Keeping up with the Joneses, Edo style

by

Special To The Japan Times

The Edo Period (1603-1868) is renowned for the flourishing of material culture — a time when major advances and innovations in Japanese folk crafts and design were prized by the burgeoning commoner class of Edo (present-day Tokyo) and Osaka.

“The Golden Age of Mingei: Life and Beauty in the Edo Period,” currently on exhibit at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, showcases a wide range of Edo Period folk crafts (mingei), including textiles, ceramics, bamboo work, lacquerware and paintings. This carefully selected arrangement of artifacts provides visitors with a delightful introduction to the culture and design of everyday items, which were embraced and admired by cosmopolitan commoner and samurai alike.

The museum, with its exposed wooden beams, traditional roof and rustic architectural features, provides a fittingly beautiful backdrop for such a historical exhibition.

The creative flair typical of mingei extends from household items to clothing, with all items exemplifying the then-cutting edge design. Artisans were conscious of the need to constantly innovate in order to appease the appetites of the samurai class, as well as the demands of the rising commoner class, who did not want to be outdone by their peers.

The exhibition highlights the attention to detail and flair found in the clothing of urbanites, including displays of actors’ costumes, women’s ceremonial garments and firefighters’ coats. While the aristocratic class had at its disposal fine silk garments, sumptuary laws of the time forbid the commoner class from a series of practices, including, in 1683, wearing embroidered silk. Not to be deterred, the lower classes turned to readily available cotton fabrics, which, once embellished, appeared every bit as elegant as the silk clothes they were banned from wearing.

A set of indigo-dyed cotton yogi (sleep wear) are hung to striking effect on a display wall. These winter pajamas, kimono-like garments worn to bed in cold weather, are decorated with auspicious motifs such as flying cranes, butterflies, and evergreen pines. The patterns were skillfully hand-painted using rice paste in a resist dyeing process that produced strong contrasts with background colors. The deep blue color of this bed wear is nicknamed Japan Blue because the indigo dyes and the aizome indigo-dyeing technique were developed in Japan at the start of the late 16th century.

An arrangement of firemen’s coats also reveal the innovative nature of Edo Period design, with their fanciful patterning and matoi (emblems) designating the neighborhood to which the firefighter belonged. Deer leather jackets such as these were the height of fashion, with some of the garments employing fusube, a smoke “smudging” technique for tanning the leather.

This exhibition, true to its title, gives a strong impression of Japanese culture and society at its peak, and celebrates the beauty of everyday objects. The quality of the exhibits and presentation perhaps should also come as no surprise as they are being displayed in a building established and designed by Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), the founder of the mingei movement who created The Japan Folk Crafts Museum with the express purpose of displaying such artifacts.

“The Golden Age of Mingei: Life and Beauty in the Edo Period” at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum runs until June 12; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Mon. www.mingeikan.or.jp