Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 25, 2005
Yuko Kikuchi Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory: Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientalism New York: Routledge, 2004. 328 pp.; 102 b/w ills. Cloth $195.00 (0415297907)

Western readers will have come to know about mingei (folkcraft) theory through The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1972), the English potter Bernard Leach’s adaptation of a number of essays by his friend, the philosopher and crafts theorist Yanagi Soetsu, who is the principal subject of Yuko Kikuchi’s book. Or, if such readers happen to be potters themselves, they might have learned the basics of Japanese folkcraft theory from Leach’s own A Potter’s Book (London: Faber and Faber, 1940). What they will not have discovered is that Yanagi’s work is itself based on a hybridization of Western Arts and Crafts theory—derived from the work of John Ruskin and William Morris—with Japanese concepts of Zen Buddhism and, it turns out, a good deal besides.

Kikuchi’s extraordinarily learned book is a study in intellectual filiation: it analyzes an idea—an idea that happens to be associated with one charismatic individual—and traces it back to Yanagi’s education at the elite Peers’ School and at Tokyo University, to his involvement in the group of Westernizing intellectuals who called themselves the Shirakaba (White Birch) society, and to his discovery of the beauty of folk pottery during a visit to Korea where, ultimately, he created his first folk art museum. Along the way, Yanagi began to develop his “criterion of beauty” (53). The beauty of mingei objects, he argued, derived from their simplicity and naturalness, and that in turn came from the fact that they were functional, made for use by ordinary people, and thus inexpensive. Often such objects were irregular and imperfect, for they were made by hand, quickly and in large numbers, by artisans who labored selflessly and anonymously, not seeking to create beauty but rather finding it quite unconsciously by following tradition. Some of this is familiar enough: variations on this theme may be found in the writings of A. W. N. Pugin, Ruskin, and (especially) Morris, and Kikuchi takes pains to demonstrate where and to what extent such works were available in Japan. But Yanagi did more than reorganize ideas that were common in many countries facing uncontrolled modernization and industrialization. In particular, the Zen Buddhism of Suzuki Daisetz—who had been Yanagi’s teacher at the Peers’ School—pushed him in directions very different from those of his Western counterparts. As Kikuchi points out in considerable detail, Yanagi differed from his European counterparts by not talking about the pleasure that might inhere in labor, nor was he enraptured by the notion that there might be freedom in creativity. He did not follow Morris in trying to help his workmen escape from the deadening repetitiveness of factory work, nor in hoping that by returning to the craft traditions of an earlier time, they would be able to gain the self-respect that comes from creative work. On the contrary, he opposed the Western insistence on creativity—which he was convinced led to bad art—and instead emphasized the Buddhist concept of “no-mindedness,” of working without conscious thought in an age-old tradition.

Because many of the ideas behind Yanagi’s concept of mingei came originally from the West and were then mixed with components of the very different current of japonisme (the West’s invention of an immemorial Japan), Kikuchi’s analysis of these matters requires a mammoth chapter called “Appropriation of Orientalism.” Indeed, Edward Said’s Orientalism appears sporadically throughout the book, usually without any overt reference to the ideological baggage the term carries. The division between fine art (bijutsu) and craft (kogei) that Yanagi opposed so fiercely had been imported from the West; before the nineteenth century, no such distinction existed in Japan. Unsurprisingly, then, the tools Yanagi used to fight this unwholesome division were Western as well. As he labored to find a place for mingei, Yanagi borrowed more than the language of Ruskin and Morris: he and his followers set up workmen’s associations along the lines of Ruskin’s St. George’s Guild, they established museums of mingei objects—in particular, the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo, largely built with money supplied by the wealthy textile magnate and art collector Ohara Magosaburo—and they tried to find outlets for the work of the craftsmen. It is as well to point out the inherent irony: the mingei museums inevitably removed their contents from use and made them instead objects of desire; Ohara’s own museum in Kurashiki renders the irony still more poignant by now displaying the crafts in rooms next to, and in the same way as, imported French paintings.

Besides ironies, there were also dangers: the language of mingei could be used to emphasize still further the qualities of “Japaneseness” that were being exploited politically. As early as Yanagi’s trips to Korea, there was a hint that the value of Korean crafts could not be recognized without the intervention of Japanese paternalism. The same sort of thinking came to be applied to Okinawa as well. This is what Kikuchi terms “Oriental Orientalism”: the Japanese appropriation of Western Orientalist ideas to nationalist ambitions. Such ideas could be used to help justify the forced assimilation of the Okinawans. Yanagi and his friends recognized the value of Okinawan crafts but thought of them as “medieval,” part of Japan’s lost past and thus backward. The Ainu were treated similarly, and there was even something of this attitude in relation to those other Japanese colonies, Taiwan and Manchuria.

