Japan’s genius for crafts

  • Themes: Art, Japan

The early 20th-century 'Mingei' movement, inspired by the philosopher and art critic Yanagi Sōetsu, set the tone for contemporary Japan's pride in craftsmanship and design. It is a story that goes back centuries.

Hamada Shōji demonstrating his craft at Scripps College, California, 1953.
Hamada Shōji demonstrating his craft at Scripps College, California, 1953. Credit: The collections of the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts

One of the more striking items on display at the Art Without Heroes exhibition, currently running at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London, is a kimono dating back perhaps to the 19th century. You might be imagining a lavish silken affair in striking colours, featuring flower or blossom motifs, but you’d be wrong. This one is stitched together from strips and squares of faded second-hand cotton and hemp; a mixture of blues, earthy browns and off-whites. It is the kimono of a worker, or perhaps a housewife, crafted from recycled boro, or ‘rags’.

'Shigoto-gi' workwear. Late Edo to early Showa period, 1800s-1950s.
'Shigoto-gi' workwear. Late Edo to early Showa period, 1800s-1950s. Credit: Collection of Chuzaburo Tanaka

Some will regard an exhibit like this as a grim testament to the poverty suffered by Japan’s northern prefectures across much of the modern era, left behind by the thriving network of cities further south, including Tokyo and Osaka. But Yanagi Sōetsu (1889-1961) would have you look again. A celebrated philosopher and art critic, he became fascinated in the 1920s by what handicrafts, produced by and for ordinary Japanese, particularly in the premodern and early modern eras, revealed of their spirit and way of life.

Yanagi Sōetsu as a young man, 1920.
Yanagi Sōetsu as a young man, 1920. Credit: The collections of the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts.

The question of what art says about the people who produce it was a highly political one in the Japan of Yanagi’s youth. Rapid modernisation in the closing decades of the 19th century was accompanied by debates about what it meant to be Japanese in a world shaped by western power, culture and industrial might, and how Japan might best present itself on the global stage. Japanese politicians and intellectuals tended to answer these questions, early on, with reference to the elite culture of the country’s long past: painting, calligraphy, Nō theatre, and the tea ceremony. Kabuki was reinvented with the sensibilities of western diplomats and visitors foremost in mind. What had once been a raucous all-day affair, attracting high- and low-born alike, was turned into something more closely resembling a night at the opera.

All this, it was hoped, would signal to the world’s great powers that Japan was a serious, civilised global player. And yet the arts soon became bound up not just with what the country might gain from modernisation but also what it risked losing. The pioneering folklorist Yanagita Kunio collected and published folk tales from around Japan as a means, he hoped, of carrying safely into the modern age the spirit of the jōmin – the ‘ordinary, abiding folk’, whose wisdom and immersion in nature he thought the Japanese could ill-afford to let slip away. While Japanese leaders at first regarded musical instruments like the shamisen and the zither-like koto as embarrassing relics of the past, they found renewed popularity as waves of nostalgia for the sounds and songs of village life and simpler times crashed over stressed-out urbanites.

All this was in the air when Yanagi Sōetsu found himself drawn to the beauty first of Korean and then Japanese crafts in the 1910s and early 1920s. He and some friends coined the term mingei – ‘folk craft’ – almost a century ago, in 1925 or 1926, and set about trying to express what it was that made something like a kimono stitched together from old rags so very special. In doing so, they drew liberally on Buddhism, Christianity and the social and aesthetic theories of John Ruskin and William Morris. A key idea was the intrinsic dignity of crafts that were created by ordinary people for use in everyday life. They were simple, functional and produced without the sort of self-consciousness and self-regard that one might associate with elite forms of art. In many cases, these crafts would be created co-operatively or by a single artist whose name might never be known.

Art Without Heroes takes its title from this driving ideal, which was expressed by Yanagi himself in 1932. In the world of crafts, he wrote, ‘there are no heroes. There are crowds of people. And yet beauty lives’. The exhibition, modest in size at around 80 items yet the largest ever in the UK to be dedicated to mingei, reflects this ideal in understated style. Visitors are reminded on an introductory placard that Yanagi regarded mingei as something to be appreciated without the prior knowledge often required of high art. ‘We invite you,’ the sign reads, ‘to look closely at the objects before reading the captions.’ At a time when the curators of many art exhibitions seem to want to give visitors’ values or politics a very particular nudge, often via laborious placard prose, this feels like a refreshing proposition.

