Approaches to the analysis of Mingei in Japan

Maria Jose Santamaria Hergueta, International Christian University [About | Email]

Volume 23, Issue 2 (Article 7 in 2023). First published in ejcjs on 17 August 2023.


This paper explores the various meanings of Mingei, the Folk Crafts Movement in Japan. Mingei is a complex term constructed over time and illustrates the evolution of the art and crafts concepts in Japan through one century. My position as researcher is that art and crafts exist in a social environment and that institutions and systems affect them. Therefore, I argue that Mingei cannot be analysed as if it were an absolute term that evolved outside a broader context. Instead, I propose to approach it through three distinct but inter-related levels: the theory of the Movement as a doctrine and its relation to Yanagi Soetsu; the Mingei output and products; and the evolution of the Mingei movement in relation to other social movements in Japan. I further propose the institutional approach to culture by Wuthnow and Witten (1988) as a backbone theory to blend the proposed components and to assist in a more nuanced understanding of Mingei, while recognising the role of various other supporting theories. By using a systems-based approach, I envision a broader contextualisation of Mingei, identifying a wider range of actors outside the polarised discourse of those unquestioningly supporting Yanagi and his movement, and those criticising the gaps between the Mingei theory and actual practice. This paper is part of preparation for an analysis of traditional folk textile dyeing in Japan, which will use the systems-based approach presented here.

Keywords: Mingei; crafts; folk art; Japan; Folk Crafts Movement.

ORCID: 0000-0002-7817-7645

Approaches to the analysis of the Mingei in Japan

The word Mingei is about to celebrate its centenary. Since Yanagi Soetsu coined it in the 1920s, it has travelled a winding path. Considered as progressist and nationalist, acclaimed and criticised at the same time, Mingei has acquired a specific meaning in the traditional crafts world. At the same time, it has become a ubiquitous term tinted with nostalgia. In the opinion of its defenders, Mingei has never been as relevant as it is now, when craftspeople are at the losing end of a money-driven globalised society. What are the aspects of Mingei that are most relevant to its defenders? What “art of the people” or “folk crafts” is still relevant now, for whom, and how?  Does the historical value of Mingei as a stand-alone movement suffice to keep it alive? Is it a way to understand the society? Has the mainstream craft or kōgei buried the Mingei of Yanagi? Has the Japaneseness embodied in Mingei evolved and been absorbed by kōgei?
This paper attempts to disentangle some of the concepts surrounding the word Mingei, approaching it from various levels, and to answer some of the questions above. I argue that the Folk Crafts Movement—Mingei—in Japan is a complex term constructed over time. Mingei illustrates the evolution of the art and crafts concepts in Japan through one century, and by so doing, it informs not only how the production and consumption of crafts have evolved, but also how the various stakeholders outside the crafts’ world have shaped the crafts appreciation and used Mingei for wider agendas. Art and crafts exist in a social environment, and institutions and systems affect them. I propose to approach Mingei from three distinct but inter-related levels: the theory of the Movement and its relation to Yanagi Soetsu; the Mingei output and products; and the evolution of Mingei in relation to other social movements in Japan and the factors that influenced it. By using a systems-based approach, I envision a broader contextualisation of Mingei, identifying a wider range of actors outside the polarised discourse of those unquestioningly supporting Yanagi and his movement, and those criticising the gaps between the Mingei theory and actual practice. This paper is part of preparation for an analysis of traditional folk textile dyeing in Japan, which will use the systems-based approach presented here.
This paper begins with background information on crafts in Japan, the context in which Mingei emerged, and the meanings of Mingei. It then proposes three levels of analysis and presents issues around Yanagi and the Mingei theory; the definition of crafts; and the factors that have influenced the evolution of crafts in Japan. The discussion section outlines several theories that relate to the three levels of proposed analysis, and integrates them through the institutional approach to culture of Wuthnow and Witten (1988). Finally, the concluding remarks highlight the utility of the proposed framework for gaining a deeper understanding of Mingei in Japan.

Crafts in Japan

Japan has a rich history of arts and crafts that extends for millennia. Jōmon period (14000-300 BCE) pottery serves as an example of work by “those who possess one skill.” Due to Japan’s geography, villagers lived in isolated areas in a self-sufficient manner. Working with the materials available to them, they produced textiles, pottery, tools for working the fields, and basketries for local consumption. The continued practice of these works with materials and production techniques specific to each area resulted in a variety of crafts with undisputed mastery (Wilson, 1995). Craft development in Japan resulted from its contacts with continental Asia through Korea, flourishing around the Asuka and Nara periods (600-794). However, upon the interruption of relations with China in the second half of the ninth century, Japan centred itself on the internal development of its crafts. The country went through periods of political instability and social disruption until the Edo period (1603-1868), which marked a period of peace and development in all aspects of life in Japan.
Crafts in Japan never stopped their continuous development. However, it is in the Edo period when there was an explosion of styles and innovative techniques and materials, fueled by an active patronage of the ruling classes and the eagerness of the rising and literate merchant class to consume quality crafts. High-quality crafts, which had been a prerogative of the aristocracy, became widely available, and their consumption accelerated countrywide. After being established as the capital, Edo became the centre for consumption of regional crafts, and acted as an attraction pole for craftspeople from all regions (Pontsioen, 2012).
Traditionally, the term kōgei designated both “craft” and “art,” and shokunin designated those who produced kōgei. In the late nineteenth century, Japan began to distinguish these two words into fine art works (bijutsu) and art crafts (kōgei), partly because of Japan’s participation at the World Exhibition in Vienna in 1873. However, even then, kōgei continued being used to designate all types of crafts, including mingei or shin kōgei (utilitarian or studio crafts), traditional crafts of Japan (dentō kōgei), art crafts (bijutsu kōgei), and industrial crafts (sangyo kōgei). Moreover, the borders between these words often remained ambiguous and fluid (Wilson, 2007; Morais, 2019; Cieśliczka, 2021).

