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The Invention of “Folk Crafts”: Yanagi Sōetsu and Mingei

The Folk Crafts Movement and Folklore Studies

Mouvement des Arts populaires et études folkloriques
Damien Kunik


At about the same time as mingei appeared Yanagita Kunio’s Folkloristics (minzokugaku). Often confused, the two differ in many ways.

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Editor’s note

Original release: Damien Kunik, « Mouvement des Arts populaires et études folkloriques », Cipango [En ligne], 16 | 2009, mis en ligne le 18 novembre 2011, DOI: 10.4000/cipango.374.

Full text

  • 1 Mingeigaku to minzokugakuv 民藝學と民俗學 (1941), reprinted in Yanagi Sōetsu zenshū (YSZ) 柳宗悦全集 (The Comp (...)
  • 2 Mingei 民芸 or 民藝 is a relatively standard term in Japan today. When written with the character 芸 it (...)
  • 3 In particular “Getemono no bi” 下手ものの美 (The Beauty of Everyday Objects, 1926), YSZ, op. cit., vol.8, (...)
  • 4 On this subject see the chapter “Renovating Greater East Asia”, Kim Brandt, Kingdom of Beauty. Ming (...)

1When in 1941 Yanagi Sōetsu (or Muneyoshi) 柳宗悦 wrote an article entitled “Folk Craft Studies and Folklore Studies” for the journal Kōgei 工藝 (Crafts),1 the Folk Crafts Movement (mingei undō 民藝運動) he was largely responsible for establishing was at its height.2 The Japan Folk Crafts Association (Nihon Mingei Kyōkai 日本民藝協会), the movement’s governing body set up seven years earlier, was experiencing a peak in its membership with several thousand supporters. Circulation figures for the association’s two journals, Crafts and Folk Crafts Monthly (Gekkan Mingei 月刊民藝), were at their highest. The Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan 日本民藝館), which spearheaded the group’s activities, was celebrating its fifth anniversary in the Komaba 駒場 neighbourhood of Tokyo. As for Yanagi, he had already written the movement’s corpus of founding texts.3 During this period members of the movement ceased their activities promoting its aesthetic theories in favour of a politically committed activism conducted on a wider national scale. Yanagi thus entered the debate over the protection of the dialect and culture of the Ryūkyū Islands. Yoshida Shōya 吉田璋也 (1898-1972) and Shikiba Ryūzaburō 式場隆三郎 (1898-1965), two leading figures in the Folk Crafts Association, invested considerable energy in Manchuria, Korea and Taiwan,4 where they notably sought to extend the Association’s influence.

2The Folk Crafts Movement’s success is most clearly measured by the way the aesthetic it advocated permeated many areas of urban culture. In the 1930s, for example, department stores – led by Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya – held regular temporary exhibitions to promote the objects endorsed by Yanagi and his followers. Given the importance of these establishments and their influence on consumer tastes, it seems almost certain that the Folk Crafts Movement would have been perceived more generally at that time as a decorative arts movement for the wealthy rather than a marginal intellectual or avant-garde aesthetic movement.

3Nonetheless, the rural Japanese handicrafts that appeared in department stores, and which were designed to be modern consumer goods, proudly asserted their local colour and popular origins. In fact, their style originated in the nation’s most remote and previously rather discredited regions (San’in, Tōhoku), rediscovered thanks to Thuir “high degree of Japaneseness”. Finally, these craft wares were presented as the visible expression of a social and aesthetic theory developed a few years earlier by people who sought to promote Japan’s tangible heritage, which was waning under the triple impact of industrialisation, modernisation and westernisation.

4This may explain the confusion that exists over the theories of the Folk Crafts Movement and those of another movement born in the same period and which tackled a closely related subject: the folklore studies (minzokugaku 民俗学) of Yanagita Kunio 柳田國男 (1875-1962), which will be the focus of this article. This confusion, which outside of specialist circles persists in Japan today, is not recent; on the contrary, it arose during the early years of these two movements which are at times similar, at times complementary, and at times diametrically opposed.

