Art

How folk craft found its place in the art world

by Yoko Haruhara

Contributing Writer

‘Japanese Tableware” at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum includes 150 pieces ranging from the 16th to 20th centuries — including pottery, porcelain and lacquerware from Japan, Korea and China — collected by the museum’s founder, Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961). The exhibition reveals both the beauty of everyday Japanese tableware and the exquisite workmanship of elaborate pieces used for formal occasions.

The birth of the Japanese mingei (folk crafts) movement in the 1930s was a defining moment for the arts in Japan. Yanagi, along with two of the leading Japanese contemporary potters of the time, Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) and Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966), was responsible for establishing the term “mingei” to celebrate the artistry of utilitarian objects created for everyday use. To promote this movement, Yanagi built a collection of everyday crafts and founded The Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo in 1936 to showcase the works to prove to the Japanese people that such items should be prized and appreciated for their artistic worth.

“Japanese Tableware” highlights the passion with which Yanagi incorporated these arts into his life, displaying the actual dining and personal tableware that his family used when they gathered for meals. A pair of husband-and-wife tea cups (meoto yunomi) created by Hamada, are so named because the man’s cup is sightly larger than the woman’s. The simplicity of this set’s design, with an indentation that runs around the middle of each cup for easy gripping, and its muted gray color exemplifies the aesthetic of the modern mingei movement.

The Yanagi family treasured its collection of daily use blue-and-white porcelain ware from the mid-Edo Period (1603-1868), which includes rice bowls, plates and soba-choko dipping-sauce cups for noodles. They honored these pieces by both using them and keeping them on display. Yanagi’s favorite among these was a set of four lidded blue-and-white porcelain rice bowls that is touching to see at the exhibition. He used them regularly, appreciating their clean lines, bright blue glaze and depictions of serene water landscapes.

Prior to the birth of the mingei movement, such wares were dismissed by consumers and collectors as articles unworthy of attention. It was Yanagi’s tireless efforts, along with those of Hamada, Kawai and their contemporaries, that led to a newfound appreciation for blue-and-white ware beginning in the 1970s.

In addition to everyday ware, the exhibition looks at Edo Period ornamental items from which the mingei movement takes its cues. A lacquered sake container, splendidly decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl, embraces a juxtaposition of simplicity and luxury. Its starkly beautiful profile was modeled on everyday use lacquered sake containers.

“Japanese Tableware” provides a lovely and poignant introduction to the world of Japanese folk crafts and an opportunity to see the innovative work of Hamada, Kawai and other masters.

Take some time to roam through the museum, where you will see many examples of Yanagi’s curatorial eye at work, and immerse yourself in his world, surrounded by the objects he so loved.

“Japanese Tableware” at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum runs until Sept. 1; ¥1,100. For more information, visit www.mingeikan.or.jp/english.