The Pioneers Behind the Japanese Mingei Folk Art Movement

Japan is a country with deeply rooted and keenly observed traditions, but the 20th century brought with it a change in approach that found ordinary crafts and functional utensils in the artistic spotlight ahead of the usual perceived higher forms of art. This meeting of modern Western ideas fused with traditional Japanese sensibilities became known as Mingei, a Japanese folk art form, which prioritized hand-crafted production and regional materials over the artists who produced the work… until now, that is. 

Yanagi Sōetsu (Wikimedia Commons)

Yanagi Sōetsu (Wikimedia Commons)

With one eye looking west and a one foot firmly planted on Japanese soil, Mingei folk art is a representation of modern Japan that celebrates the simplicity of everyday items, but with a Western perspective from a time when Japan was going through rapid westernisation, industrialisation, and urban growth. 

Developed from the mid-1920s in Japan by the philosopher and aesthete, Yanagi Sōetsu, Mingei can be simply described as ordinary people’s crafts. As the founding father of the movement, Sōetsu believed that beauty could be found in common and utilitarian everyday objects. Although this was not an unfamiliar concept to many, what differentiated Mingei from most items of artistic merit was that it was made by nameless and unknown artisans.

Rather than the maker, it’s the production process that’s the star. Mingei are typically regional crafts that are representative of the area where they were manufactured and as a result, it’s not always easy to unearth Mingei art at auction. However, attitudes have changed in recent times as certain artists and ceramicists earn retrospective credit. So, to help navigate the distinctly Japanese philosophy and its artisanal mass production, we’ve put together a guide on a few leading names to look out for. 

Yanagi Sōetsu

As the founding father of the Migei movement, it seems obvious to start with Yanagi Sōetsu. Despite his pioneering craft, Sōetsu wasn’t an artist or ceramicist himself, but the art critic, philosopher, and collector devoted himself to developing and spreading the Mingei philosophy. As part of this devotion he rescued pots used by commoners in the Edo and Meiji periods that were being as lost as Japan started a period of rapid urbanization.

An avid collector of working class items from around the country, Sōetsu fulfilled the principles of his own philosophy with items that were made by anonymous craftspeople, by hand, inexpensive and used by the masses in daily life. And, while some items observe the principal of being inexpensive, some have redefined this for the 21st century, particularly those by Shoji Hamada.

Shoji Hamada

Not only an influential potter in Japan, Shoji Hamada was an international pottery powerhouse whose influence over Mingei folk art shouldn’t be underestimated. In fact, he succeeded Yanagi Sōetsu as head of the National Museum of Folk Art in 1961 and prior to that, in 1955, he was given the Japanese title of Living National Treasure.

Hamada’s approach and style typified the pared back aesthetic approach of the Mingei movement. He produced his own brushes from dog hair and bamboo to apply his varnishes, and only used local clay or glazes to produce pottery of striking simplicity that influenced many Western designers.

Learn more about Shoji Hamada in our article: Shoji Hamada, Mashiko and Mingei.

Kanjiro Kawai

Early in his career as a ceramicist, Kanjiro Kawai was trained in the use of chemical glazes, but a chance meeting with Yanagi Soetsu and Shoji Hamada changed everything, as he abandoned the approach that defined his early work in favour of the natural glazes for which he would become famous.

Combining modern manufacturing techniques with traditional Japanese and English designs, Kawai’s mastery of glazes made him a sought-after for his trademark warm red copper, rich brown iron, chrome, and cobalt colors. However, the fact that he adhered to the strictest Mingei principles of not signing his work means that pottery accredited to Kawai isn’t always easy identifiable.

Keisuke Serizawa

A textile designer of great reputation in his native Japan who was awarded the honor of Living National Treasure by the Japanese government in 1956, Keisuke Serizawa applied the Mingei principles to a wide array of items, including kimono, paper prints, wall scrolls, folding screens, curtains, fans, and calendars.

Noted for his development of the simplified forms that would elevate his reputation, and contrasting colors in xylography (the art of printing from woodblocks), which is one of the most famous process of traditional Japanese printmaking.

Bernard Leach

As the only non-Japanese founder of the Mingei movement, Bernard Leach took the aesthetic principles of Mingei to international audiences after returning to England following over a decade living in Japan and Peking. 

It was his time in the East that helped him to hone his pure and utilitarian forms. He trained for ten years in Japanese ceramics, with a particular focus on the raku technique, embodying the restrained and natural aesthetic of the movement.