working as a co-PI.

And the other one is an Australia Japan Foundation-funded project, which focuses on women’s leadership through craft mutual learning between Australia and Japan. So I’m working with the RMIT colleagues Yoko Akama and Sarah Teasley. I am sharing this quite bad gender gap situation in Japan. As you may know, Japan’s gender gap is the worst among G7 countries, and quite shamefully and embarrassingly 120th place among 156 countries, according to 2021 statistics. So it’s really at the bottom. And Kanazawa College of Art is the typical one. About 80% of the students are female, but the professors are about 80% male. And so this kind of thing has to be really addressed. To have some kind of healthier and future-looking craft situation.

We don’t know where to start a lot of problems, but I can at least start this by changing the higher education environment to empower women and then use their creative power.

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