Sunday, February 08, 2015

A Japanese William Morris: Yanagi Soetsu and Mingei Theory

Yuko Kikuchi

Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961)1 was a philosopher and a leader of the Mingei move­ ment in Japan. Mingei literally means 'art of the people ', hence folk-crafts. Yanagi created Mingei theory in the 1920s. It was one of the first modern crafts/design theories in Japan. The Mingei movement developed nationwide campaignfor threvival of folk-crafts from the 1930s onwards, its members united and nourished by cultural ethnic nationalism. Mingei theory is essentia llset of ideasabout 'criterion of beauty' in which Yanagi created a concept of the supreme beauty of hand-made folk-crafts for ordinary use, made by unknown craftsmenworking in groups, free of ego and of the desirto be famous or rich, merely working to earn their daily bread.2
Yanagi Soetsu was born in Tokyo, into a distinguished upper-class family. He experienced the turmoil of Japanese modernisation. His views reflect metropolitan culture, his upper-class background, and the complex struggles of the intellectuals of the time to find Japanese cultural ethnic identity in anenvironment of overwhelming westernisation .
His life can be divided into four stages. The first stage is westernisation He read vigorously and thoroughly absorbed western science, philosophy, literature and artHe acquired the most updated knowledge from the West, surprisingly without a big time lag.For example, he followed the current issues in art by readingmajor European art magazinesuch as The Studio. The Post-Impressionists' concept of 'primitive art'
was particularly influential. The Post-Impressionists ,written by C. L. Hind, published
in 1911,so excited Yanagi and his friends that they continued discussions 'every night throughout the week'.3 In 1912, he published an article, 'Revo lution in Art' which is digest of Frank Rutter's book of the same title published in 1910, and in 1913 he translated Roger Fry's essay in the catalogue of the 'Manet and the Post­ Impressionists' exhibition held at the Grafton Galleries, London, in 1910. His translation appeared in Shirakaba (White Birch), an influential magazine which
concentrated, on Western art and literature4 of which Yanagi was a founder. He also absorbed anti-rational ideas during his ten years of intensive research into various branches of mysticism, including Christian mysticism, SufismZen Buddhism and philosophy, in particular, the thoughts of his contemporaries, William James and Henri Bergson He was also fascinated by William Blake whom he first learnt about from Bernard Leach. When he was writing a book on Blake, Yanagi lived in Abiko, rural area famous for its lagoonand created there a sort of artists' and writers' colony with the ideal of 'back to the country', probably inspired by Tolstoy,the British Arts & Crafts Movement and the Wolpswede group.
Through his research on mysticism he developed hiinterests in medievalism,