Contextual Background

Japan entered a new level of industrialisation after the Russo-Japanese war (1905). By the mid-1910s, not only Tokyo and Osaka, but also cities of all sizes experienced considerable economic development and middle-class affluence. The democratic tendencies during the Taisho period were accompanied by urban development with people moving to the cities in search of work and enjoyment of modern public facilities. As a byproduct, a new consuming elite became patrons of the arts in the private sector. This resulted, on the one hand, in their increasing interest in pastimes like the tea ceremony and the utensils of the Momoyama period, as consumers of art and enjoyment. On the other hand, there was a revival of research into and production of these items, with new opportunities for crafts makers. Changes in the way of life in the cities and transformation of factory production altered both the relationship of workers to production, and the socioeconomic character of neighbourhoods that shifted from households to factories.  Corporations, labour unions, political parties, and the mass media were other institutional figures of the Taishō period associated with urban development and progress, contributing to the modernisation of Japan. But as was the case in nineteenth century England, Japan’s modernisation also caused widespread alienation and consequently, nostalgia (Gordon, 2003; Wilson, 2007; Young, 2013).

Meaning and Meanings of Mingei

The word Mingei [1] is composed of “min” (people) and “gei” (art), which can be translated into English as the “art of the people” or as “folk craft” in the words of Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), the main leader of the Mingei movement (Yanagita et al., 2009). “Mingei” is now broadly used in Japan as well as internationally. It is used so much that there seem to be as many meanings to the word “Mingei” as years have passed since the time it was coined in 1926. One possible way to look at Mingei is from a simple perspective, by establishing a single vector from Yanagi, with the Mingei crafts or with the Japan Folkcrafts Museum. Another way to look at Mingei is from diverse perspectives, considering Mingei as the addition of several of the previous meanings. Such an approach could, for instance, consider Mingei as a movement that established museums to show its masterpieces or as a network of specialised shops across Japan. Yet another more challenging approach would analyse Mingei considering a complex interaction of social processes, cultural movements, and major events, such as wars, or the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, that shaped the national culture and identity of Japan and that cannot be fully explained or replicated in isolation.
From a temporal perspective Mingei represents something anchored in a nostalgic bygone era. At the same time, Mingei embodies an ensemble of affordable crafts for everyday life, as presented at the Japan Folkcrafts Museum, the Takumi retail crafts network, and other outlets across Japan. Some economic and cultural sectors have recast Mingei as the latest new cool (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, 2012) with a foreseeable bright future. Mingei has become the extraordinary ordinary that has found a new niche of consumers among urban elites interested in minimalist design of the craft-design objects. Such renewed appreciations of Mingei are reflected even at governmental level and in the culture industry that has merged Mingei with Kōgei, packing it as Japan’s intangible cultural heritage (Morais, 2019, pp. 144-145). As such, Mingei through Kōgei, has gained its place in what Japan considers worth preserving for future generations.

Proposed levels and framework for analysis

To clarify the various meanings of Mingei, this paper proposes three distinct and inter-connected levels of analysis integrated in an institutional approach to culture. The first level relates to the Mingei Theory and Yanagi Soetsu. The second level explores Mingei in relation to the crafts. The third level contextualises the evolution of the Movement within a broader socio-cultural context in Japan, using an institutional perspective. Figure 1 illustrates these levels and their relation.