5That these movements emerged simultaneously and that their common centre of interest was influenced by the times is undeniable. Let us not forget that other contemporaries of Yanagi and Yanagita, such as Yamamoto Kanae 山本鼎 (1882-1946) in the field of the arts and Miyazawa Kenji 宮沢賢治 (1896-1933) in literature, also developed a passion for promoting Japan’s rural folk culture. This interest in the subject during the first half of the twentieth century thus provides a link between individuals who did not necessarily move in the same circles at the time. Their common use of the character min (people, nation) has fuelled confusion further. Lastly, Yanagi and Yanagita shared a common cause: their desire to fight for the preservation of a tangible and cultural heritage that was regional, national and, above all, Asian.

6At the time of writing “Folk Craft Studies and Folklore Studies”, a short 15-page essay that will be analysed here, Yanagi was well aware that this confusion existed. He thus quite naturally felt the need to compose a text that would allow him to clarify the similarities and differences between his ideology and that of Yanagita. This necessity was further heightened by the fact that 1941 marked a new chapter in the population’s collective contribution to the war effort. The arts and sciences were also called upon, more so than in the previous decade, and underwent an extensive reorganisation and centralisation of their activities, which previously had been allowed to exist in parallel. Yanagi, just like Yanagita, was most certainly forced to justify the independence of his movement and the institutions it had generated.

  • 5 See my translation in this volume of Cipango.

7At the same time, “Folk Craft Studies and Folklore Studies”, which crystallised five years of reflections on the relationship between science and folk crafts, concluded a dialogue launched in 1936 between Yanagi and several key figures in Japanese folklore studies, including Shibusawa Keizō 渋沢敬三 (1896-1963), Miyamoto Tsuneichi 宮本常一 (1907-1981) and Yanagita Kunio himself.5

8It should be noted that the two movements, which still exist today, have never since shown a desire or need to meet with each other. Consequently, while it may be tempting to compare Yanagita and Yanagi for their efforts to preserve Japan’s cultural and tangible folk heritage, the truth is that a polite silence divides Japanese folklorists and followers of the Folk Crafts Movement.

  • 6 Such as with the Musée du Quai Branly exhibition The Mingei Spirit in Japan, held in Paris from 30  (...)
  • 7 See the article by Coralie Castel in this volume of Cipango.
  • 8 “Folk Craft Studies and Folklore Studies”, op. cit., p. 272, emphasis is my own.

9So while hastily associating the Folk Crafts Movement with folklore studies is a risky enterprise, it would appear just as simplistic to confine Yanagi’s movement to the history of decorative arts, as some Western and Japanese researchers, as well as the curators of recent exhibitions on the subject,6 have tended to do. Of course, given the current trend to lend an exotic flavour to the term mingei,7 one could consider the Folk Crafts Movement to be no more similar to folklore studies than naturalistic painting is to biology or botany. Where Yanagi had a Japanese-inspired aesthetic from a bygone era, Yanagita had science, so to speak. Admittedly this interpretation is not entirely unfounded if we consider the Folk Crafts Movement to be an art movement of the past. However, it is important that we go beyond such a simplistic reading of the movement by giving due weight to its founders’ explicit intentions. Yanagi set them out in the opening line of his essay:8

The aim of this text is to clarify the Folk Crafts Movement’s nature as a scientific discipline. It would seem appropriate, in order to get straight to the heart of the matter, to propose a comparison of the Folk Crafts Movement and folklore studies, for the two approaches have as many similarities as they do differences. Drawing parallels between these two sciences is both necessary and enriching. It is thus useful to understand that these two approaches are destined to work together and help each other in the future.

The most striking similarity between folk craft studies and folklore studies is that both place the everyday life of the common people at the heart of their concerns.

10Thus while for reasons that I hope to explain, the Folk Crafts Movement and folklore studies are often studied by specialists hailing from different disciplines, and while the term mingei is traditionally associated with Japanese decorative arts, it must be conceded that Yanagi himself wished to establish a link between his movement and scholarly ambitions such as those of Yanagita and his disciples. Here, if only in theory, Yanagi asserted his desire to promote a discipline rather than a new aesthetic form.

