Japanese & Western Mingei: Useful Misunderstandings

By Lynn, Martha Drexler | Ceramics Art & Perception, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Japanese & Western Mingei: Useful Misunderstandings


Lynn, Martha Drexler, Ceramics Art & Perception


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IN THE STANDARD RECITATION, THE WESTERN CERAMICS community adopted the Japanese Mingei movement's ideals because of their beguiling aesthetics, their connection to a remote Japanese past, their challenging but rewarding fabrication practices, and their lifestyle example. Originally assumed to be uniquely Japanese, Mingei (short for minshu-teki Kogei meaning 'common people's craft' or 'folk craft') persists as an essential part of Western (especially American and British) ceramic movements to this day. But where did Mingei come from? Is it a genuinely Japanese creation? Were there any non-Japanese influences on Mingei? These compelling questions were examined recently by two noted scholars who have established the complex and revealing exchanges that resulted in what is known in Japan and the West as the Mingei movement. (1)

It turns out that Mingei was a construction that mixed Western values derived from the 19th century British design theorists--among them, John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-1896)--with a desire for Japanese national identity, a lacing of Buddhist practice and aesthetics partially derived from Choson-era Korean ceramics. This complex of trans-cultural exchanges is the genesis of Mingei in both Japan and the West and, as such, it invites parsing to reveal its roots and the reasons for its continued influence on both Western and Asian ceramics.

To understand Mingei in all of its guises, the constructed nature of the Japanese aspect of Mingei movement must first be explicated. Mingei theory was developed from diverse threads woven together by Japanese writer and philosopher Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), aided by British writer and potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979). While not exclusively a ceramics movement, Mingei was soon embraced and its values expressed in compelling physical form by Japanese potters Hamada Shoji (1894-1978), Kawai Kanjiro (1890-1966) and Tomimoto Kenkichi (1886-1963).

In the early part of the 20th century Yanagi (and others) were feeling discomfort with the rapid modernisation that had occurred in Japan since the opening of the country by Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1853. Modernisation and contact with the West led to dramatic changes in Japanese culture and even, not surprisingly, affected ceramic design and production. As the British had felt during the mid 19th century when their manufacturing capability overran aesthetic sensibility, Yanagi feared that as the rush toward modernisation intensified, there would be a loss of traditional customs and practices in society, a loss of Japanese identity within international modernity, and a diminished place for authentic items in Japanese life. Inspired by Korean crafts, Buddhist spirituality and revelations about similar concerns in England (explored in depth through conversations about Western decorative arts with Leach), Yanagi centred his antidote on recognising and promoting the beauty in folk crafts. He established a set of criteria that prized the beauty of naturalness, tradition, simplicity, functionality, potential for replication affordability and lack of fragility. Each of these attributes had ramifications for all aspects of forming, designing and making of objects. Most importantly and in contrast to high art traditions, Yanagi's Mingei touted the selfless, anonymous, 'unknown craftsman' and, by extension, his humble lifestyle.

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Intriguingly, British design theorists such as William Morris and John Ruskin had arrived at similar conclusions when they also sought to encourage an artistic practice that avoided the horrors seen in their time in designs that proliferated during the mid-19th century. Their solution was to return to pre-industrial fabrication modes and aesthetics, that valued the making of handmade items above the over-designed manufactured goods on show at contemporary international expositions. When Japan encountered similar tensions, Yanagi promoted Mingei values as the appropriate curative. …

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