Figure 1. Proposed levels of analysis of Mingei

Who: Yanagi Soetsu and Mingei

The philosopher Yanagi Soetsu developed the Mingei theory in the 1920s, in the context of Japan’s rapid modernisation. The theory dealt essentially with what supreme beauty was and where it could be found, and promised that the rediscovery of this beauty could change society itself (Kikuchi, 2004). Mingei enhanced a utilitarian as well as a proletarian perspective, where beauty embodied the objects made by unknown artisans for the daily consumption of everybody. Using a premodern term for everyday objects, objects were initially called getemono, and were later referred to as Mingei, in contrast with the jōtemono or high-grade objects (Brandt, 1996). Yanagi launched the Mingei movement in Japan in 1926 together with two potters, Kawai Kanjirō (1890-1966) and Hamada Shoji (1894-1978), and published his theory on Mingei, Kōgei no michi (The Way of Crafts) in 1928. This theory’s motto included statements such as “True beauty of an item is the beauty of being applied,” or “Beauty is born of sincerity toward use (function)” (Kikuchi, 2004).
Yanagi visited most regions in Japan from the 1910s until the late 1930s, searching for locally rooted crafts. He also visited the then-Japanese colonies, including Korea in the late 1910s and Taiwan in the late 1930s. He praised and defended the multiple cultural identities of the various crafts communities (Mimura, 2019), including those from Japan’s ethnic minorities (Ainu and Okinawan) or from the colonies which the Japanese imperialist policy in the 1920s-1930s tried to assimilate. Yanagi’s writings assumed the position of a connoisseur defending these crafts in territories under Japanese influence. As such, he inferred that these crafts belonged to a common self-culture as opposed to a culture external to Japan/Western. By praising these objects with attributes common to Mingei, Yanagi was constructing a sense of Japaneseness across all these communities and territories. The results were two-fold. On the one hand, Yanagi defended a well-defined originality in these crafts, assuming at times a position of a reactionary modernist. On the other hand, he supported an exclusivist national identity harmonious with the nationalistic policies in Japan at that time (Kikuchi, 2004; Brandt, 2007; Nakanishi, 2008; Marquet, 2012; Steele, 2012). His writings were characterised by what Brandt (1996) has called an “ambivalent form of colonial knowledge,” because, by attributing meaning and uses to these crafts, he assumed a similar position to that of his Western counterparts when looking down upon Japan.

Yanagi and Mingei: attribution and contribution

Research in the past three decades has presented evidence that contradicts the attribution of the Mingei theory solely to Yanagi (Kikuchi, 1997; Kikuchi, 2004; Steele, 2005). What is undisputed is that the writings of Yanagi reflected his personal path towards Mingei theory. In the 1910s Yanagi was an avid writer about individuals such as Blake, Renoir, or Rodin. However, in the 1920s he concentrated on themes, or periods, with minimal reference to authors. This change could be interpreted as a reflection of his religious (Buddhist) interests, coupled with his European Medievalism’s approach to the essence of things. As a result, he detached the author from her/his creation, giving more importance to the latter (Lucken, 2009).
Kikuchi Yuko (2004) argues that the Mingei is a hybrid theory “highly eclectic in its concepts,” and “with strong influences from Western countries.” These influences include the Medievalist theories in Britain of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-1896), Scandinavian and German philosophies by Artur Hazelius (1833-1901) and Heinrich Vogeler (1872-1942) respectively, and Buddhist rhetoric ideas from Japanese old-time masters (Moeran, 1981; Kikuchi, 2004, pp. 6-7). Lucken (2009) notes that Yanagi was not unique in his approach to Medievalism with its emphasis on an idealised medieval community; nor was he the only thinker developing the Mingei theory. Rather, Yanagi was one of the many thinkers of the time, and like other members in his Shirakaba group he tried to implement his reformist approach to rural communities, such as the Kamigamo Mingei Kyōdan between 1927 and 1929, and had a prolific intellectual career (Wilson, 2007). Furthermore, in her article on the New Craft and Mingei Movements of 2011, Ajioka (2011) elaborates on the role of Iwamura Tōru (1870-1917) in introducing the ideas of Ruskin and Morris in Japan and diffusing them through the art journal Bijutsu shinpō and through his relationships with artistic elites, making it unlikely that Yanagi would not be aware of these.

Divergent views within the Mingei Movement

The Mingei Movement was not accepted smoothly and faced opposing views and positions within and from other cultural movements. These divergent views shaped the Movement over the years. Yanagi and his companions who started the Mingei Movement disagreed on various issues. The disputes sometimes resulted in Yanagi’s being left aside from the arts’ trends of the moment due to what others considered a radicalised, sclerotic position (Ajioka, 1995). For instance, Yanagi in 1921 praised the work of potter Tomimoto Kenkichi (1886-1963), but in 1927 he openly criticised Tomimoto’s creativity, even though his work had not undergone any apparent major changes. Various contemporary artists who had embraced the ideas behind Mingei disassociated themselves from Yanagi and founded other art movements, such as the Shinshō Bijutsu Kōgeikai (The New Craftspeople’s Art Craft Society) created by Tomimoto in 1947 (Jones, 2014, p. 250). Yanagi was criticised for his (in)ability to appreciate what he considered to be aristocratic crafts, including tea utensils of the Momoyama period, which, despite not being folk crafts, are unique Japanese crafts of highest quality.
Yanagi exalted the role of the (un)known artisan. He had published an article on the art of Medieval France in the Shirakaba journal in 1921, emphasising the importance of generational know-how that modest craftspeople could achieve, rather than the artist’s personality. Tomimoto supported the idea of beautiful quality objects for all but was not hesitant to incorporate machines to produce such objects. One of his collaborators, English potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979), noted that the craftsman who is a creative artist producing crafts or sakka, was the only one that could work in an evolving environment (Ajioka, 1995, p. 24). Some of Yanagi’s followers saw contradictions between his theory and his acclaim for the display of works of these sakka (Hamada, Kawai, or Serizawa Keisuke (1895-1984)) at the Mingeikan.