11By conducting a detailed analysis of the text “Folk Craft Studies and Folklore Studies”, this article proposes to lift the veil on a lesser known face of the movement, that of its theoretical reflections and questioning, far from the famous achievements of Mingei champions such as Kawai Kanjirō 河井寛次郎 (1890-1966), Hamada Shōji 濱田庄司 (1894-1978) and Munakata Shikō 棟方志功 (1903-1975).

Folk crafts (mingei) and folk tools (mingu)

  • 9 Achikku no seichō アチックの成長 (The Development of the Attic Museum) in Miyamoto Tsuneichi 宮本常一, Nihon m (...)

12The first written indication of a reflection on the similarities and differences between folk crafts and folklore studies came from Shibusawa Keizō, in the form of an article written in 1933 entitled “The Development of the Attic Museum”.9

13The grandson of the famous economist Shibusawa Eiichi 渋沢栄一 (1840-1931), Shibusawa Keizō is known primarily for having taken up the baton inherited from his illustrious ancestor. His personal commitment to the world of finance, his position as Governor of the Bank of Japan and stint as Finance Minister immediately after the Second World War often conceal his leading role in Japanese folklore studies.

  • 10 Yoshida Kenji, “Tōhaku and Minpaku within the History of Modern Japanese Civilization: Museum Colle (...)

14Shibusawa is evidently not as famous in the field as Yanagita, something doubtless explained by his primary focus being on an aspect of Japanese folklore that was of little interest to the discipline’s most orthodox branch: collecting and analysing everyday objects (toys, tools, votive plaques and crockery). Fifteen years before the Japan Folk Crafts Museum was created, Shibusawa made his collections available to the public via a small museum he opened in 1921, in the loft of his home in Mita (Tokyo), and which he aptly named the Attic Museum アチック・ミュゼアム. This event would not fail to inspire Yanagi. The bulk of this now defunct museum’s collections was later acquired by the National Museum of Ethnology (Kokuritsu Minzokugaku Hakubutsukan 国立民族学博物館) upon its creation in Osaka in 1974.10

  • 11 Kanetani Miwa 金谷美和, “Bunka no shōhi: Nihon mingei undō no tenji o megutte” 文化の消費  日本民藝運動の展示をめぐって ( (...)
  • 12 An account of the event appears in “Zazechi” no koto「ざぜち」のこと (On “Zazechi” Paper Decorations), YS (...)

15This interest in Japan’s tangible heritage can also be seen in the name Shibusawa gave his field of research, “the study of folk tools” (mingugaku 民具学), and provides a simple explanation for Shibusawa’s interest in Yanagi’s work on Japanese crafts, a field which at first glance closely resembled his own. The two men met on two occasions,11 the first being a visit by Yanagi to the Attic Museum, and the second a field trip12 to the flower festival (hana matsuri 花祭) of Shitara District (Shitara-gun 設楽郡) in Aichi Prefecture, which was jointly organised by the Folk Crafts Association and a handful of folklorists, including Shibusawa.

16For the purpose of making an initial distinction between folklore studies and the Folk Crafts Movement, it may be useful to examine the specificities of these two terms: mingei 民藝 (folk craft/art), as it was employed by Yanagi, and mingu 民具 (folk tools), as conceived by Shibusawa.

  • 13 Until the 1940s Yanagi used both terms indiscriminately.
  • 14 Achikku no seichō, op. cit., p. 168.

When giving these objects [mingu] the name getemono or mingei,13 the main purpose is to underline their individual beauty. Conversely, at the Attic Museum we see them as an integral part of everyday life and strive to reveal the nature of those who created them. In other words, the items presented here form a whole and provide a glimpse into the souls of our ancestors. It is here that we find beauty.14

17There are several issues to note here. Firstly, logic dictates that the term mingu refers to tools (gu 具) of the people (min 民), in other words purely utilitarian objects, while mingei refers to a popular art (gei 藝) whose aesthetic dimension, even reduced to its simplest form, must be taken into account. Yet if we are to believe the above extract, the terms mingu, getemono and mingei – since they appear to be interchangeable – are primarily labels reflecting different interpretations of similar objects. This observation serves to underline a basic similarity between the two approaches: their study of a common field.

