Have you ever asked yourself this very basic, yet difficult question - What is art? Is it produced only by artists? Or is it something average people have routinely created throughout humanity's existence? This is a question central to the Mingei Movement in the early 20th century. The Mingei Movement focuses on the overlooked beauty of art and crafts made by average people that are practical and used in daily life.

Meiji period fireman's coat

Meiji period fireman's coat

The Mingei Movement challenged society's narrow definition of art. Traditionally, many people think of art as something produced only by artisans, separate from functional items produced by craftsmen. Mingei instead focuses on everyday objects produced by average people, as opposed to highly refined works of art produced by professional artists. Mingei can also be seen as a response to Japan's rapid industrialization, as it elevates things made in large quantity by the hand's of the common people, rather than in a factory. In this way, it can also be seen as a method of cultural and historical preservation. Every item you see in a Mingei exhibition has its own story from a certain region of Japan, and each one was threatened by obsolescence with the rise of factory production in Japan. A similar process of industrialization was occurring in Europe at this time, leading to the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, meant to preserve traditions of handmade functional objects. Soetsu Yanagi synthesized these ideas with Buddhist principles of simplicity to form the Mingei Movement.  

 

The Principles of Mingei

There are a few principles and characteristics that define what types of folk arts and crafts Mingei deals with, mostly proposed by founder Soetsu Yanagi himself. 

  • Mingei art should be produced in large quantities by hand. The hand-made nature of this art is at the core of the Mingei Movement, and the fact that it is produced in large quantities is related to the utilitarian aspect of Mingei. 
     
  • Mingei art should be inexpensive, simple, and practical in design. Unlike ornate luxury items, the simplicity and inexpensiveness is what should give this art its charm. An expensive, complex item would not be readily accessible to the masses, betraying the fundamental ideas behind the movement. The design should also have arisen naturally over time to best suit the needs of those using it.
     
  • Mingei art should be not only functional, but also actually used by the masses. Yanagi argued that the beauty of these objects comes from their actual usage, not simply being admired. Their use also gives them their cultural and regional authenticity. 
     
  • Mingei art should represent the region in which it was produced. This reflects Japanese culture's appreciation for regional variation, and indeed Mingei art often has distinguishing characteristics unique to specific regions of Japan. Each object represents a small cultural legacy that gives it a value beyond its aesthetics. 
     
  • Traditionally, Mingei art is anonymous, and individual artists should not expect recognition. However, modern attitudes have changed on this principle. The idea is that they should be appreciated as objects of the masses, not attributed to specific artisans. However in modern times, many people agree that society should embrace and celebrate the artisans and craftspeople who help keep traditions and culture alive and that this should be reflected in how the government designates certain people as Living National Treasures.
“potterymingei”,

Storage jar with pine motif and iron and copper green glaze over white slip from Edo period, late 17th century. ©Japan Folk Crafts Museum.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF YANAGI SOETSU AND THE MINGEI MOVEMENT

Yanagi Sōetsu (1889-1961) was born in Tokyo in 1889, and spent much of his formative years in the rapidly industrializing Meiji period (1868-1912), following the collapse of Japan's military government that dominated the Edo period (1606-1868). He took an interest in art and philosophy from a young age. In 1910, he helped form a literary society called Shirakabaha (白樺派), which translates to the White Birch Society. Together, they began publishing a magazine titled Shirakaba. The group also took interest in other art forms, including folk art, something not generally appreciated by contemporary art critics. While the magazine was discontinued after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, Yanagi's interest in folk art persisted. 

Yanagi Soetsu around 1950.

Yanagi Soetsu around 1950.

In 1914 Yanagi had been exposed to Joseon Dynasty ceramics in South Korea, and this led to him founding the Korean Folk Art Museum in Seoul in 1924. This inspired him to look more closely at his own country's folk art. His began looking at Buddhist art in various parts of Japan, and developed an appreciation for the uniqueness of each sculpture of Buddha. This resulted in him coining the term "mingei' in 1925 together with Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966) and Shōji Hamada (1894-1978). The name "mingei" combines min (民), meaning the common people, and gei (芸 or 藝, the same character used in geisha), meaning art, and is also an abbreviation for minshuteki kōgei (民衆的工芸), which literally translates to popular industrial arts. Essentially, Mingei refers to the art of the common people. in 1926, Yanagi officially announced the Mingei Movement.

Over the next ten years, Yanagi devoted himself to developing and spreading Mingei philosophy throughout the country, culminating with the 1936 opening of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum. Yanagi himself designed the main hall of the museum, and in 1999 the building became a Registered Tangible Cultural Property of Japan, and still houses exhibits to this day. 

 

The modern celebration of Mingei through Boro fashion

The term boro means worn down or ragged, describing a building or clothing, or it can refer to the tattered clothes themselves. The boro style is actually a perfect example of how simple and practical design celebrated by the Mingei Movement can have a unique aesthetic appeal. Instead of focusing on the fine silk worn by the upper classes, boro shows the beauty in the cotton and hemp clothing worn by the peasants, especially in the northern territories of Japan. Throughout the Edo period, people found innovative ways to recycle and reuse everyday objects, primarily out of necessity. This is another one of those ways, and fits perfectly with the principles of the Mingei Movement!

A traditional boro kimono. ©Gerrie Congdon.

A traditional boro kimono. ©Gerrie Congdon.

Up until around the 1600s in Japan, virtually all clothing peasants wore was made from common hemp, which could be locally grown and spun. Cotton goods were first introduced to Japan from China starting in the 15th century, and in the 16th century Japanese farmers began to adopt Chinese cultivation methods to produce it domestically. Production initially started in the Kyushu area in southern Japan, but with demand for cotton growing rapidly, the cotton industry quickly expanded throughout the warmer regions of Japan. 

However, geographical limitations meant that little cotton would reach the northernmost parts of Japan, as the cotton plant could not grow there. During the Edo period (1606-1868), traders would sail up the coast of Japan to sell used cotton cloth, mostly a distinct indigo color that is closely associated with modern boro fashion, since it was easier to dye cotton indigo than any other color. Women in farming communities would buy up these cotton scraps, and use them to make noragi (野良着, farmer's clothing), futongawa (布団皮, futon covers), pillows, aprons, and other useful everyday items. 

Unique patterns made with the sashiko technique. ©TOKI

Unique patterns made with the sashiko technique. ©TOKI

Seamstresses in northern Japan invented a sewing technique, called sashiko (刺し子), where a simple running stitch is sewn in repeating or interlocking patterns, often through several layers of fabric. This allowed them to sew hemp fabric and cotton scraps together in a way that provided more effective and longer lasting protection from the cold. Furthermore, it also gave people an opportunity to make interesting and unique patterns in the fabric, adding an element of creativity that could distinguish one household's cloth items from another's. The same clothing might be used for as many as three or four generations!

Instead of throwing out old cloth items, they would be patched over and over, to the point that one might not be able to identify the original fabric. With more patches, farmers could extend the life of their cloth items, add extra layers of fabric for increased warmth, and avoid wasting this valuable yet scarce resource. 

Boro has not always been appreciated in Japanese culture. After the end of World War II, these kinds of tattered clothing were viewed with shame as a symbol of Japan's shortages and poverty. However, in recent times, people no longer associate boro with poverty, and instead recognize it as a symbol of a unique cultural heritage that should be celebrated. Many folk art collectors nowadays see these all as one-of-a-kind treasures, and some modern fashion designers are even attempting to replicate the boro style in their own clothing lines!

When you visit Japan, make sure to take advantage of this opportunity to check out boro fashion, the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, and other kinds of Mingei folk art, and learn about the fascinating history and culture they represent!