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Genuine Crafts Told by the Father of Folk Crafts 

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“In the future, healthy crafts can only be realised in a healthy new society, the genuine craft is the epitome of a genuine era, to improve crafts, we must first improve our society." -- Yanagi Soetsu
Mingei Cover

when ordinary people can look at masterpieces as ordinary things, isn’t it a great time?

On my bookshelf lays a yellow-covered The Culture of Crafts (「工藝文化」) in paperback form, the edges went fluffy, don’t remember when I bought it, but the book speaks to me from time to time. For example, when I heard people rhapsodise over a Song Dynasty Ruyao ceramic bowl that sets new record at Sotheby’s or a Ming Dynasty “chicken cup” sold for some 36 million dollars, the book whispered— “when ordinary people can look at masterpieces as ordinary things, isn’t it a great time? ” What a utopian statement, I thought. To achieve that “great time”, either all of us became affluent connoisseurs — that can never happen, or all the utensils were masterpieces — is it possible?


The author of this book is Soetsu Yanagi, whom I hardly heard of at first, yet I do know his son, the renowned Japanese designer Sori Yanagi, his Butterfly stool and kitchenware are revered as the epitome of good modern industrial design. Sori Yanagi said his sense of beauty came from his upbringing, where everything in the home is beautiful, and most houseguests have established artists. Sori Yanagi was grown up in a place where ugliness doesn’t exist, and it was all thanks to his father — Soetsu Yanagi, also known as the father of mingei (folk craft). 


Soetsu Yanagi is the trailblazer of mingei movement; he’s part of the force that brought the Shibuyi (渋い) and Wabi-Sabi (詫寂) aesthetics to the West; in 1936, he founded of Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo, which will welcome its 85th anniversary in this October.


Yanagi Soetsu 柳宗悅
Yanagi Soetsu 柳宗悅

Soetsu Yanagi

In 1927, when Soetsu Yanagi first published The Path of Crafts (「工藝の道」), the concept of mingei, or folk crafts, was still a piece of virgin land. Although there are plenty of books about crafts, most of them emphasise technicality and rarely reach the realm of philosophy. In the first half of the twentieth century, the wind of westernisation is blowing through Japan under the influence of the Meiji Restoration. Despite that, Yanagi’s philosophy about mingei did not adopt much of the Western opinions, he built up theories about mingei based on his intuitive insights and religiously inspired contemplations.


Born in a privileged and wealthy family, the young Soetsu Yanagi was awarded a silver watch by the Emperor of Japan for his merit grades. However, when studying at Tokyo Imperial University, he resents the rigid academic environment and complained in a letter to his lover, “I wish I’ll never have to step into the college again. I’m done with academies and universities!” 


Soetsu Yanagi straddles two cultures. He majored in Western philosophy and art at college, and later converted to Buddhism. Because of his major, Yanagi had seen many masterpieces of art, even Rodin sent over his sculpture for White Birch magazine at which Yanagi was an active member. Surprisingly, it was an ordinary blue and white porcelain from the Li Dynasty of Korea that touched his heart and propelled him into the world of folk craft. In the White Birch, he wrote: “This kind of genuine beauty is derived from Korean porcelain. I’ve never thought that in the trivial daily object that I overlooked before, could I find such extraordinary beauty of craftsmanship. And to my surprise, I discovered where my real passion lies.”

Yanagi Soetsu 柳宗悅
the young Soetsu Yanagi

Early Stage Crafts

All crafts were handicrafts in the very beginning. People in primitive tribes processed available natural materials for the basic needs of survival. When entering the farming society, a more stable way of life calls for the assistance of finer utensils; the types of handicrafts began to burgeon. Making things is easy to become a profession. The skilled craftsmen found their métier, and their work developed from a self-sufficient or part-time manner into a career. With the further specialisation of technology, to ensure the inheritance of skills and the order of production, associations such as guilds and social relationships like apprenticeship emerged accordingly.