18These objects, to which members of the Folk Crafts Movement and folklorists alike attach the same importance and heritage value, do not, however, play the same role in the formation of their respective theories. As Shibusawa pointed out, the Folk Crafts Movement was primarily concerned with highlighting the specific beauty of each craft ware. Folklorists, on the other hand, had no interest in aesthetics and sought to use the objects to understand the nature of the Japanese community through an analysis of its tangible heritage.

19This provides us with an initial definition of folklore studies and the Folk Crafts Movement. The former focuses on mingu, or functional objects, and describes the nature of those who use them, while the latter is concerned with the aesthetic value of these same objects.

Tangible things and intangible things

20Despite the validity of this initial distinction between the Folk Crafts Movement and folklore studies, which establishes Yanagi as an observer of beauty and Shibusawa as an analyst of the character of the Japanese people, it is far from enabling us to summarise the two movements’ respective characteristics. Shibusawa in fact represented an extremely marginal area of folklore studies, for the use of tangible heritage to describe popular cultural phenomena was a somewhat unorthodox method within the field. Yanagita, who made a more lasting impression in the discipline, was always more concerned with studying folklore through religious rites and festivals, or the oral traditions and vocabulary of rural Japan.

  • 15 ‘“Mono’ to ‘koto”’ 「もの」と「こと」 (“Tangible Things” and “Intangible Things”, 1936), YSZ, vol. 9, pp. 17 (...)
  • 16 “Mingeigaku to minzokugaku”, op. cit., p. 272.

21Perhaps his encounters with Shibusawa made Yanagi aware of this, for in 1936, in an article entités “Tangible Things and Intangible Things”,15 Yanagi proposed a second distinction between the two approaches, which he later clarified with even greater concision and pertinence in “Folk Craft Studies and Folklore Studies”. He suggested that while both disciplines were indeed concerned with popular culture and “the daily life of the people”,16 the Folk Crafts Movement focused on objects and Japanese crafts, which he termed mono, or “tangible things”, while folklore studies were more interested in analysing social, ritual and religious phenomena, or “intangible things” (koto).

  • 17 Ibid., p. 279.

Folk craft studies inevitably take tangible objects as their subject; whilst in folklore studies objects serve as complementary material. We often use the example of ceramics in particular, while folklorists make little reference to these objects, despite them being an extremely common feature of everyday Japanese life […]. Conversely, folklore studies take a much keener interest in religious rituals.17

22This pertinent argument reflects a perception that still exists today on the nature of the two movements. Thus, while Yanagi’s movement continues to be characterised by its clear interest in tangible folk heritage, folklore studies focuses instead on Japanese practices and what they tell us about Japanese culture.

  • 18 Ibid., p. 279.

23Yanagi even attempted to re-evaluate Shibusawa’s work from this new perspective:18

In light of research on folk tools [民具 mingu] it should be possible to say that folklore studies also take an interest in concrete objects [具体的なもの gutaitekina mono]. However, upon closer inspection it appears that rather than discussing folk objects themselves, these wares are collected in order to discuss the events [koto] that surround them. Rather than observing tangible things [mono], folklorists look at the intangible things around them. Rather than observing concrete folk objects, they observe the abstract world that surrounds folk tools.

  • 19 Ibid., p. 278.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 278.

