The Origins of Mingei

For hundreds of years Japanese art has used natural materials in their art and crafts, bamboo, clay, wood is used in abundance to make everyday items such as stoneware pots to lacquered wooden cabinets. This Arts & Crafts movement started as far back as the Edo Period which stretched from 1615 to 1868 and the production of these kinds of crafts thrived. Small groups of manufacturers developed their own individual styles before spreading their distribution around Japan. Towns were made famous for what they made, for instance bamboo ware was situated near bamboo fields, and pottery where there was clay etc.

Japanese Tradition

Certain items were produced in tandem with Japanese history, customs and legends, even folk toys served as types of amulets. Other items held Japanese values such wealth and health, happiness and success. Famous Maeki Neko cats can be seen all over the world in Chinese stores and businesses, invite good fortune and are made from stone or papier-mache.

Meiji Period

The Meiji period from 1868 to 1912 marked a time when Japan opened up to the West, it took on Western ideals such as industrialization. The folk crafts of Japan began to get phased out and were replaced by cheaply manufactured goods. It was shortly after the Meiji Period in 1920 that the Mingei movement (arts of the people) responded against this mass commercialism. Their leader was Yanagi Soetsu who took the influences from the Arts & Crafts movement in the UK and Europe and devoted himself to the preservation and promotion of Meiji.

He enlisted the aid of the famous potters Kawai Kanjiro and Hamada Shoji and together they founded the Mingei Association of Japan in 1934. They advocated the return back to traditional values and the making of crafts the old historical way as the starting point for their revolution. The group went on to form the Japan Folk Craft Museum (Nihon Mingeikan) in Tokyo to bring more attention to their movement and to regain appreciation of traditional crafts.

The Japanese Government Steps In

In 1950 the Japanese government saw what the Mingei movement was trying to achieve, it saw that the movement wanted to keep alive traditional crafts and the ancient history of Japan. The government decided therefore to designate groups and individuals who represented old Japanese cultural values, and designated them as living human treasures. One such person was Tatsuzo Shimaoka, who at the time was the most prominent ceramics maker of the Mingei movement, and in 1996 he was rewarded with his work of unique Japanese pottery as a National Living Treasure in 1966.

Folk Craft, or Mingei is very much alive and flourishing in Japan today, and many items of folk crafts are still being produced. Some sold just as tourist souvenirs and some as serious collector items. The type of Mingei available today are, fans, teapots, toys, iron kettles and almost anything that follows the old traditions. The Mingei movement was instrumental in bringing old values back to society, it had the same effect as the Arts & Crafts movement in England. It reunited the ordinary people with their artisans and what they produced.