In feudal times, many skilled craftsmen are sheltered by royals and aristocrats. Under the lords’ roof craftsmen can focus on producing sophisticated, and sometimes ostentatious, objects for their masters’ sybaritic indulgence without needing to worry about the cost. From the clockmaker for Louise XIV, to the Zen’ami and Nōami who serves Ashikaga Yoshimasa, to ceramist in the official kiln for Emperor KangXi, all of the official craftsmen use their consummate skills to produce the most luxurious objects regardless of the expense of time and materials. 


However, these artefacts are too expensive to emulate and impossible to be massively produced. So, the aristocratic crafts have no chance to benefit the people. Therefore, in the history of crafts, in parallel with aristocratic crafts exits an inconspicuous approach called folk crafts – the crafts of the people. Contrary to noble crafts, folk crafts only use cheap and accessible raw materials and are mass-produced for the daily life of ordinary people. The form and pattern of folk crafts are usually simple rather than delicate. However, it was precisely these humble handicrafts made for daily life that became the highest form of beauty in Soetsu Yanagi’s view of crafts. 

from left to right: pottery artist shoji hamada, soetsu yanagi, pottery artist kanjiro kawai – major figures of the mingei folkart

Mingei (Folk Crafts)

Soetsu Yanagi is not a pedant, he trusts his sensibility more than any academic theory. He once said:


Among the talents we have lost in modern days, the most obvious one is probably our sensibility, especially the loss of the ability to observe beauty. In modern academia, we are used to categorising our knowledge into systems. As the result, most people tend to understand things abstractly, but fewer would observe things as they are. Therefore, for tangible objects, people tend to see them through the lens of concepts. After all, this is an unrealistic approach, and it shows the lack of care for crafts.


With his intuitive insights, Yanagi spent years in his life on field trips, investigating the miscellaneous handicrafts from various parts of Japan and Korea. In 1925, the term “mingei” (民藝) was born when Yanagi was on the way to Wakayama county to study local crafts with fellow Kanjiro Kawai and Shoji Hamada. Together they decided to coin the term “mingei”, simplified from “crafts of the people”. Based on his study, Yanagi summed up five basic characteristics of mingei:


1, they are objects indispensable to the daily life of ordinary people;

2, they are objects that honestly fulfil the practical purpose for which they were made;

3, they are produced in large numbers to fulfil the needs of the public;

4, they are inexpensive and have good quality;

5, they are made by craftsmen


As a stalwart of mingei, Naoto Fukasawa, one of the world’s most influential designers, once said: “Before Soetsu Yanagi, the society’s perception of beauty reflects the trickle-down effect and determined by the those of power and high social classes. But Yanagi did not covet those fine-art crafts. In folk crafts, a beautiful object is not made for the pursuit of artistic value. For Yanagi, those folk utensils made with spontaneous natural emotions are truly lovely and warm.”



Soetsu Yanagi divides crafts into four realms: aristocratic crafts; individual crafts; mechanical crafts; and folk crafts. Moreover, to become a genuine craft (正しい工藝), he believes there are three essential qualities for a craft to be considered genuine: one is the utility — that is, the utensil should serve the purpose; the second is sociality — the craftware should be able to benefit the people in large; the third is morality — moral craft come from honest and moral work of craftsmen. 


For Yanagi, aristocratic crafts and individual crafts lack sociality due to their exiguous quantities and high prices. Mechanical crafts are controlled by profit-oriented capital and tend to sacrifices quality and lack morality. While folk crafts, when protected by nature, tradition and organisation, can be useful, accessible, moral, and therefore, they should be regarded as genuine crafts.


The idyllic kingdom of beauty that Soetsu Yanagi depicted is a state where “ordinary people can look at masterpieces as ordinary things”, it requires all ordinary craftware to be beautiful, and Soetsu Yanagi believes it can be achieved through folk crafts. Looking back in the history, he did find the eras of blossomed folk crafts—it was before the separation of crafts and fine arts—Chinese Song Dynasty, Ming Dynasty; Goryeo and Li Dynasty of ancient Korea; Ashikaga and Tokugawa eras in Japan; as well as the Middle Ages Europe, the craftwork from these eras emanate the beauty of religious order, and their beauty is universal that transcends time and space.