24While demonstrating that in this case the two approaches differ in the focus of their study, Yanagi nonetheless acknowledges that folklorists and proponents of the folk crafts method study “elements that always end up blending into one another”.19 Nevertheless, Yanagi believed that the Folk Crafts Movement was not intended to be a descriptive science of tangible heritage. On the contrary, he reflected on ways to extricate the object from the context of its use. His approach differed in that it aimed not to understand the object in its factual context but rather to identify an element that transcended its environment and era: in other words, beauty, which gave the object its true value. He explained this position in the following terms:20

Take the following example. Imagine presenting a teabowl to a customer. Two types of reaction may be observed. Some will say: “What is the name of this bowl? Where does it come from? When was it made? Who made it?” This type of customer is more interested in the elements surrounding the bowl than the bowl itself. Others, on the other hand, will exclaim admiringly: “This bowl is magnificent!” or “What a remarkable style!” And since their eye is drawn to the aesthetic value of the bowl, it is only at a later stage that they take an interest in the events surrounding the object. On the one hand there are those who make their judgments based on the factual world, and on the other, those who, by looking at the objects directly, search for their true value, in other words their beauty.

25In this way, although they focus on tangible Japanese heritage, folk craft studies are primarily concerned with the aesthetic value of such objects. They deviate from folklore studies not only in their subject matter – tangible culture versus cultural phenomena – but also on the question of the object’s intrinsic value and do not hesitate to take the object out its context, leaving nothing but its essence.

26The decontextualisation of Japan’s craft heritage remains a core issue within the “folk crafts method”. A visit to the Japan Folk Crafts Museum today confirms that the objects displayed are classed neither chronologically nor geographically, but rather by the indigenous craft technique used to create them: pottery, lacquerware or woodworking, for example. The object is thus separated from its era and place of origin and serves merely to illustrate its aesthetic value and the skill of the anonymous artisan who created it.

The axiological approach and the descriptive approach

  • 21 It would be amusing to cobble together a translation of mingeigaku as “folk craftology”. While such (...)

27This observation constitutes the main argument of the essay “Folk Craft Studies and Folklore Studies” and, for reasons that will be explained here, gives meaning to the term mingeigaku, or “folk craft studies”.21

  • 22 Over a dozen of his books were translated between 1902 and 1941.
  • 23 “Mingeigaku to minzokugaku” op. cit., p. 274 and p. 276.

28In order to understand the scope of this term it should be pointed out that Yanagi’s text draws heavily on the theoretical framework of the neo-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband (1848-1912), who was widely translated in Japan at the time,22 and his theory on the complementary nature of judgments of fact and judgements of value. In his 1894 book History and Natural Science (Geschichte und Naturwissenschaft), Windelband stated that the distinction between the natural sciences and the human sciences stemmed not from the object studied but rather the method employed by both to arrive at their conclusions. It was using this exact same concept that Yanagi planned to establish the Folk Crafts Movement as a science which, by adopting its own method, could offer a similar scientific credibility to folklore studies. The real distinction between his approach and Yanagita’s was based on the fact that while folklore studies were a descriptive science, just like physics or biology, Mingei, much more than a simple aesthetic movement, resembled an axiological science, in other words a science of values (Wert), a kind of ethical and normative tool for establishing the value of folk crafts:23

  • 24 This distinction between Sein, “what is”, and Sollen, what “ought to be”, is highly characteristic (...)

We classify sciences that describe reality as empirical sciences [経験学 keikengaku], and sciences that deal with what ought to be, normative sciences [規範学 kihangaku].24 Folklore studies fall into the former category, folk craft studies, the latter.

Let us take another example. Botany belongs to the realm of the real; it refers to the real world. Conversely, ethics deals with concepts that tackle a world of ideals. There is a fundamental difference between the two. Biology must be a descriptive science, while ethics must strive to establish norms. […] Botany is not the science of the beauty of plants. Ethics is not the science of man, it is the discipline concerned with proper human behaviour […].

The overriding objective of folk craft studies is to establish a norm for value critique.

29Thus while Yanagi considered the subject matter underpinning his science to be the same as that which interested folklorists, he planned to use it as a normative tool for establishing a new national aesthetic. This concept of “normative science” characterised mingei research and, as the following example will illustrate, would serve as the dogmatic foundation of the movement’s mission to reappraise Japan’s tangible folk heritage during the 1930s and 1940s.