The history of the spread of mingei theory neither began nor ended with the events surrounding World War II. As early as the 1930s, Yanagi’s ideas of folkcraft—now seen abroad as authentic Oriental theory—entered into the mainstream of international modernism. For a time, the Bauhaus adopted some of these ideas. Leach continued to proselytize until, with the publication of A Potter’s Book, the English version of mingei came close to being dogma. This is the process Kikuchi has labeled “Reverse Orientalism,” the reexport of the hybridized mingei theory back to Europe and the United States. After the war, these effects multiplied. Yanagi and his potter friend Hamada Shoji toured the world, giving lectures and workshops. In the U. S.—and this part of the story is one of the few things omitted from Kikuchi’s book—a demonstration at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana set Peter Voulkos off on his distinguished career; meanwhile, Warren MacKenzie went to England to study with Leach and, on his return to Minneapolis, began the work that led to the creation of “Mingei-sota.” For a brief time, mingei philosophy dominated the world of crafts, a domination aided by the Western fascination with Zen Buddhism fueled by Suzuki’s many books on the subject.

The triumph of mingei theory might have made a fitting conclusion to Kikuchi’s study, but sensibly enough she has chosen to continue the story up to the present. To do so, it was necessary to revisit some earlier tensions and contradictions in the enterprise. At the outset, Yanagi had worked with his close friends, the potters Bernard Leach, Hamada Shoji, Kawai Kanjiro, and Tomimoto Kenkichi. The association gradually dissolved. Tomimoto left early (and Kikuchi gives a good account of the usually murky story of his departure): he wished to be a studio-craftsman, and the Buddhist ideology of “no-mindedness” held little appeal for him. Kawai’s departure was not so dramatic, but his pots became increasingly individualistic. Hamada remained loyal to the end—or so it might at first glance appear. But this story too is more complicated than Kikuchi allows. Though Hamada did set up his studio in the old pottery village of Mashiko, he gradually came to dominate it; as he became more and more famous, the prices of his pots reached astronomical proportions. These were not objects to be used but to be cherished. Nor did Hamada follow the lonely path of the tradition-bound craftsman so beloved of Yanagi. Janet Leach has left an account of her visit to Mashiko, at a time when the master, surrounded by apprentices and assistants, was preparing for an exhibition at one of the Tokyo department stores, and she mentions in passing that the Hamada establishment annually pumped out thirty thousand pots. In the face of these developments, Yanagi had finally to admit that while “no-mindedness” remained preferable to individualism, nevertheless the artist-craftsmen could still fill the role of teaching us to appreciate the work of the unknown craftsmen. At the same time, the quality of formerly anonymous craft work was deteriorating rapidly. Once mingei became popular, potters in the old crafts villages raced to fill the demand, and visitors found themselves facing acres of what has aptly been called ethnokitsch.

By this time, however, I have diverged somewhat from the text of Kikuchi’s excellent book. Although she does not limit herself solely to discussing mingei theory, she adheres closely to the path she chosen for herself. That may be seen as a virtue, not least because it allows her to roam so widely over the intellectual landscape of Europe and Japan. Yet there is something slightly bloodless about her account, as a glance at Brian Moeran’s Folk Art Potters of Japan: Beyond an Anthropology of Aesthetics (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1997) will demonstrate. Moeran’s subject, the pottery village of Sarayama (Onda) in Kyushu, was brought to the notice of the crafts world by Yanagi himself; when Bernard Leach spent a few weeks there in 1954, he completely changed the place, not least by teaching the inhabitants new ways of making pots. More important, all the attention soon made the village famous, not only in Japan but internationally as well, by way of Robert Sperry’s excellent 1965 film, Village Potters of Onda. What then happened is the subject of Moeran’s book. Increasingly, the potters of Sarayama produced for a faraway market; as some became more successful than their fellows, traditional village cooperation died away. Nowadays, tourists flock there, hoping to get some feeling for a craft world that has vanished. Mingei made Sarayama, but it has also killed it, thus illustrating quite nicely at least one of the inherent contradictions in Yanagi’s theory. However, Yanagi’s contradictions are not Kikuchi’s: the considerable flaws in mingei theory in no sense infect this erudite and compelling study.

Fritz Levy
Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Washington

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