This blog post was originally written for Studio KotoKoto
On a sunny summer morning, Studio Kotokoto (Ai in person and Kathryn in spirit) ventured to the leafy campus of Tokyo University to have a conversation about Mingei with one of Japan’s leading experts on the subject, Prof. Matsui Takeshi of Todai’s Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia.
Since Yanagi Muneyoshi (also known as Yanagi Soetsu) founded the Mingei movement almost 90 years ago, there has been fierce debate about what Mingei means and whether it is still relevant today.
We at Studio Kotokoto firmly believe that the spirit of Mingei is important and relevant to our lives today, which is why we have the word in our tagline. Mingei theory touches on the enriching and integral nature of craft to our lives, so it is as much about the users as it is about the makers. It is about recognizing the social and spiritual significance of bringing practical beauty into our homes.
Prof. Matsui has spent over 25 years studying the thinking and writings of Yanagi and the philosophy of Mingei. He wrote an excellent book on the subject entitled “Yanagi Muneyoshi and Mingei Today” (“Yanagi Muneyoshi to Mingei no Genzai” Tokyo; Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 2005).
Yanagi was a Japanese philosopher and aesthetician who lived in Japan from 1889 to 1961. With a circle of friends that included famous potters such as Hamada Shoji and Bernard Leach, Yanagi called on people to turn their eyes to the beauty of handmade utilitarian objects born out of the tradition of craftsmanship in cultures from around the world. For English speakers, a selection of Yanagi’s writings was translated in a book titled “The Unknown Craftsman” (Tokyo; Kodansha International Ltd.. 1972).
The appreciation of beauty in traditional crafts that are practical in use is the very core of Mingei aesthetics. Yanagi raised some very basic questions to get to the heart of the matter. What is beauty? Should art for enjoyment and craft for practical use be considered to have a different worth? Are craft inferior in value to art because it is spoilt by their practical nature?
Yanagi put forward a long list of criteria that he believed were the conditions for a beautiful object to be born. Some of the most discussed points include:
- It possesses beauty that is identified with use.
- It is made by hand.
- It is simple, natural and healthy.
- It is made by a community of uneducated anonymous craftsmen and is unsigned.
- It is made in large numbers and is inexpensive.
- It is representative of the tradition of its region.
To critics, these criteria are from another era and are too preservationist, unobtainable, and irrelevant in today’s world. Degawa Naoki highlights many of the contradictions and problems of Yanagi’s theory in his book “Mingei -The Collapse of Theory and The Birth of Style” (“Mingei-Riron no Houkai to Yoshiki no Tanjyo” Tokyo; Shinchosha, 1998) .
So is Mingei nothing more than an outdated myth? If it is passé, should we disregard it and move on? Prof. Matsui’s perspective is that it is important to understand the circumstances in which Yanagi came up with his criteria. “Yanagi had an acute eye for beauty, and when he found a beautiful object, he was intrigued to find out how it was born. He absorbed himself into researching the background of the object to find out how that beautiful object came to life,” Prof. Matsui explained.
“Yanagi set those criteria because he found that beautiful objects seemed to be born under those conditions”, Prof. Matsui continued. “However, that is not to say that the object becomes beautiful just because it fulfills those conditions.” In other words, it is a one-way process that starts by looking at the material aspect of an item. The criteria is Yanagi’s attempt to theoretically explain how its beauty came about.
This also explains how Mingei as a retail term has developed a negative connotation in Japan. Mingei is often used to refer to the cheap and unsophisticated handmade objects made in large numbers that are found in souvenir shops in rural areas.
Prof. Matsui offered that the way to approach Mingei “is to first simply see beauty in objects and to dig deeper into the thoughts for the reasons of its beauty. That means for the users to see and the makers to create without the binds and restrictions set by our knowledge or experience.” It is the continuous process in which the users select beautiful objects, and the makers strive to improve their work. While many get caught up in the list of criteria for Mingei offered by Yanagi, his contributions are in the research and many inspiring thoughts found in the discussions and explanations of how he reached his conclusions.
While Yanagi does not completely reject industrialization, his belief was that the beauty of craft reached its zenith in the pre-industrial era when people depended on handmade objects in their daily lives. Consequently, studying objects from the past helps in understanding the beauty that Yanagi discussed. “There are many things to be learned by looking at objects made by our predecessors. The users who study them develop better eyes and the makers who study them make better objects.” Prof. Matsui said.
In summing up Yanagi, Prof. Matsui said that “what Yanagi dedicated his life to considering, writing, and carrying out is essential to us now, as a wellspring of resources for creative thinking and constructive criticism towards our present way of life”. This is especially true for us at Studio Kotokoto. By studying Mingei, we have become better thinkers about reconsidering beauty in the context of our lives.
Meeting Prof. Matsui has invigorated our wish to continue the study of practical but beautiful objects, visiting their makers, and exploring the backgrounds of crafts and to continue to evolve our thinking. As the wise professor pointed out, the ultimate goal for students of Mingei is in the practice of seeing “to develop a better eye for beauty”, and this requires a lifelong journey of learning.