From normative science to shop displays

30The Folk Crafts Movement is today too often reduced to a handful of names whose importance is admittedly indisputable (Kawai, Hamada, Yanagi), but whose efforts are perhaps the least representative of mingei activism during the immediate pre-war years. The record number of members joining the Folk Crafts Association during the 1940s has already been mentioned. And while Yanagi will forever remain the movement’s theoretician, and Kawai and Hamada the stars of exhibitions on the subject, in reality it was the Association’s army of supporters who lent the movement its weight, importance and ability to establish a new aesthetic.

  • 25 Ogyū Shinzō 尾久彰三 (ed.), Yanagi Muneyoshi no sekai. Mingei no hakken to sono shisō 柳宗悦の世界  『民藝』の発 (...)

31Among these supporters, one example chosen among many, a man utterly devoted to Yanagi’s cause, perfectly illustrates the practical application of the movement’s theories. Yoshida Shōya 吉田璋也 (1898-1972), an ear nose and throat specialist originally from Tottori Prefecture, met Yanagi for the first time in 1919. Captivated by the man himself, from that moment on he devoted his free time to collecting folk wares and promoting the nascent mingei doctrine, which at the time had not yet been named. After moving back to his home town of Tottori in 1931, he transformed and restored some former granaries he had acquired. In June 1932 he opened the first museum of Japanese folk crafts25 as well as a shop that quickly occupied the majority of his time.

  • 26 Kikuchi Yuko, Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory: Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientali (...)

32Yoshida primarily wanted to revive the craft industry in his region, which had been hard hit by the recession of the period. With this in mind, he contacted several Tottori craftspeople and promised them an outlet for their merchandise through his shop, Takumi たくみ (Craft). Equally concerned by the disappearance of certain traditional craft techniques, he guaranteed the sale of any objects produced by artisans choosing to return to such techniques.26 Delighted by Yoshida’s determination, Yanagi devoted several articles to him in the journal Kōgei.

  • 27 Kim Brandt, op. cit., p. 95.

33Yoshida’s efforts appear to have been a success. The money made from pottery production in turn enabled investments to be made in textile production. Yoshida set up weavers in his home and presented them with examples of fabrics from his own collection.27 Having rediscovered these techniques the weavers went on to train others, generating a multiplier effect by which textile production enabled investments in woodworking, lacquerware, metalworking, basketry, papermaking and, finally, the production of ink stones.

34After a while, the Tottori region ceased to be sufficient to distribute the burgeoning production of the craftspeople associated with Takumi. Thus, in December 1933 a second branch of Takumi was opened in Ginza in the heart of Tokyo. This branch continues today to follow the same method by placing orders with Japanese craftspeople whose work is inspired by objects and techniques inherited from the past. It then sells their creations in order to provide financial support to the Association and contribute to the survival of manual trades that, at least in theory, are representative of a national heritage.28

35A visit to the Takumi store in Ginza is intriguing in that the goods displayed there differ considerably from the items presented during Mingei exhibitions. Rather than the vases by Kawai, bowls by Hamada and large dishes by Bernard Leach (1887-1979) that are usually associated with the movement, it is forks, neckties, cushions and hats that crowd the shelves of the Ginza store. And let there be no mistake, it was undeniably such modest consumer goods that set the Folk Crafts Movement on the path to success in the 1940s. Nothing could be more misguided than believing that the Mingei movement consisted merely of theories and museum pieces. Without the support of the consumers who flocked en mass to Takumi and the department store Takashimaya, the aesthetic dogma developed by Yanagi and his associates would certainly never have gone beyond the circle of intellectuals to which he belonged. The translation of the discussion between Yanagi and Yanagita found in this issue of Cipango speaks volumes on this point, for it illustrates the movement’s two major preoccupations during the 1940s: defining itself (legitimising its existence) on the one hand, and promoting its products (ensuring its survival) on the other.

  • 29 Although in reality, new folk craft products were only within the reaches of the relatively wealthy (...)