What: Definition and meanings of crafts versus art

The word “craft” etymologically relates to the Old High German “kraft” (strength). It means “skill in planning, making, executing,” and relates to “an occupation or trade requiring skill” (Mark, 2011). In other languages, such as French or Spanish, “craft” can be translated respectively by “artisanat” or “artesania,” that is, the product of the “artisan” or “artesano/a.” Both words derive from the Latin word “artitus” and mean “one skilled in any mechanical art, craftsman.” In contrast with the word “craftsperson” or “artisan,” the word “artist” derives from the Old French “art,” meaning “skill in scholarship and learning,” referring especially to liberal art. [2] The definition of craft in various dictionaries included terms such as “skill,” “experience,” “activity,” or “by hand.” One definition refers to crafts as what the artisans and craftspeople produce, rather than qualifying how they produce them. Traditional crafts are wedded to use, and therefore, along with the visual perception, the tactile, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive senses are equally important (Mascia-Lees, 2011, p.15). Conversely, the various definitions of art include terms such as “beauty,” “imagination,” “aesthetic,” or “not ordinary.” [3] For Howard Risatti (2007) “Fine art is about perceptions and appearance; it always exists within the realm of the subjective. Crafts is about physical and material function; it always exists within the realm of the objective.”
Larry Shiner (2012) proposed a set of four strategies to understand the concept of craft. These included differentiating crafts as a set of processes and practice by materials used, technique, or by the final product; differentiating the type of craft production by studio/atelier, trade/buildings/repairs, ethnic, amateur/semiprofessional, and DIY/hobbyist; recognising concepts of crafts-art and super-crafts as legitimate progressions of crafts; and exploring the role of crafts in relation to digital design and modern production of objects. Furthermore, Shiner proposed eight characteristics to group crafts, including those related to the process of crafts making, the function, the aesthetics, the notion of community and solidarity in the production, and the history/lineage in the essence of the craft.
Other approaches to the characterisation of crafts include Risatti’s (2007) grouping them into containers, covers, or supports, matching functions and the physiological needs which they address.  Kaneko Kenji (2002) proposed specific description of the crafting formation or the self-expression through the process to distinguish genuine Japanese craftworks such as ceramics, hand dyed or hand-woven textiles, woodwork, lacquered ware, metal, bamboo, straw, glass, and paper, from works influenced by the Western (kurafuto) and other contemporary art products. He conveyed the idea of Japaneseness in the crafts and called for a national identity through them.

