What, who, where and why

The concept of mingei (民芸), variously translated into English as “folk craft”, “folk art” or “popular art”, was developed from the mid-1920s in Japan by a philosopher and aesthete, Yanagi Sōetsu (1889–1961), together with a group of craftsmen, including the potters Hamada Shōji (1894–1978), and Kawai Kanjirō (1890–1966).

It was a conscious attempt to distinguish ordinary crafts and functional utensils (pottery, lacquer-ware, textile etc.), from “higher” forms of art – at the time much admired by people during a period when Japan was going through rapid westernization, industrialization, and cities started to sprawl. In a sense, mingei may be seen as a reaction to Japan’s rapid modernization processes.

Yanagi Sōetsu (柳 宗悦), also went by the name Yanagi Muneyoshi. He is known as a Japanese art critic, philosopher and above all as the founder of the Mingei movement in the late 1920s and 1930s.

A tea bowl made by a close family member and longtime student of Kanjiro Kawai

Travels of Yanagi Muneyoshi

As a young man, Yanagi developed a liking for Yi Dynasty ceramics (1392-1910), and in 1916, made his first trip to Korea. There he started to collect items, especially pottery, made by local Korean craftsmen. Realizing that Yi Dynasty wares had been made by “nameless craftsmen”, Yanagi felt that there had to be a similar sort of “art form” in Japan. On returning home, therefore, he became interested in his own country’s rich cultural heritage and started collecting “vanishing” craft items. The objects in his collection included woodwork, lacquer ware, pottery and textiles – from Okinawa and Hokkaidō (the Ainu), as well as from mainland Japan.

Yanagi Muneyoshi had a hand in the development and recognition of Onta ware as well, a separate venture yet the ware fits with Mingei

In certain important respects, therefore, what became the Japanese Folk Craft Movement owed much to Yanagi’s early interest in Korea, where he established a Korean Folk Craft Museum (Chōsen Minzoku Bijutsukan 朝鮮民俗美術館), in one of the old palace buildings in Seoul in 1924.

In the following year – after considerable discussion with two potter friends, Hamada Shōji and Kawai Kanjirō – the phrase that they coined to describe the craftsman’s work was mingei (民藝). This was a hybrid term, formed from minshū (民衆), meaning “common people”, and kōgei (工藝), or “craft”. Yanagi himself translated it into English as “folk craft” (not “folk art”), since he wished to stop people from conceiving of mingei as an individually-inspired “high” art (bijutsu 美術).

Several works from the illustrious Kawai family
A sake set by a grandnephew of Kanjiro

Realizing that the general public needed to be educated in his understanding of the beauty of Japanese crafts, Yanagi set about propagating his views in a series of articles, books and lectures, and his first complete work Kōgei no Michi (工藝の道, The Way of Crafts), was published in 1928. In 1931, he started a magazine Kōgei (工藝, Crafts), in which he, and a close circle of friends who thought like him, were able to air their views. Although Yanagi had formally declared the establishment of the Folk Craft Movement (日本民芸運動), in 1926, it really only began with publication of this magazine, and the number of Yanagi’s followers increased considerably as a result of their reading its contents. In 1952, Kōgei was absorbed by a second magazine Mingei (民藝, first published in 1939). In 1936, with financial assistance from a few wealthy Japanese businessmen, Yanagi was able to set up the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan, [日本民芸館]), and three years later, in 1939, launched a second magazine, Mingei (民藝). This remains the official organ of the Japan Folk Craft Association (Nihon Mingei Kyōkai [日本民芸協会]), founded in 1931.

Takéichi, nicknamed Buichi was a nephew of Kanjiro Kawai and they worked together well over 40 years

Fujihira, who was born in 1922, hails from one of Japan’s most famous pottery areas (the Gojozaka district in Kyoto), where as a young boy he would follow his big brother over to the house of the legendary Mingei giant Kawai Kanjiro to watch him at work