36In fact, this was how the aforementioned concept of a normative approach took shape. Hinted at behind the objects sold at Takumi or during the exhibitions held in certain department stores is a theory by which Japan’s tangible folk heritage should serve as a norm for the production – according to beauty criteria set out by Yanagi for almost twenty years – of consumer goods that would in turn disseminate these criteria throughout the entire Japanese population.29 It is without doubt this point that most clearly sets folklore studies apart from the Folk Crafts Movement. Whereas the former, as we saw earlier, is a descriptive science, the latter sought to promote an aesthetic ideal that, while admittedly drawing inspiration from the same source, aimed to generate a new marketable mingei production. This no doubt explains why since 1941, folklorists and Mingei followers have never again felt the need to develop ties or work together to create a joint science: their objectives are simply too different.


37The aim of this article was to give serious consideration to Yanagi’s “scientific” stance. To do so I examined the links between the Folk Crafts Movement and folklore studies in order to understand the similarities and differences between these two approaches which are inspired by the same folk heritage and a growing interest in the ‘people’ at the time of their emergence. Although both simultaneously took an interest in the tangible and cultural productions of the working classes – or more precisely, the rural classes – of Japanese society, I established that it was the intrinsic value ascribed to the object studied that provided the fundamental distinction between the two movements. Whereas folklore studies seek to understand and determine the character of the Japanese people by cataloguing popular practices, the Folk Crafts Movement aims to reassess the beauty of the objects produced by this same people and establish this expression of Beauty as a new norm. This leads me to recall Yanagi’s proposal that folklore studies be understood as an empirical science and folk craft studies as a normative science.

38This article presented two aspects of the Mingei movement, among many others, which are still rarely mentioned in books on the subject. Firstly, as I pointed out, the Folk Crafts Movement sees itself as a science and accordingly has striven to establish a considered and normalised system whose structure has still yet to be studied. Secondly, Mingei sees itself as a commercial movement. Despite this dimension being clearly asserted by Takumi and in the Folk Crafts Museum’s store in Tokyo, it is regularly sidelined in discussions on the topic. And yet the movement has a real desire to revive regional craft production according to a redefined aesthetic norm, and is actively committed to finding new outlets for the hats, cushions and slippers produced, whether in Japan or overseas.

39This desire to establish a new beauty norm and concerns over the commercial viability of new crafts are both pertinent elements helping to distinguish the Folk Crafts Movement from folklore studies. It is nonetheless tempting at this point to turn these elements around and reassess folklore studies through the prism of Mingei. If we accept that the Folk Crafts Movement established a norm and consumer goods, is it not equally possible to consider that folklore studies also constituted a normative system, defining what Japanese “tradition” ought to be by producing idealised cultural forms from a past considered to be “proper”?

40Although the issue no longer concerns the Folk Crafts Movement directly, it illustrates just how desperately an in-depth study of the subject is called for and how enriching it could be for many closely-related topics. To my great regret, the consensual approach adopted by the majority of Mingei exhibitions neglects several essential aspects of the movement, which in turn could provide a new perspective on the emergence of the humanities and social sciences in Japan during the first half of the twentieth century.

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1 Mingeigaku to minzokugakuv 民藝學と民俗學 (1941), reprinted in Yanagi Sōetsu zenshū (YSZ) 柳宗悦全集 (The Complete Works of Yanagi Sōetsu), Tokyo, Chikuma Shobō, 1981, vol. 9, pp. 272-287.

2 Mingei 民芸 or 民藝 is a relatively standard term in Japan today. When written with the character 芸 it refers, through improper usage, to the regional folk crafts sold in local souvenir shops. For this reason Japanese specialists prefer to use the character 藝 (used during Yanagi’s time) when referring to the Folk Crafts Movement, in order to make a clear distinction. I have respected this use here.

