Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 25, 2008
Kim Brandt Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007. 320 pp.; 21 b/w ills. Paper $23.95 (9780822340003)

Scholarly texts, from David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1990) to Carl Schorske’s Fin-De-Siecle Vienna (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), have played a pivotal role in theorizing culture, and specifically art, as a means by which to withstand and overcome the spatial and temporal contradictions of modernity in the West. In the past decade, the field of East Asian Studies has found itself undergoing a much-needed methodological shift whereby the intersection between culture, the economy, and nationalist politics is carefully analyzed. Through works that weave historical narratives with critical theory, such as Harry Harootunian’s Overcome by Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), the field of Japanese Studies has moved in a direction that attempts to address the logic behind the rise of culture as a stable force that granted people access to concrete experiences that were immune to changes and social abstractions caused by capitalism. Kim Brandt’s Kingdom of Beauty makes a fruitful contribution to this direction in Japanese and East Asian Studies through a careful study of mingei (folk-craft) and its place and changing role in Japanese society from 1920 to 1945.

The Japanese folk-craft movement was part of a larger global trend in which culture became a significant element that politicians, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens believed could ground and attach meaning to identities and social practices. During the 1920s and 1930s in countries spatially connected through the global market, culture came to be relied upon as a haven through which individuals could discover and experience immutable and eternal truths. In a similar manner, people from France to Korea defined and privileged culture as a source for aesthetic experience in the face of capitalist modernity’s power to produce ceaseless ideological and material changes. These changes unhinged the present from the past and spurred on a variety of ideological representations and movements, in the name of culture, to restore historical continuity and thus reaffirm national identity and values. In these environments where culture countered the instabilities produced by the economy, art, in particular, became the grounds upon which to form identities. Art assumed this position because it was seen as the medium linking people to a local place and embodying particular aesthetic qualities that stood outside linear time and apart from the messy material world. In this capacity, art and culture motivated individuals to participate in nationalist movements organized by the state that strove to construct an ideal social space where people experienced the spirit of the nation.

Brandt’s well-researched study on the mingei movement gives readers an interpretative framework that explains how art and culture in modern Japan assumed forms of social mediation that could help Japanese people negotiate their individual existences, experiences, and identities. Refusing to abstract culture from the social, Brandt investigates the Japanese folk-craft movement for reasons less about analyzing mingei objects and more about explaining why and how mingei developed and was embraced as a cultural response to changing social conditions. Hence, rather than claiming mingei’s emergence as the result of artistic reasons, Brandt argues that mingei and its associations “were crafted in the context of efforts by Japanese state and society to cope with the process of rapid industrialization within a volatile and competitive international order” (227). In this capacity, Brandt’s book illuminates a fascinating story of how Japanese people experienced and dealt with the modern. It also serves as a point of reference with which to critically compare how individuals throughout the world engaged with culture in order to supply authentic meaning for, and organize everyday life under, modernity.

What makes Brandt’s study so fascinating is the way she starts the book by pinpointing the origins of mingei in colonial Korea (1910–1945). During the early 1920s, Yanagi Muneyoshi (also known as Soetsu, 1889–1961), the leading founder of the mingei movement, conducted extensive research on the origins and meaning of Korean Chosŏn Dynasty (1392–1910) ceramics and pottery. Through their research, Yanagi and his colleagues concluded that the beauty of Korean art reflected the underlying beautiful aesthetic of Tōyō (Orient), which included Korea, Japan, China, and India. Yanagi’s drive to publicize and institutionalize this idea, especially through his leadership in building the Korean Folk Art Museum (Chōsen Minzoku Bijutsukan) in Seoul in 1924, lay in his ambition to equalize the value of Tōyō art with Western art, which many Westerners and non-Westerners considered the world’s standard measurement for defining artistic quality. Yanagi found this standard to be another form of growing Western world-wide domination, and he sought the protection and elevation of Tōyō art as a way to combat this threatening trend. In this pursuit, Yanagi’s colonialist gaze toward Korean art produced stereotypes about Koreans being feminine, child-like, and weak, reinforcing Japanese discourses on the stagnant nature of Korea and the need to colonize the country in order to make Koreans “modern.” Confronted with political, economic, and cultural domination by the West, Yanagi tied himself to Tōyō and its preservation; as a result, the colonial gaze reverted back to Yanagi, causing him to reflect upon his own identity and the foundation and significance of art. In particular, because he believed that the art and culture of any country mirrors the “psychology” of its people, who in turn embody the irreducible spirit of the nation, Yanagi thought that promoting and protecting Asian and Japanese art was vital for grounding the Japanese identity.

Brandt’s chapter on colonial Korean art makes a good accompaniment to Stephen Tanaka’s study (Japan’s Orient, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) on Tōyōshi (the study of Tōyō) and is a valuable contribution to postcolonial theories that stress how colonialism shaped the colonizer as much as the colonized. Yanagi’s experiences in colonial Korea indeed convinced him to be rooted in Asia or the Orient. However, his attachment to Asia did not mean that he recognized Chinese, Korean, and Japanese art as equal in value. Through his detailed study of Mokujiki Shōnin’s (1718–1810) Buddhist sculptures, Yanagi privileged Japanese art over Chinese and Korean art. To him, the characteristics and beauty of Mokujiki’s sculptures distinguished Japanese from Oriental art, though what made the elements of Mokujiki’s sculptures “Japanese” was never thoroughly explained by Yanagi.

