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Mingei – Japanese Folk Art

The term “Mingei” was invented 1925 by Yanagi Sōetsu and became a constant factor in the vocabulary of Japanese culture and art history during the 20th century.

The establishment of the Nihon Mingei Kyōkai, founded in 1926 by Yanagi Sōetsu (1889-1961), Hamada Shōji (1894-1978) und Kawai Kanjirō (1890-1966), brought forward a whole movement related to Mingei which saw its predecessor in the British Arts-and-Craft movement of the 19th century, with which it shares the focus on commodities of daily use. The primary intention of both movements in an age of industrialisation lies in the preservation of traditional manufacturing techniques, shapes and patterns and to open up the beauty of simple goods to a wider public.

Until the 70s of the 19th century the difference between art (bijutsu) and folk craft (geijutsu) was unknown in the Japanese culture; potters, carvers, painters or woodblock masters were viewed as craftsmen alike and had the same standing in the social hierarchy. Owing to this there was a fluent transition between goods made for the aristocracy and daily commodities. As shape and substance show many features in common, the quality standards were the same as well. Mingei objects differ but in one sense in that they were made mainly by anonymous craftsmen or private individuals and that functionality of the objects was given priority. The aesthetic aim of Japanese folk art is deeply rooted in the preference of natural materials, which characteristics like colour, texture or grain would be exploited and accentuated during the manufacturing process. Design motifs and shapes are frequently borrowed from nature and are converted in a simplified and stylized but always harmonious way.

The main part of Mingei objects date from the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) and allow a comprehensive insight into the aesthetic design of the daily environment of the common people. This peaceful period lasting for 250 years brought after centuries of civil wars for the first time the possibility of leisure into the workday especially of the peasant class, which they used to add an aesthetically ambitious finishing to the commodities they produced for their own households. Because of this one can find next to ceramics from the six old kilns (Echizen, Shigaraki, Seto, Bizen, Tanba und Tokoname) a wide range of objects made out of textile, wood, bamboo, lacquer or metal which were not manufactured in a workshop.

The treatment of textiles was always highly valued. Kimono with woven, dyed or embroidered patterns were created throughout Japan and their subtle interaction of colour, pattern and texture is nowadays as impressive as ever. The cloth commonly used in the countryside was not restricted for the production of clothing, but would be used for sheets, blankets, banners, pillow slips and other things, all of which were frequently decorated in a manner hardly appropriate to the object and its utilisation.

Outstanding in the group of wooden works are the fine carvings, which account for a huge variety of different objects and which will be one of the main parts of our upcoming auction as well. Whereas small wooden sculptures known as Okimono (things for display) are easily recognized as decorative items, even simple utilities and tools become decorative objects with a symbolic meaning through the sensitive handling of the material. Therefore Jizaikagi, wooden hooks or weights to adjust the height of pots and iron kettles (Tetsubin) over the indoor fireplace, often show the shape of a fish or the hammer of the deity Daikoku, who in line with Ebisu as another deity of the household is supposed to guarantee health and luck to the family and wouldn’t be missed in any kitchen. The artistic treatment of the jizaikagi underlines as well its important meaning since it was the tool on which the pot with the daily food was fastened onto.

As the traditional interior of the Japanese house includes just a few pieces of furniture, the more emphasis was placed on a restrained but refined aesthetic of single objects to blend in with the surrounding which was coined through natural materials. In the case of chests known as tansu this would be achieved through the accentuation of the different kinds of wood being used in combination with elaborate metal fittings. Trays, arm rests, candle holders and other commodities catch ones attention through simple shapes but very finely emerised surfaces, which unfold the whole effect of the grain and gain on beauty with a patina evolving over long years of wear. Even the room itself would be visually upgraded and decorated with carved open work panels (ranma), which fitted between sliding screens and ceiling were used to increase light and air circulation.

Like the masks used in Nō theatre there were masks created for plays at the countryside as well to personate certain characters. In contrary to the refined Nō masks, however, the folk art masks display a rougher treatment. Visible knife marks left intentional on the surface for example create liveliness and texture which also can be perceived in the haptics of the object.

Ceramics belonging to folk art have a lasting effect mainly through the specific clay, glazing and firing techniques being used at a certain kiln through which unique colour patterns evolve without intention by the potter. Reduced patterns inspired by nature were applied in a contained way in that they never overrule the effect of the material itself. As for beauty and technical standards ceramic wares of the common people, available for cheap money at every urban market, equalled the expensive ceramics for the aristocracy. The slight asymmetry and imperfection of the utensils equates the Japanese sense of aesthetic, which is coined through concepts like wabi (tasteful simplicity) and sabi (patina), therefore, simple ceramic wares quickly became the standard ideal to be used during tea ceremony. This shows, however, that there was hardly any difference between the upper and lower social classes in matters of style and taste, but rather a mutual influence that over centuries stimulated and improved the general aesthetic sense.

In the 20th century under the influence of Yanagi Sōetsu emphasis was laid on ceramic art. In contrary to the anonymous folk ceramics of earlier times, however, contemporary ceramics tend to be products of well known studio potters, so that the boundaries between art and folk craft become more than vague. Nevertheless, even those objects are deeply connected with the traditional values of Japanese folk art as a source of inspiration which still can be felt in the visual and textural approach.


HAMILTON WEEDER, Erica (1992): Japanese Folk Art: A Triumph of Simplicity. New York: Japan Society, Inc.

MINGEI. Japanische Volkskunst Sammlung Montgomery (1991). Ausst.-Kat. Darmstadt: Museum Künstlerkolonie Mathildenhöhe.

MINGEI. The Living Tradition in Japanese Arts (1991). Ausst.-Kat. Glasgow / Sunderland / London: Kodansha International.

MOES, Robert (1985): Mingei. Japanese Folk Art. The Brooklyn Museum, New York: Universe Books.

MUNSTERBERG, Hugo (1965): Mingei: Folk Arts of Old Japan. New York: The Asia Society, Inc.

SŌETSU, Yanagi (1999; 1972): Die Schönheit der einfachen Dinge. Mingei – Japanische Einsichten in die verborgenen Kräfte der Harmonie. Bergisch Gladbach: Gustav Lübbe Verlag.

last updated by mh! at 18.03.2009 13:58

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