gothic art and religious art. He read Emile Male's Religious Art in France in the Thirteenth Century (1898and absorbed its aesthetic narratives of medievalismsuch as that treating of 'the beauty of the grotesque'. He also absorbed the idea of ethnic art with its emphasis on moral and religious purity.
At the second stage, Yanagi's interests shifted from West to East as he began to apply his now thoroughly absorbed Western knowledge to Eastern art. Hediscovered the beauty of Korean art ancreatehis controversial theory of 'beauty of sadness' which saw the characteristics of Korean art as reflections of itssahistory.This sadness can be expressed in the shapof pots, in designs sucas 'flying cranes and clouds' and 'willow and ducks', and in lines and white colours. This was his application oethnic art particularly in the coloniacontext- Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910. This theory of a 'beauty of sadness' was later criticised inKorea as 'colonia aesthetics'. Durinthis application exercise, Yanagi also developed his concepof national and ethnic identity in art based on themodern Western concept of the nation.
After his involvement in Korean art, Yanagi turned his eyes to Japan, and his initial interest was in Buddhist religious art particularly Mokujikibutsu, wooden Buddhas whicwere thought to be carveby a travelling monk called Mokujiki Shonin (17181810). It was while he was researching on Mokujikibutsu scatteredall oveJapan, that hfound folk-crafts in Japan. In 1925 he used for the firstime in is writings the term 'innate and original' beauty of Japan (koyuna/dokujinonihon no bi) in reference tokuji kibutsu. It iegend that hcoined thterm Mingei with hipottefriends, Hamada Shojand Kawai Kanjiro in 1925 whi le travelling. Mingei is in fact aabbreviatioof Minshuteki Kogei which means 'crafts of the people'. So in 1925 thMingei movement began. Yanagi wrote what came to be regarded as the bible of Mingei theory tided Kogei no Michi (The Way of Craftsand organised the first Japanese folk-crafts exhibition in Tokyo in1927. He aJso created a guild of craftsmen in the same year, which was similar to the idea of William Morris's Morris
& Co which will refer to again later. In 1929, be was invited by Harvard University
to lecture on Japanese art for one yearHis lecture series was entitled the 'Criterion
of Beauty in Japan'. This clearly articulated thinnate and original Japaneseness in Japanese folk-crafts, and remains as the crystallisation of his concepof national and ethniidentity in art which was grad ualldeveloped through hiearlstudieon philosophy and KoreaartMingei theory began showing nationalistic aspects morthan craft aesthetiphilosophy.
Yanagi founded the Association of Japanese Folk-Crafts in 1934 and published a new magazine, Kogei ('Crafts'). This magazine was published in limitednumbers
during the period 1931-1941, printed on exclusively selected Japanese hand-made paper with covers of hand-woven cloth and lacquer. It is one of the most beautiful book designs in Japanese book history. He and his friends such as Ito Chozo, Jugaku Bunsho and SerizawKeisuke further developed their interests inbook design and printing, inspired by Morris, Cobden-Sande rson5 and Jean Grolier.6Then eventuallin 1936, Yanagi established the Japan Folk-Crafts Museumin Tokyo, and thibecame the central institution of the Mingei movementanstill exists as such. Thidea of this museum was greatly influenced bthe Nordiska Museet in SkansenStockholm in Sweden, established by Artur Hazelius (1833-1901) as long ago as 1873. Yanagi actively travelled all over Japan, carrying out his research on folk-crafts, collecting, taxonomising, exhibiting and preserving.

In the third stage, from the late 1930s to 1945, Yanagi developed his .interests in the crafts of Okinawa and the Ainu within Japan, and the crafts of Japanese colonies such as Taiwan and Manchuria He extensively applied his medieval and primitive rhetoric and his 'criterion of beauty' His political stance became increasinglyambiguous in his evaluation of the crafts of Japanese colonies and in his arguments over Japanese 'innate and original' beauty, which he somehow managed to develop in harmony with the ultra-nationali st ideologies, regionalism and pan-Asianism associated with Japanese Imperialism.
During his fourth and last stage, after the Second World War, Yanagi had close connections with a Buddhist scholar, Suzuki DaisetzHe developed Mingei theorywithin a framework of Buddhist aesthetics. His Mingei theory was first established in Western rhetoric but now completed in Buddhist rhetoric. He undertook lecture tours all over Europe and the USA with Hamada and Leach, and made profound impact on Western craftspeople at the important International Conference of Craftsmen in Pottery &Textiles at Darrington Hall in 1952, presenting papers entitled 'The Buddhist Idea of Beauty' and 'The Japanese Approach to Crafts'. These twopapers were included by Leach iThe Unknown Craftsman, under the same title for the first paper but the new title, 'The Responsibility of the Craftsman', for thesecond.
The hybrid nature of Mingetheory becomes apparent when examined alongside the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris. Yanagi mentioned their names, but hewas a great self-publicist, and in his many writings hstrongly emphasised the originality of hiMingei theories and their independence of any precedents. Many critics in Japan also supported Yanagi's claim to genuine originality and his views havnot beeseriously questioned until recently. Hiclaims, howeverneed to be re­ examined against firstly, the backdrop of cultural nationali sm in Japan which became prominent around the 1890s ancontinues to the present dayand secondly in the context of the popularity of]ohn Ruskin and William Morris in Japan from the 1880s.
ingei theory was created at a time when Ruskin and Morris were very popularTheir works were translated and introduced in various academic fields from the late1880s. According to my research, at leas102 items on Ruskin and 139 items on Morris had been appeared 7 before Yanagi published his own seminaJ work on Mingeiin 1927. In the field of art and aesthetics, lwamura Toru, leading art critic, and Tomimoto Kenkichi, a versatile Morrisian designer and potter, are notable beforeYanagi Tomimoto's article on Morris, published i1912waone of the earliest extensive pieces on the designer. Tomimoto also founded a design company in 1914,with ideas similar to those of MorriCo. He later became involved in the Mingei movement and was at one time a very close friend of Yanagi, but his rolin the formation of Mingei theory has long been neglected.8 A journalist, Murobuse Koshin also published three bestselling books in the 1920s that provided digest of ideasby modern thinkers in the West with particular reference to Marx, Tolstoy, Ruskin and Morris. He also popularised the ideas of Guild Socialism.
Two Japanese critics who have questioned Yanagi 's claim to originality were a Morris scholar, Ono Jiroand Mingei critic, ldekawa Naoki Ono said, 'in order
to truly absorb Morris's ideas, we Japanese neeto critically assess Yanagi's activities and theories' ,9 and ldekawa claime'Mingei theory is direct descendant ofRuskin and Morris' .1In this country, Brian Moeran haalso pointed out Yanagi's Morris connection Itend to agree with Ono, Idekawa and Moeran.