The first of the exhibition’s three parts gives visitors a flavour of the 19th-century objects that inspired the mingei movement. These include the aforementioned kimono, alongside a pair of split-toed boots made from straw and various layers of fabric designed to protect field workers against insect and snake bites. The final layer is an attractive indigo-dyed cotton, believed to protect against bacteria. There is stoneware, too, including an earth-brown storage jar made in Sendai and featuring a lighter-coloured glaze erupting from the top and spilling down the sides. Younger visitors will enjoy the kokeshi dolls, from northern Japan’s Tōhoku region: smooth cylinders of polished wood for the bodies, with faces painted onto cuboid heads balanced atop.

19th Century storage jar.
19th Century storage jar. Credit: National Museums Scotland

The second part of the exhibition looks at the mingei movement itself, led by Yanagi alongside the Japanese potter Hamada Shōji (1894-1978) and his British counterpart Bernard Leach (1887-1979). They called themselves, we are told, the ‘three musketeers’. The movement gathered pace in the 1930s, centred around a Japan Folk-Crafts Museum established in Tokyo with Yanagi’s guidance and inspiring new works by Hamada and others – the price tags on which, critics noted, were sometimes rather high given the movement’s modest ideals.

An etching by Bernard Leach, titled Japanese Farmhouse, 1912.
An etching by Bernard Leach, titled Japanese Farmhouse, 1912. Credit: Bernard Leach Estate / The Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts

The Japanese empire in Asia was approaching its zenith at this point, and powerful rhetorical claims were being made about a modernising Japan saving or reforming ‘primitive’ or degraded cultures, from Korea through to the Ainu in what became Hokkaidō prefecture, and the inhabitants of the Ryūkyū islands, annexed into a new Okinawa prefecture. With Japanese leaders seeking to ‘assimilate’ these peoples, at tragic cost in lives and loss of culture, advocates for their folk crafts risked being accused of colonial complicity: giving art-historical backing to political claims of their primitive natures. In general, however, history has been kind to the likes of Yanagi, who wrote of his respect for Korean culture and showed a certain amount of bravery in opposing Japan’s harsh treatment of Korean independence activists at a time when this was a deeply unpopular view in his country.

Korean Cup and stand, 12th-13th century.
Korean Cup and stand, 12th-13th century. Credit: The collections of the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts

The exhibition does well to acknowledge the complexities here, providing brief notes, but letting the exhibits do most of the talking. These include an Ainu wall-hanging and jacket, alongside a folding screen made by Serizawa Keisuke (1895-1984). The screen uses the Okinawan bingata stencilling technique to create a map of the Ryūkyū islands in vivid blues, reds and oranges, featuring places of interests and the homes of various of the islands’ celebrated crafts. The same technique was used to create the densely-patterned floral theme – in pink, grey, black and white – of the beautiful cotton robe that stands next to it.

Six-fold screen, stencilled and resist-dyed silk on a wooden frame showing a map of Okinawa.
Six-fold screen, stencilled and resist-dyed silk on a wooden frame showing a map of Okinawa. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

The third and final part of the exhibition explores new iterations and interpretations of mingei in the 21st century, from large companies, such as Muji, showing an interest in its aesthetic to a fresh generation of artists inspired by Yanagi’s original ideals. Mingei seems to sit well alongside a modest movement in contemporary Japan towards sustainable, locally-sourced products and produce, not to mention a pride in regional crafts that goes back many centuries. Standout exhibits here include a slim, off-white earthenware jug handmade last year in a ‘mingei modernism’ style, and a selection of brightly-coloured, fun little kokeshi dolls – proof, as you reach the end of this small but perfectly-formed exhibition, that Japan’s kawaii (‘cute’) culture really can be turned to any purpose.

Art Without Heroes runs at the William Morris Gallery until 22nd September 2024.


Christopher Harding