Mingei, Japanese Folk Art

Japanese Lacquer Sake Barrel, Iwaidaru for Wedding

Japanese Lacquer Sake Barrel, Iwaidaru for Wedding

We at Jcollector have currently been enjoying a variety of summer fairs and festivals throughout California and around the country. Summer is a fantastic time for celebrating traditions and culture. Japanese festivals and community events abound, and allow us to share in and enjoy Japan’s rich heritage. They are also a great way to learn about Japan’s varied arts movements and the objects which illustrate them.

For example, we thought this week’s blog should be about Mingei, or Japanese folk art. Mingei literally means “art of the common folk.” The word was invented in 1925, by Yanagi Soetsu, a philosopher and art critic, who established the folk art movement in Japan with two of his ceramicist friends, Hamada Shoji and Kawai Kanjiro.

Japanese Lacquer and Wood Rice Barrel

Japanese Lacquer and Wood Rice Barrel

The main distinction between Mingei and fine art is that the term “fine art” usually refers to objects with decorative or aesthetic value. Fine art objects are primarily pieces with little to no functional use. Mingei pieces are almost always functional and have purpose beyond their decorative appeal.  An example might be the Japanese lacquer barrels and flasks that were used to hold food and drink, such as rice and sake.

Much as in the U.S., late 19th-century Japan’s regional craft work diminished as mass production and standardization of economical goods increased. At this time, the Japanese government encouraged creation of easily produced, less expensive items and, consequently, handmade pieces became harder and harder to come by. Soetsu was deeply concerned with the negative consequences of industrialization, and he championed a return to and appreciation of traditional Japanese craftwork.

Japanese Tamba Ceramic Tokkuri Sake Bottle

Japanese Tamba Ceramic Tokkuri Sake Bottle

Soetsu passionately encouraged the Japanese to respect and enjoy high-quality, traditional handmade crafts.  He is almost solely responsible for keeping regional craft work in high demand and continual production.  Additionally, through his famous book, The Unknown Craftsman, he introduced Japan’s rich heritage of folk and craft art to the West. Soetsu, Shoji and Kanjiro also founded Nihon Mingei Kyokai, the Japan Folk Art Association, and have published a journal, Mingei, since 1931, which is still in circulation today. Their famous collection of Mingei objects can currently be seen in their museum, the Nihon Mingeikan, in Komaba, Tokyo.

Japanese School House Soroban Abacus, Meiji

Japanese School House Soroban Abacus, Meiji

Other examples of Mingei that can be found on Jcollector are this old schoolhouse abacus or soroban and the exquisite Japanese woven copper basket below, which was used to securely transport keepsakes and valuables. These pieces are particularly special because they were used frequently and often had various owners. They are valuable collector’s items because they have been so well cared for throughout the years and now serve as unique symbols of the Japanese Folk Art Movement.

Japanese Woven Copper Basket with Lid

Japanese Woven Copper Basket with Lid

Can’t make it to Japan?  Try the Mingei International Museum located in San Diego, California, to see all manner of Mingei, Japanese folk art.

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