shaU now briefly outline Yanagi Soetsu's key ideas of Mingei theory by comparing them with the ideas of William Morris as well as John Ruskin. Yanagi classifiedcrafts into four categories: 11
  1. Folk crafts or getemono: 'unselfconsc iously hand -made, and unsigned for the people by the peop le, cheaply and in quantityas, for example, the Gothic crafts, the best work being done under the Medieval guild system'Ge of getemono means 'ordinary' o'common', and te means 'by nature'. It applies to common household objects and haderogatortone. It is a concept in opposition to ]otemono, artistic and refined objects of higher nature, including Individual/Artist Crafts and Aristocratic Crafts in Yanagi'classification.
  2. Individual/Artist Crafts: 'made by a few, foa few, at a high price. Consciously made and signed. Examples, Mokubei or Staite Murray' (Wedgwood in Yanagi'soriginal).
  3. Industrial Crafts: 'such as aluminium saucepans, etc., made under the industrial
    system by mechanical means'.
  4. Aristocratic Crafts: 'examples,Nabeshima ware in Japan under the patronage of a feudal lord or Stanley Gibbons in England {Makie in Yanagi's original).
Yanagi's theory was formulated on rbe first category. He prized getemono ,common household objects hand-made by unknown craftsmen. William Morris prized the decorative arts, which he called the 'lesser arts' in contrast with the 'higher arts'.
Their ideas shara modern aesthetic which contests the historical distinction of high
and low art, by prizing handcrafts bunnamed ordinary people.
Yanagi 's Mingei theory is centred on ideas of what he calls the 'criterion of beauty '
which defines the supreme beauty of folk-crafts or getemono. lt was most clearly summarised in a seminal book titled Kogei no Michi (The Way of Crafts), published in1927, and itessence was translated and adapted by Bernard Leacin 'The Way oCraftsmanship' in The Unknown Craftsman. BesideKogei no Michi, Yanagi gives
an illustrated representation of his ideas in a series of articles with the same title, th'Criterion of Beauty', published in 1931 after returning from lecturing at HarvardUniversity. It inot known whether Yanagi intended it or notbut it uses the same method as A. W.Pugin's book, Contrasts, published in 1836,contrasting thugliness ofVictorian architectu re witthe beauty of Gothic architecture. Yanagi's ideas were refreshingly new in the 1920s in Japanwhen littl e value was attached to folk-crafts or getemo noand largely overlap with those of Ruskiand Morris.
Yanagi's main project, developed from his medievalism, also has similarities with those undertaken by 'Ruskin and Morris Yanagi idealised the medievalenvironment as one in whicmakers could create objects of supreme beauty. Both Ruskin and Morriwere also medievalistS. ThMiddlAges for Ruskin and Morris were a time when aesthetic feelings, social life and religious sensibilities were truly unified in an Age of Faith. Although the sociasystem was hierarchical, everybodycould find a meaningfu relation ship with society.
ln order to recreate a medieval environment in modem society, Yanagi established a guild to resuscitate craftsmanship. His ideas were influenced not only bRuskin
and Morris, but also by the Russian Anarchist theorist, Pyotr Alekseevicb Kropotkin (1842-1921in hibook Mutual Aid, and by Arthur J. Penty (1875-1937), theBritish Guild Socialist and an architect, in his book Restoration of the Guild System..