How: Factors affecting the evolution of crafts in Japan

Crafts and craftspeople: from anonymity to recognition

Socioeconomic and political changes in Japan from the late nineteenth century affected all layers of the society, including the cultural sphere. As the industrial modernisation of the Meiji Restoration progressed, the horizon and concept of crafts started to change. With the abolition of the feudal class system and independent feudal domains, the patronage for and consumption of certain objects, such as swords, became obsolete and many craftspeople producing them found themselves out of work. Another reason why the concept of crafts changed was the need of the Meiji government for foreign currency to fund its reforms, for which it actively promoted Japanese goods in international markets. Japan participated as a unified country in International Expositions for the first time in the Vienna exposition of 1873 (Ajioka, 1995, pp. 97, 107). Subsequently, museums were created and the Company for Founding Industry and Commerce, or Kiryū Kōshō Kaisha, was established in 1874, opening branch offices in New York and in Paris to capture the demand of objects and to promote them, and in major cities of Japan to present foreign goods domestically. The government organised Domestic Expositions for the Promotion of Industries and decentralised these initiatives regionally. Schools of art, craft, and industry were opened as an alternative to the old apprenticeship system. Kitazawa and Thompson (2012) comment on the development of the term bijutsu (art) in preparation for Japan’s participation at the 1873 Exposition in Vienna, whose rules required that products be divided into the categories of arts and crafts, with a clear connotation that art was superior to crafts. Craft producers started producing for aesthetic pleasure to distance their works from those from utilitarian industries; or sign their works to qualify as artists. Kitazawa and Thompson further comment on how the initial term bijutsu included all arts, including music and literature, and how the term evolved to denominate visual arts. The term geijutsu, which historically referred to products involving mastery of technical skills, also evolved to denominate “mastery creations intended for aesthetic appreciation” (2012, pp. 439-441).
In the face of crafts focusing on their functionality, advocacy for those emphasising creativity and decorative quality gained momentum, and led to the creation of various associations and institutional settings in the early 1900s. In 1925 Tsuda Shinobu (1875-1946) and friends established the Mukei kai (Society for Formlessness), guided by their motto, “beauty above utility,” and the New Craft movement (Ajioka, 1995, p. 171). In 1926, the Nihon Kōgei Bijutsukai (Japan Craft Art Society) was established. One decade later, in 1935 some members of the Mukei kai departed and established the Jitsuzai Kōgei Bijutsukai (Actuality Craft Art Association) with their motto becoming "utility equals beauty.” In 1947 Tomimoto Kenkichi (1886-1963), an early participant in the Mingei movement, created the Shinshō Bijutsu Kōgeikai (The New Craftspeople’s Art Craft Society), seeking a new philosophy of the crafts, and integrating the group’s aesthetics into a new social and industrial environment (Brandt, 2009, p. 111-114; Jones 2014, p.250). Later, in 1948, Yagi Kazuo (1918-1979), Yamada Hikaru (1924-2001), and Suzuki Osamu (1926-2001) established the Shōdeisha group, creating "object-wares" for self-expression and exhibition (Ajioka, 2012, pp. 420-423).
At the same time that the above broader level events were taking place, the implementation of the Mingei movement advanced, with changes in the production and consumption of the crafts. By the end of the 1920s, several communal working cooperatives had been established. The Mingei evolved in 1931 into the New Mingei to address socioeconomic needs of rural communities. Established in Tottori by Yoshida Shōya (1898-1972), it included craft production and its commercialisation through the establishment of an (urban) retailer network called Takumi. Department stores across Japan promoted the crafts of anonymous craftspeople as well as those works of the representatives of the Mingei movement through selling expositions. The network of supporting institutions and an energetic mass media exposed the crafts to urban customers and unlocked new markets (Brandt, 2007, pp. 105-107; Wilson, 2009, pp. 76-77). The Mingei Kyōkai (Mingei Association) published Kōgei (1931-1951), a periodical produced as a craft. Kōgei was progressively replaced by the Mingei Monthly or Gekkan Mingei (1939-1946), a popular version of Kōgei and a communication tool of the New Mingei (Ajioka, 1995, pp. 206, 256). As of 1942, the Mingei Association started the periodical The Mingei which continues up to now. By the 1940s numerous magazines for the general public promoted the use of Mingei products for their beauty and fashion, and more importantly, to support the local and national economies.
The government institutions played an important role as Japan tried to re-cast itself as a repository of culture. For instance, it launched the Enhancement of the Protection for Cultural Properties Act in 1950 to preserve and promote Japan’s traditional craft. This institutional support included the establishment of local crafts industries and the nomination and support to individuals as Holders of Important Intangible Cultural Property—the National Living Treasures. Later, in 1955 the government established the Traditional Craft Association (Dentō Kōgeikai) and hosted the Japan Traditional Craft Exhibition (Nihon Dentō Kōgeiten) in the Tokyo National Museum. Meanwhile, the designation of crafts as regional industries enhanced the regions’ ability to compete in the wider market (Triharini, 2015).  As of the mid-1950s the creativity and individual expression of craftspeople became progressively accepted as being vital attributes of the crafts, resulting in the blurring of borders between crafts, art, and design in a double context of domestic social change and globalisation (Brandt, 2009, pp.224-226; Kikuchi, 2015).

Craft-art, craft-design, and Mingei crafts

From the 1950s some profound changes took place in the conception and production of crafts. On the one hand, some craftspeople experimented the crossing of boundaries, creating new works and blurring the borderlines between crafts, art, and design. Examples of such modern crafts between super-crafts and art include weaving with various materials and producing basketry as in Shōno Tokuzō (b. 1964) works, [4] or those of Sudo Reiko (b. 1953) combining stainless steel with other fibres [5] to produce her textiles.
On the other hand, modern crafts penetrated the design, and became objects of the everyday life retaining a Japanese flavor. Examples of well-known objects encompassing super-crafts and craft-design include the “Butterfly” stool [6] by Yanagi Sori (1915-2011); and the Akari lamp series [7] from 1951 by Noguchi Isamu (1904-1988), as Figure 2 illustrates.

Figure 2. Modern crafts: between super-crafts and crafts-design: Akari Lamp series by Noguchi Isamu. [7]
While crafts experimented with aesthetic and functional boundaries, the tradition of copying works of special significance to cultural heritage in Japan continued as Takuya and Takayama (2010) have noted. This tradition, which was supported by the government from the beginning of the Meiji period, continues to the present day. The purpose of this government-led program is two-fold. On the one hand, it ensures the preservation of both the object in case of accident/ disappearance and the technique of production, which is often selected as Intangible Cultural Property. On the other hand, the protection of old techniques has enabled the creation of contemporary art-crafts. Figure 3 illustrates the transmission of techniques to enhance the tradition of crafts through the pottery in Bizen style by Isezaki Jun (b.1936), [8] and the lacquerware work of Otomaru Kōdō (1898-1997). [9, 10],

Figure 3. Modern crafts illustrating the transmission of techniques to enhance the tradition of crafts. Black angle flowerpot by Isezaki Jun8 (left), and confectionary box with polychrome carved lacquered floral decoration by Otomaru Kōdō [10] (right).
Lastly, the traditional Mingei-style crafts continued to be produced and marketed through studios/ateliers, and specialised retailers (Figure 4), including the Bingoya shop in Tokyo, the Takumi stores’ network throughout Japan, and the Mingei museums’ network across the country. These specialised shops, department store sales, exhibitions at museums, and specialised publications, maintain the interest in these traditional Mingei products’ clientele. A considerable number of small studio/ateliers producing traditional crafts is gradually disappearing, as they fail to recruit young people to replace the retiring senior staff. As a result, there is a twofold tendency in the current trends in the world of Mingei, one being to observe their disappearance in silence, and the other one being to protect them as intangible cultural heritage linked to Japaneseness and national identity (Kikuchi, 2015). Akimoto (2012) argues that linking these crafts to individuals who can modernise them, rather than anchoring them in their past, would ensure their continuity.

