The Korean roots beneath Japan’s folk art movement

by

Special To The Japan Times

The folk craft movement in Japan owes a great debt to Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), who coined the term “mingei” (“folk crafts”) in 1925. Yanagi pioneered the notion that Japan’s vernacular crafts had their own intrinsic artistic worth, and should be valued, collected and curated. His desire to share an appreciation of these simple objects with the public grew from an admiration for the Korean craft tradition and it became his mission to foster opportunities for the public to rediscover Japanese and other Asian traditional crafts firsthand. Thanks in large part to Yanagi’s efforts, the mingei aesthetic was born, which led to a growing appreciation of folk crafts.

Yet, despite this, the appeal of such crafts in Japan was not immediate. Critics decried the inaugural collection of Yanagi’s Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Mingeikan), which he founded in 1936, as not being genuine art. Undeterred, however, Yanagi spent his lifetime collecting Asian folk crafts, continuing to champion the Mingei movement along with his friends and colleagues Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), the second director of the museum, and Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966).

“The Beauty of Korean Crafts” commemorates the 80th anniversary of the museum’s founding with a collection of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) Korean crafts. The painstaking steps taken in organizing the exhibition, which celebrates the full spectrum of the folk arts and crafts of Korea, involved bringing to Japan three Korean cultural property and furniture restoration specialists, all trained in traditional joinery and construction techniques.

Four hundred items are being showcased, including a beautiful array of ceramics, paintings, wooden furniture, stoneware, metalwork and basketry. The juxtaposition of the various items provides the visitor with a vivid sense of the Joseon craft tradition that so impressed Yanagi and his colleagues.

Yanagi’s foray into collecting began with a strong focus on porcelain items. White porcelain first made its appearance in Korea in the 10th century, and when it reached the height of its popularity from the 18th century, it was symbolic of the Confucian ideology of the time. Its simple colors and shapes reflected Confucian ideals of purity and austerity.

An early 18th-century moon-shaped jar on display reveals a rustic beauty in its imperfect shape, and it is elevated in the collector’s eyes from its humble status as a storage container for liquid or food to a piece of artistic iconography representative of that era’s Korean ceramics.

When Yanagi was 25, he received a Korean porcelain jar from a friend who was working as a school teacher in Korea. The present marked the beginning of Yanagi’s love affair with crafts, and in 1916 he started taking numerous trips to Korea to study and collect Korean folk crafts.

Yanagi’s passion for Joseon handicrafts and folk art extended to stoneware, which was carved out of blocks of high-quality pagodite. Craftsmen used ash and smoke to burnish these stone teapots, cooking vessels and braziers that were highly prized for their durability and strikingly rich jet-black color.

It is easy to imagine the pleasure owners must have felt when using the kinds of pots on display, which were originally for heating liquor containing dried fruits.

Metal, another popular medium for traditional crafts, was often used for the ornamentation of everyday wooden furniture, as well as for making objects such as brush stands and other household items.

An elaborate hexagonal iron calligraphy brush stand on display has decorative embellishments set in silver tin inlay on each of its panels. The motifs include the symbols of longevity, referred to as “sip-jang-saeng” in Korean. These 10 auspicious motifs — a crane, turtle, deer, pine tree, bamboo, rocks, clouds, water, the sun, and a mythical mushroom believed to contain the elixir of immortality — reflect a belief system that dates back to the origin of Taoism in China and its transmission to Korea in the fifth century. Given their prominent place in the home, such craft objects were constant reminders of the belief system and culture that produced them.

Through raising awareness of the artistic qualities of everyday utilitarian objects, Yanagi aimed to encourage society to admire the craftsmanship and appreciate the fundamental beauty of household items. He referred to this aesthetic as “buji no bi” (“beauty that is derived from spiritual freedom”).

If you look around at the design of utilitarian objects in contemporary culture, you will find that the tenets of the craft tradition and Yanagi’s sensibilities still resonate today.

“The Beauty of Korean Crafts” at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Mingeikan) runs until June 12; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Mon. www.mingeikan.or.jp