Japan Mingei Museum collections

Mechanical Crafts

At that time, led by John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-1896), an Arts and Crafts movement had swept European countries starting from the United Kingdom. As the first to be through the industrial revolution, production sites were moved from homes and ateliers to large-scale factories. Machine-made products had absolute advantages over handicrafts in terms of productivity and price, which decimated handicrafts in Europe. However, it is an indisputable fact that most mechanical products are inferior to handicrafts in terms of quality and aesthetics.


With no doubt, the development of machinery is the progress of mankind. Machinery has supplemented the fields that human force cannot reach, but it cannot replace handicrafts. For both John Ruskin and Soetsu Yanagi, what they opposed is not mechanical production itself, but the personality that is insulted and debilitated in mechanised forms of production. 


The meaning of work is completely different for workers operating machinery in the assembly line and for craftsmen. Machine production needs capital to drive. Without the wherewithal, normal craftsmen are excluded from the creation process of mechanical production. Therefore, The factory owner, or capitalists, get the power to decide what products to manufacture and what styles to adopt. Capitalists are not interested in any production process that cannot maximise profits. Therefore, the quality and beauty of the product cannot be guaranteed; the market will eventually be flooded with inferior utensils. At the same time, the dominative relationship between humans and machines has been reversed in mechanical production. The workers in the factory suffer the fate of being dominated by machinery. They cannot creatively engage in the production process because their work is only to assist the machine to repeats the lifeless action.

Mingei magazine pages

Labour with Pleasure

This kind of mechanical production entails two repercussions: First, work is no longer accompanied by joy. Except for some slight cheerfulness on the payday, workers cannot feel satisfaction or fulfilment in the oppressive working condition; Second, the workers no longer bears the responsibility of making products. Workers in the factory do not full-heartedly care about product quality. The inherent nature of machinery determines its product to be “cold, lacking warmth and imagination”, which, as Yanagi believes, caused the lack of beauty in machine-made goods.


Aiming to retrieve the decadence of beauty during the Industrial Revolution, John Ruskin, one of the most influential British writers, painters, and social critics at the time, made his theory of beauty emphasise morality. He advocates creative labour and the pleasure of work. What distinguishes creative labour from manual labour is that the creative labour is engaged in producing something either that the worker wants to produce or he/she feels relation to in the cause of the production, or that he/she feels it’s in some way expressing some part of his/her skills and that of himself/herself. Inspired by Ruskin, Yanagi was emphatic that the beauty of crafts lays in moral society: “A society where money and power compel most men to labour without pleasure, with mercenary capitalism, and selfish individualism, is irreconcilable with the beauty of crafts”.


Crafts Organisation and Guild

The genuine craft is the epitome of a genuine era, to improve crafts, we must first improve our society.

André Maurois said: 


Using the events and characters in Proust’s In Research of Lost Years to illustrate the characteristics of the writer, the level of absurdity will be no less than saying that Renoir was a man who painted women, children, and flowers. Renoir became Renoir not because he painted these models, but because he put all models in some kind of iridescent dappled light. 


Likewise, it would be equivalently absurd to attempting to summarise Soetsu Yanagi’s view on crafts merely through the objects displayed in the Folk Crafts Museum. For Yanagi’s mingei, the iridescent light that imparts magic to ordinary objects is the cooperative social group — the Crafts Organisation. 


“Craft issue is not a personal issue. The correct craft calls for the correct society”, said Yanagi. Fundamentally, in Soetsu Yanagi’s mind, the beauty of folk crafts is not about artistic preeminence but organised society. What he sees in the beautiful ordinary crafts is not the individualistic artistic expression or the consummate skills of specific artists, but the harmonious and cooperative social life and the honest hard-working masses. Since mingei is “not a matter of the individual working alone”, but “a collaborative effort by many craftsmen”, it requires order and systematic, legitimate organisation.