Figure 4. Mingei products retailer, Tokyo. December 2021. © Maria Santamaria


The previous sections have explored Mingei as a philosophy that evolved through time, as a culture producing initially crafts and later art objects, and as an ensemble of processes and agencies accompanying its institutionalisation. The philosophy, culture, and agency had a complex development through time. To unpack the various meanings of Mingei, the paper proposes to approach it as a complex evolutionary socio-political-cultural process in Japan related to the actors and the philosophy behind the Movement, the Mingei products, and the factors that shaped the evolution of the Movement. Table 1 elaborates on these three levels and identifies several theories to approach Mingei. Table 2 explores the impact of the various theories /analytical approaches proposed for each of the components of the Mingei, with some examples of the impact on Mingei, and the value that these theories add to the analysis of Mingei.

Table 1. Proposed levels of analysis of Mingei

Table 2. Mingei, proposed theories/ approaches for analysis

Mingei as a philosophical approach and its implementation

This level is concerned with the theory (aesthetics) and the social impact of the Mingei Movement as it was implemented. It considers crafts as objects and examines how the Mingei discourse influenced the production of craftworks, the establishment of communal cooperatives, the Takumi retail network, and the network of Mingei museums. This discourse relates to the profile of the founder, leaders, and representative members of the Mingei Movement, and what they achieved because of the social position they held. The different views of its members diluted the original ideas of Yanagi and through time the original Mingei evolved and branched off into other movements such as the New Mingei while the original Mingei of Yanagi became radicalised. The arguments of crafts, artisans, and utility kept evolving along with those of art, artists, and decoration. Although the Mingei theory was about unknown craftspeople producing works, its representatives were all consummate artists (Wilson, 1995) making it necessary to dissect what “craftspeople” represent within the Mingei theory in relation to the construction of the social alter composed by the Mingei representatives and artists, and to the social stratification. [11]
Mingei theory called for a humanisation against industrialisation and followed British medievalism, with clear references to Blake, Ruskin, and Morris, while at the same time enhancing the importance of cooperative work and the preservation of tradition. Yanagi’s thought of an absolute and universal beauty of simplicity and utility of objects is consonant with the aesthetics of decontextualisation, and the primary emotion is the appreciation of objects [12], where the authors become irrelevant. [13] Through his travels, Yanagi and his team characterised objects and communities by locations, enhancing the local profiles. This kind of approach, which Said termed a “colonial discourse” (Burney, 2012, p.36) contributed to the notion of national identity. [14] By branding Mingei as traditional authenticity, it fueled the idea of Japaneseness in the context of Japanese cultural nationalism (Kikuchi 2004).

Mingei as crafts

From this perspective Mingei reflects the interaction of three heterogeneous groups. These include the producers of the craftworks, who range from unknown craftspeople to creative artists. The second group consists of the structures, institutions, and individuals distributing and marketing the crafts, such as the government, museums, exhibitions, power networks, department stores and other retailers, and the mass media. The third group includes the consumers with their material, visual, cultural, and symbolic consumption of the crafts. The consumption pattern depends on the consumer’s appreciation of the craft, so all the factors that foster this appreciation become relevant.
Mingei crafts are handmade works for daily use using traditional techniques and processes. Their appreciation is based on the shared knowledge of the objects themselves, how they are made, for what purpose, and how they fit into the continuum of a historical tradition. [15] At the same time, the value of the crafts depends on the consumers’ appreciation, [16] which is influenced and shaped by a series of intermediary parties sensitive to social changes  (Wuthnow and Witten, 1988).