3 In particular “Getemono no bi” 下手ものの美 (The Beauty of Everyday Objects, 1926), YSZ, op. cit., vol.8, pp. 3-14; “Kōgei no michi” 工藝の道 (The Way of Crafts, 1928), Tokyo, Kōdansha, “Kōdan gakujutsu bunko” collection, 2005.

4 On this subject see the chapter “Renovating Greater East Asia”, Kim Brandt, Kingdom of Beauty. Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan, Durham, Duke University Press, 2007, pp. 173-222.

5 See my translation in this volume of Cipango.

6 Such as with the Musée du Quai Branly exhibition The Mingei Spirit in Japan, held in Paris from 30 September 2008 to 11 January 2009, the Arts & Crafts from Morris to Mingei exhibition, held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (Tōkyō-to bijutsukan 東京都美術館) from 24 January to 5 April 2009, and before these the International Arts & Crafts exhibition, held at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, from 17 March to 24 July 2005.

7 See the article by Coralie Castel in this volume of Cipango.

8 “Folk Craft Studies and Folklore Studies”, op. cit., p. 272, emphasis is my own.

9 Achikku no seichō アチックの成長 (The Development of the Attic Museum) in Miyamoto Tsuneichi 宮本常一, Nihon minzokugaku taikei 3: Shibusawa Keizō 日本民俗学大系・渋沢敬三 (Compendium of Japanese Folklore Studies 3: Shibusawa Keizō), Tokyo, Kōdansha, 1978.

10 Yoshida Kenji, “Tōhaku and Minpaku within the History of Modern Japanese Civilization: Museum Collections in Modern Japan”, Senri Ethnological Studies no. 54, Osaka, National Museum of Ethnology, 2000, pp. 91-92.

11 Kanetani Miwa 金谷美和, “Bunka no shōhi: Nihon mingei undō no tenji o megutte” 文化の消費  日本民藝運動の展示をめぐって (The Consumption of Culture. On the Exhibitions of the Japan Folk Crafts Movement), Jinbun gakuhō 人文学報 no. 77, Kyoto, Kyōto Daigaku Jinbunkagaku Kenkyūjo, 1996, p. 80.

12 An account of the event appears in “Zazechi” no koto「ざぜち」のこと (On “Zazechi” Paper Decorations), YSZ, op. cit., vol. 11, pp. 424-432.

13 Until the 1940s Yanagi used both terms indiscriminately.

14 Achikku no seichō, op. cit., p. 168.

15 ‘“Mono’ to ‘koto”’ 「もの」と「こと」 (“Tangible Things” and “Intangible Things”, 1936), YSZ, vol. 9, pp. 170-181.

16 “Mingeigaku to minzokugaku”, op. cit., p. 272.

17 Ibid., p. 279.

18 Ibid., p. 279.

19 Ibid., p. 278.

20 Ibid., p. 278.

21 It would be amusing to cobble together a translation of mingeigaku as “folk craftology”. While such a translation obviously lacks credibility, it certainly captures the strangeness of the Japanese term.

22 Over a dozen of his books were translated between 1902 and 1941.

23 “Mingeigaku to minzokugaku” op. cit., p. 274 and p. 276.

24 This distinction between Sein, “what is”, and Sollen, what “ought to be”, is highly characteristic of Windelband’s thought.

25 Ogyū Shinzō 尾久彰三 (ed.), Yanagi Muneyoshi no sekai. Mingei no hakken to sono shisō 柳宗悦の世界  『民藝』の発見とその思想, (The World of Yanagi Muneyoshi. His Discovery and Theory of “Folk Crafts”), Tokyo, Bessatsu Taiyō, Heibonsha, 2006, p. 171.

26 Kikuchi Yuko, Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory: Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientalism, New York, Routledge Curzon, 2004, p. 74.

27 Kim Brandt, op. cit., p. 95.


29 Although in reality, new folk craft products were only within the reaches of the relatively wealthy urban classes.

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Electronic reference

Damien Kunik, « The Folk Crafts Movement and Folklore Studies », Cipango - French Journal of Japanese Studies [Online], 1 | 2012, Online since 23 May 2013, connection on 24 September 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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