Yanagi points out two streams of power that have protected craftsmen since ancient times: one is tradition; the other is organisation. In a well-balanced society, the power of tradition and organisation can play a role in supporting the craftsmen to produce ethical works. Because craftsmen are usually poor and weak as individuals, they are of lower social status, neither well-educated nor having the awareness of artistic beauty, the quality of their work reflects society’s general perception of beauty. With heritage and tradition, the wisdom of the past generations become the solid technical support for craftsmen. Meanwhile, a systematic organisation can band the craftsmen together. Without the support and guidance of a well-designed organisation, craftsmen are venerable to the risk of losing the integrity of their work. “It is only by coming together as a group that individually weak artisans can become a force to be reckoned with”, said Yanagi. Moreover, Yanagi added, “this organisation should not be ruled by a hierarchical authority as heretofore. Neither should it be ruled by mere profit and loss.”


The craft organisation depicted by Soetsu Yanagi is inspired by the association that prevailed in medieval Europe – guild. There are merchant guilds and craft guilds. A craft guild is a workgroup formed by craftsmen in a specific trade based on common interests, it’s composed of masters; journeymen; apprentices; and other administrative personnel like inspectors and wardens. Guilds were also prospered in ancient China. Although Chinese guilds incline to emphasise blood ties, and the rules and regulations are also different from those in Europe, the road of promotion from apprentice to master is equally strenuous. In the medieval guild, a young person would only be accepted by the guild as an apprentice after a thorough background check and a period of probation. For the first couple of years, the apprentice is responsible for running errands for the master while receiving some basic training. It usually takes five to seven years if not longer for an apprentice to be qualified as a journeyman. Not until they become journeymen, can they begin to work by the side of masters and be able to learn some core technics and skills. As the name implies, the journeyman needs to spend two or three years travelling in different cities and training under different masters. To be considered as a candidate for the master, they also have to meet various technical, moral and economic prerequisites. Through this kind of apprenticeship, traditions and technologies get inherited. Today, there are only a few guilds still exist in France and Germany. For example, the renowned French shoemaker Pierre Corthay was an apprentice in a long-standing guild called Les Compagnons du Devoir. The guild provided him with the opportunities to refine his craft under different masters for about six years.


Altruism is one of the core values of the guild. Each guild has strict quality control and regulations on production steps. The members of the guild are bounded by brotherhood and striving for collective interests. To ensure the interests of all guild members, craftsmen are not allowed to sell excess stock to customers, as it will detract from the interests of other craftsmen fellows. To prevent overcapacity, masters would also limit the number of craftsmen by deliberately militate against the advancement process.


The cloth guilds in Paris can trackback to 1278. In the middle of the 13th century, there were about 100 guilds in Paris. By the 14th century, the number exceeded 300. From hatters guild to carpenters guild, from bakers guild to weavers guild. Guilds emerged from the dynamic city life, their operation ensured the medieval city to run smoothly. In addition to their economic and administrative functions, guilds are also responsible for certain religious and political activities. The prosperity of guilds reflected the flourishing city life. Whereas the demise of the guild was considered by Yanagi an indictment of the decadence of craftsmanship.


Marx sees guilds as an organisation that pursues not “exchange value” but “value in use.” The craftsmen in the guild are independent personal labours. The level of their skills determines the presentation of the product, and they “work for themselves.” As a part of city life, the meaning of work for guild members is not solely about getting paid, but also a religious mission that echoes the requirements of God. Craftsmen acquire pleasure in their creative work. Under the guidance of tradition, their moral work transforms raw materials into utensils that support the operation of the city.


With the influx of free capital and the prevalence of commercialism, the decadence of monopolistic guilds begins as early as the fifteenth century. The moribund guilds echo the languished medieval social structures and values. Although guilds are anachronistic for modern days, the beauty of order, the moral work, and the collaborative spirit that the guild demonstrated are never irrelevant. As Yanagi said: “In the future, healthy crafts can only be realised in a healthy new society, the genuine craft is the epitome of a genuine era, to improve crafts, we must first improve our society.” An onerous task indeed.

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