Mingei as an evolutionary cultural practice

Mingei embodies "a dynamic interaction of multiple networks, and groups with vested interests" (Wuthnow and Witten, 1988). The multiple networks included specialised associations of art, design, modern craft, and folk craft. Among the groups with vested interests, those commercialising the objects and branding the image of Japan, as well as the government fostering its policies, were especially relevant. The mainstream policies dominated and enhanced the concept of regional and national identity, war efforts and building of the empire, and the promotion of Japaneseness. The interaction of these groups illustrated the crossing of borders between art and politics through the socioeconomic policy related to the Mingei and crafts consumption. The Mingei Movement benefited from an institutional support from the government through the 1930s and 1940s, with the mass media calling for readers to decorate their homes with local products to support their production and culture. For instance, in the 1941 issue of the magazine Fujin Gahō, Hata Ichiro wrote that “by using Mingei objects and by infusing them with a new urban ‘sense,’ towns-women would not only revive an urban culture but would also help to create a ‘vital driving power’ through the exchange with ‘regional culture’” (in Brandt 2007, p. 153).
The various phases of the evolution of Mingei, from the conception to its production, selection, institutionalisation and finally stabilisation, required the mobilisation of political, economic, and intellectual resources, which could only be effective if aligned with the dominant ideology of Japan as it changed throughout the years (Goodman, 2005, p. 67-70). Because of the appropriation of Mingei by the various actors and institutions, a set of products compatible with notions of cultural heritage and national identity [17] were selected, and the concept of Yanagi-Mingei shifted towards Japaneseness—Kōgei or traditional arts and crafts. The branding of the traditional crafts influenced their appreciation, resulting in a form of cultural capital based on taste and the construction of class and national identity. [18]

Institutional approach to Mingei from a cultural theory perspective

This paper argues that the Mingei Movement is part of the culture in Japan in the 1900s, and that culture is a social construction resulting in an explicit social product wherein goods and commodities have symbolic meaning. As Wuthnow and Witten (1988) have noted, this approach emphasises that agency is important as a source of cultural products, and therefore explores the specific activities involved in bringing these products into being. Culture is characterised by its products, including works of art, rituals, or ideological movements. The institutional approach uses eclectic methodological strategies to understand the factors relevant to culture, such as the communication, the productive work, agency, dissemination, competition, collabouration, and consumption.
The approach of Wuthnow and Witten (1988) to culture seems appropriate to analyse the evolution of Mingei in Japan, because it is grounded in the contexts in which objects are produced, disseminated, interpreted, and consumed. This so-called institutional approach uses the term “institution” as the agency which becomes pivotal in constructing the objects. From this perspective, institutions include those structures and networks related to folk crafts and their evolution in Japan including the branding of folk crafts, and the communication strategies involved. This approach to culture gives credit to the object itself, while recognising that there are other related aspects corresponding to what Bourdieu calls “the rules of the game”: beside the express, explicit norm, or the rational calculation, there are other principles that generate practices (Bourdieu, 1990). Therefore, the availability of broad economic, political, and intellectual resources, their organisation within specific social settings, and producers and recipients are all important.
The analysis that Wuthnow and Witten (1988) propose distinguishes several processes:  conception, production, selection, and institutionalisation, and finally stabilisation. In all the processes the ideological forms and social environments relate intimately to each other. Firstly, an ideology is formed with a set of symbols that send messages about social relations and resources. The changes produced provoke uncertainty, which in its turn provides opportunities for new ideologies to be formed. Subsequently, there is a selection of ideologies towards those performing more effectively in governing social resources. As the support of mainstream institutions consolidates, the initiative or ideology stabilises and at the same time, it becomes resistant to change. This is a fragile tradeoff, because the institutional support, critical as it is for the nascent ideologies and movements to overcome initial barriers and pursue their objectives, makes those ideologies and movements obsolete in the absence of challenging critics and innovation (Goodman, 2005, p. 67). The activities along the way are fluid and include adapting the new ideology itself, developing webs of influence with organisational settings, community rituals, patrons, producers, or potential audiences.

Figure 5. Illustrating the institutional approach to Mingei from a cultural theory perspective.
This evolutionary process which Wuthnow and Witten propose corresponds well to the phases of the Mingei Movement from its conception, development, and later stabilisation. Figure 5 illustrates the linkages between various components of Mingei using the cultural theory and the institutional approach. The conception phase of the Mingei Movement comprised a messy and heterogeneous interaction of readings, thoughts, personal experiences, and travels shared within a group of like-minded people. These interactions developed into a mature concept and a critical mass of people adhering to the Mingei concepts and contributing to the launching of the Mingei theory. Upon the launching of the theory, experimentation followed, and the Mingei Movement incorporated lessons of successes and failures in the initiatives undertaken, such as with the various communal experiences, associations, retailer shops, or museums. This conception phase evolved into the production phase with a more structured use of political, economic, and intellectual resources available. These resources defined a certain ideology, which selected a set of compatible products for their branding and support, such as regional initiatives, or post-war nationalist policies in the mid 1940s. Along this process, several groups branched off from the original Mingei and developed other initiatives favorable to traditional crafts, but critic of Yanagi’s Mingei direction. In the next phase, Mingei was institutionalised as a cultural product, with government investing resources and stabilising it. This stabilisation reflected the government policies of protecting and promoting Japan’s cultural heritage and national identity. The institutional support included economic packages, branding, or investing in new initiatives to foster four different forms of Mingei consumption. On the one hand, these forms included the material consumption of crafts by urban elites or as Japanese memorabilia, and the visual consumption with the promotion of expositions or events in museums as well as direct support to them. There was also a cultural consumption entailing support to research, documentation, and publication of Mingei-related materials, as well as the promotion of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Finally, the governmental support fostered the symbolic consumption of Mingei, through the promotion of postwar mass tourism (1955-1980) and the postmodern media and institutions (1980s-present) which assimilated Mingei to Kōgei, as an emblem of national identity.