It would be most difficulwithout a change in the social system. Under present conditions folk-crafts are dying, bad factory products are increasing, and the artist­craftsman works for the collector...
In mopinion, now that capitalism has killed handcrafts,.the only way is through the guild system. The finescrafts of the pa st were produced under it... BeautifuJ crafts were the outcome of the co-operation between craftsmen.
Associations for mutual help and preserving order. Order involves basic moralicy.
The morality guaranteed thquality of the products. It gave the work its character, guaranteeits craftsmanship, and refuseto allow bad work tbe sold.12

Encouraged by Yanagi's ideas, the craft guild called Kamigamo Mingei Kyodan (Kamigamo Folk-crafts Communionwas established in yoto in 192by four craftsmen. They created woodwork (mainlfurniture), metal work, textiles and did interior designs. Their major workwere exhibited in thFolkscrafts Pavilioat theImperial Exposition for the Promotion of Domestic Indu stry in Ueno in 1928. The Pavilion itself was designed by Yanagi, ancreated by thKamigamo Ming eiKyodan. Inside the Pa vilioYan agi's collection of folk-crafts, anfurniture nd oth er crafts created by thKamigamo M ingei Kyodan were exhibitewith theconcept of total co-ordination. This idea of total co-ordination is similar to Morris's Red Houswhich was designed by Philip Webb with interior decoration, furnitureand othecrafts by Morris's friends.
Ruskin founded the Guilof StGeorge in 1871, and under its name he carried
out various projects which ranged from craft guilds and land reclamation, to running a tea shop, and even roasweeping. However, in terms of craft-guilds, Yanagi'sideas have more in common with those of Morris Co. and the guilds of Morri s's followers such as AHMackmurdo, RLethaby anC. RAshbee in the BritishArts Crafts movement .
Yanagi, Ruskin and Morris certainly sharethe same ideas. They all prized craftsmanship and hand crafts. Thewere all medievalists, having as their ideaa society in which art and mora lity werunited. However, there are several differences, which I see as evidence of Yanagi 's originality. One of the mosimportant of these relates to Morris's key belief in the idea of 'pleasure in labour'13 or freedom in creativity. Yanagi always spoke of a Divinpower which he ca lled 'grace given by heaven',14 rather than o'pleasureand 'freedom'. A Japanese critic, Idekawa Naoki , emphasises Yanagi's belief that the craftsman was a 'human machine'15, destined forlabour-intensive repetitive work, who could yet unconsciously create beautiful things with the help of nature, tradition and Divine power. According to Yanagi, a conscious artistic faculty was disease which prevented the creation of supreme beauty. For Yanagi, 'no-mindedness'16 was the key factor in making craftsmen free from this disease. Morris, on the other hand, while praising 'an of the unconscious intelligence', 17placed his hope for the future in a 'new art of conscious intelligence'.1Inorder to attain 'no-mindedness', Yanagi emphasised 'discipline', relying on Nature and surrendeto 'the Other Poweror Tarikithe reliance on the grace of Buddha, asopposeto Jiriki othe 'Self Power', attaining Enlightenment through
self effort:

[The Craftsmenl may be unlettered, uneducateand lacking any pa rticular force
of personality, but it is not from these causes that beaucy iproduced. He rests in

the protectin hand onature. The bea uty ofolk-craft ithkind that comes from dependence on thOther PoweTariki). Naturamater ial, natural process, and an accepting heart- these are thingredients necessarat thbirth of folk-crafts•.19