For Yanagi, Mokujiki’s sculptures proved that a Japanese aesthetic existed independently of an Asian aesthetic. This was a crucial step for Yanagi in defining mingei as a concrete embodiment of a distinct Japanese aesthetic. Yet, mingei’s association with the everyday distinguished it from other Japanese art, as its items were functional crafts and objects used for daily living by the laboring masses. Some of these items included inexpensive types of pottery, sculpture, and furniture found in rural areas. Yanagi believed that mingei’s value came from the fact that these objects were not only made for practical use, but also manufactured “according to traditional techniques and designs . . . and by anonymous artisans without self-conscious, individualistic aesthetic intent” (52). Because it originated from the daily life of Japanese people, the mingei aesthetic, according to Yanagi, was authentic and embodied what he considered “Japanese.” For Yanagi, mingei served as a medium to express national character and experience true beauty.

Constituting mingei as a natural aesthetic, leaders of the folk-craft movement thought everyday craftsmen could produce new mingei objects and in the process transform Western-style goods—such as desks, tables, chairs, and clothing, including neckties—into mingei-style objects with all of its characteristics. However, Yanagi maintained that capitalism, machine technology, and greed combined to form an environment in which ugly, artificial objects were manufactured and consumed. Brandt argues that Yanagi’s theory that social structures abstracted people from the mingei experience led him to call for people to engage the present and create a new society organized around the principles of guild socialism, where individuals produced and consumed mingei objects communally. Yanagi envisioned a “Kingdom of Beauty” (bi no ōkoku) where people could discover an authentic national identity and beauty would naturally unfold. Here, Brandt persuasively shows that Yanagi’s ideas and the ideas of those who followed him originated from feelings of loss and displacement. Economic, social, and cultural changes in 1920s and 1930s Japan caused anxiety about national identity and class. What Brandt does so well in the early sections of the book is to lay out carefully how mingei was part of a larger intellectual movement that revived the memory of the folk as a solution to reuniting the present with the past, which created continuity within an unstable social realm.

Brandt’s work points out that Yanagi thought art carried a social-ethical component. More than just appreciating the beauty of mingei, the concrete realization of mingei ideology necessitated supporters to organize the production of mingei objects and promote its consumption. Yanagi’s purpose was to make mingei ideology a lived reality, unifying these ideals and their material reality. Yanagi’s drive to institutionalize mingei ideology in people’s everyday lives started with the Kamigamo Mingei Guild in 1927. More than organizing this guild as a place to mass-produce mingei-style goods, Yanagi wanted it to develop into a mutual cooperative community where people maintained strong relationships with each other based on love (sōai). Likewise, as Brandt demonstrates, the Mingeikan (mingei model home) presented at the 1928 Tokyo Industrial Exposition was intended to be a site of reception for visitors to become constituted as subjects of mingei ideology.

Yet while Yanagi’s intention was to promote these objects for Japanese people to embrace as mingei philosophy, consumers bought and used mingei for other reasons. This was especially apparent during the second stage of the mingei movement where new sites of production, publications (including Kōgei [Craft]), associations (such as the Mingei Association (1934)), and exhibitions and department stores were expected to serve as the means to actualize mingei ideology. However, old and new leaders of the mingei movement witnessed the commodification of mingei by Japanese consumers who bought these products as evidence of their own sophistication and refinement. For consumers, especially those in a burgeoning bourgeoisie, mingei’s value lay in its power to render status and class identification. The materialist drive behind the increasing popularity of mingei caused its proponents to be concerned that Japanese consumers did not buy and use mingei objects in order to develop a healthy lifestyle based on the folk-craft aesthetic. Brandt’s highlighting of mingei supporters misreading their audience points to a larger problem behind the intention and reception of art pieces in an environment shaped by market forces. As they become commodities bought and sold under capitalism, works of art are often abstracted of original meaning, value, and intention. Moving from use to exchange value in a market economy, an object could never retain a sole meaning and value. Brandt’s work reveals that as Japan grew into a capitalist economy during the 1920s and 1930s in which class became an important social determinant, the market played a vital role in creating a divide between the purpose of producing mingei objects and their actual purchase and use.

Brandt argues that by the late 1930s Japan became fascist and that mingei leaders, such as Yoshida Shōya, became aligned with this new political movement. Specifically, Brandt writes that the folk-craft movement came to be associated with the “fascist aspects of Japanese cultural policy during the early 1940s” (126). At that time, the state embarked on a new campaign to reform “daily life culture” (seikatsu bunka) as a way to displace Western influences and align everyday life with the nationalist goals of the state. Under this campaign, state and mingei officials collaborated together to institute programs, such as the construction of mingei-style female dormitories, in order for people to become disciplined national subjects. In fact, both groups thought mingei could be the basis for a new East Asian culture that would unify Asians against the West. This line of thinking motivated Yoshida to start projects such as the manufacture of mingei-style products in Manchukuo.

While Brandt does an excellent job of outlining the activities of mingei officials during the wartime period, she does not clarify the rationale behind their work with the state and their support of fascist policies. She assumes the reader will conclude that there was a natural relationship between mingei and fascism. It would have been helpful if Brandt had better explained how capitalism affected the way mingei and its culture evolved in prewar and wartime Japan. Perhaps more discussion of Yanagi’s philosophy on the economy and culture during the wartime period would have been useful in understanding what led mingei to support fascist policies. Despite these minor problems, Brandt has written an insightful book that not only informs readers about the complex history of mingei in Japan, but also compels them to think more about the relationship between art, the economy, and politics. More than anything, Brandt has written a book that will draw readers coming from different disciplines and interests, especially those studying East Asian history and those interested in art’s relationship to society.

Albert L. Park
Assistant Professor, Department of History, Claremont McKenna College