Closing remarks

Considering Mingei from the three distinct but related levels of analysis—its philosophy, the products, and the processes and institutions involved—facilitates the analysis and brings a dynamic view of the meanings of the Arts and Crafts movement in Japan. There are various theories which inform specific aspects of each proposed level of analysis of Mingei and help us understand it better. However, I found that dissecting the various components of Mingei and weaving them through the institutional approach of Wuthnow and Witten offered the possibility of integrating the processes and having a comprehensive dynamic view of Mingei through time. Recognising that the philosophy, the products, and the processes evolved differently—and yet not completely independently—provides an alternative to the static conception of the Mingei prevailing in the early twentieth century.
Considering culture as an explicitly social product helps to understand how the agency—or rather all those institutions acting as agency—shape the cultural product and the various types of consumption of crafts, be it material, visual, cultural, and symbolic. At the same time, there are aspects within the philosophy of Mingei, its crafts, or the processes and interested parties involved, which are better understood with the help of other theories. These include European medievalism as an informing theory contributing to the lineage of Mingei as the expression of the Arts and Crafts movement in Japan, or the hybrid "Oriental Orientalism" underlying the Mingei theory rather than it being a Yanagi’s self-attributed one (Kikuchi, 2004). There is also a need to consider the colonialist approach of the Mingei group when travelling through Japan and its colonies in search of products/objects. Through the selection of such objects the group pursued the construction of a national identity based on its concept of Japanese beauty, and, by so doing, they helped the creation of the term “Japaneseness.” The term “Japaneseness” was later to be branded by the government and proved useful to explain the consumption of crafts as commodities, in a capitalist environment. Furthermore, the crafts and the aesthetic theories help in understanding the evolution of arts and crafts in Japan through these past decades. These theories assist characterising the crafts and help understand their appreciation. At the same time, since the appreciation of crafts relates intimately to their consumption, craft and aesthetic theories are critical to explore the sustainability of folk crafts, traditional crafts, art, and design works.


The author is indebted to the helpful comments on the manuscript from Richard L. Wilson, (former) Professor of Japanese Art and Archaeology, International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan. She also appreciates the two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments.


1. From 民族的/民衆的工芸 minzokuteki/minshūteki kōgei.

2. As per the Online Etymology Dictionary

3. Cambridge dictionary, Collins English dictionary, Oxford Learner’s dictionary.

4. “Shining,” timber bamboo and rattan vessel, 33x48.3 cm. by Shōno Tokuzō

5. “Burner Dye,” stainless steel and cotton textile, 610.9x116.8 cm by Sudo Reiko

6 “Butterfly,” rosewood and stainless-steel stool, 38.7x42.2x30.5 cm by Yanagi Sori.

7. Isamu Noguchi with Akari, 1951. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 07019. Photographer unknown. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

8. Kurokaku hanaike (Black angled flowerpot), vessel 10.5x10.2x27.3cm. Bizen style pottery by Isezaki Jun. 50th Traditional Crafts Exhibition, Ceramics Section, 2020. ©Nihon Kōgeikai, Tokyo.

9. Exposition of the work of Otomaru Kōdō, 2018 at Takamatsu Art Museum.

10. Enrei so (Wake robin), Confectionary box 15x15x13 cm. Engraved lacquer by Otomaru Kōdō. ©Kagawa Urushi Lacquerware Institute.

11. From singularity for the craftspeople, always doing the same thing; versus plurality of the artists, with opportunities to cross cultural boundaries using their connections across different segments of society.

12. Theory of aesthetics detached from context of Alexander G. Baumgarten and of Immanuel Kant, who argue for aestheticism as an absolute attribute of objects separated from social, political, and economic constraints.

13. The death of the author of Roland Barthes (1967), who interprets beauty as a function of utility through personal experience, where the author becomes irrelevant.

14. Hugh C. Clifford (1982) and Peter Pels (1997) argued that the enhancing of local profiles and communities fosters the notion of national identities through an appropriation and differentiation of what is us versus the other.

15. In consonance with the Crafts theory by John Perreault in The eloquent object (1987) and the analysis of the art-crafts connection.

16. According to the concept developed by Arjun Appadurai (1986) in Social Lives of Things – Commodities and the politics of value.

17. Leading to the branding of a national identity through the crafts’ consumption, in line with the culturalist-intersubjectivist theory of Clifford Geertz in Toward an interpretive theory of culture (1971).

18. In consonance with the theory of social context aesthetics of Pierre Bourdieu of 1984.


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About the Authors

Maria Jose Santamaria Hergueta, a Spanish medical doctor, has a PhD in medical sciences (Japan) and a DrPH in organisational management (UK), with a career in global infectious diseases and evaluation policy. Maria is also a textile practitioner and a PhD candidate in art and cultural heritage in the Department of Comparative Culture, International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan.

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