According tYanagi, relying on 'th Other Power' actually means mak erfollowing tradition using traditional methods traditional natural materials and traditional formsand designs.
Yanagi and Mingei theory are widely known in thWest, particularly for their so­ called 'Oriental' philosophic slant whicgave a new dimension tO Western interest in issuesof crafts and craftsmanship. often come across favourable and uncriticaacceptance of Mingei theory in thWestwhere there is tendency cowards over­ mystification and anover-emphasis of its esote.ric aspects. However, far from being 'authentically' Oriental inoutlook, as is genera llassumed, Mingetheory is a hybrid theory, highly eclectiinitconcepts, witcore ideas from many European sources, such as British (particularlRuskin and Morris), Scandinaviaand German craft philosophie of thlate nineteenthand early twentieth -century,and Buddhist rhetoriand ideas from JpanesTea Masters of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century. Thpurpose of this article has been toemphasise thhybrid naturof Yanagi'Mingetheory and to encourage a more critical assessment of its originand aims.

1 Japanese names are all giveinJapanese order, i.e.surname first. Officially Yanagi•s given name is pronounced Muneyoshi but Iuse Soetsu by which be is more popularly known. Soetsu is the On-yomi pronunciation of the Chinese character for Muneyoshi.
2 Iwould summarise Yanagi•s Criterion of eauty as follows:
  1. Beauty of handcrafts.
  1. Beauty of intimacy.
  2. Beauty of use/function (functionain form and design).
  3. Beauty of health (moral naturof makers and physical naturof objects ).
  4. Beauty of naturalness (made with natural materials .
6. Beauty of simplicity (form and design) .
  1. Beauty otradition (method and design).
  2. Beauty of sincerity and honesswea(bunknown craftsmen, not for money
9. Beauty of selflessness and unknown (madby unknown unlearn ed and poor craftsmen ).
  1. Beauty of inexpensiveness.
  2. Beauty oplurality (objects which could be copied and produced in large
  3. Beauty of irregularity.
3 Yanagi Soetsu, Yanagi Soetsu Zenshu lCollected Works of Yanagi Soetsu](Tokyo:
Chikuma Shob1981), I, p. 567.
4 ibid., I, pp. 706-716.
ThomaJames Cobden-Sanderson 1848-1922), printer and book-binder, also a
founder of thDoves Press.

6 Jean Grolier, book collector, and associated with elaborate gold decorations of book-binding.
  1. For Morris's reception in Japan ,seeK. Makino, C. Sbinagawa, S.lco, 'Nihon deno Morisu Ken.kyii Bun.ken Mokuroku[A Bibliography Q{ Morris Studies inJapan], Morisu Matsuri eno Shotai, (Keyaki Bijutsukan 1991).
  2. For further informationsee YukKikuchi, 'The Myth oYanagi 's Originality: The Formation of MingeiTheory in its Social and Historical Context',Journal of Design History,Vo7, No 4, (1994), pp. 247-266.
9 Ono JiroKubo Satoru, 'Wiriamu Morisu to Yaaagi Soetsu' [William Morris and
Yanagi Soetsu], Graphicarion 12, 1979p. 3.
  1. ldekawa Naoki Mingei: Riron no Hokai to Yoshiki no Tanjo [Mingei: Collapse of the Theory and Establishment of the Style], (Tokyo: Shinchosha 1988).
  2. Yanagi Soetsu Zenshu, op. cit., 8, p. 211.
1Yanagi Soetsu, adapted by Bernard Leach, The Unknown Craftsman, (Tokyo and
New York: Kodansha lnternational1989) p. 198 and p208.
13 May Morris (e.), The Collected Works of William Morris(Lond on:Longmans
Green Co. 1910-15), XXII, p42.
'" Yanagi,'The Japanese Approach to Crafts', (Dartingron Conference Paper1952)p. 22.
Idekawa Mingeiop. cit., p. 70.
  1. Bernard Leach translated this as 'state of going beyond all formof dualism' in
    The Unknown Craftsman, p. 228.
  2. The Collected Works of William M orris, op. cit., XXIIp. 12.
l8 ibid.p. 12.
19 The Unknown Craftsmanop. cit., p. 200.