It seems fitting that my first post be about the Nihon Mingeikan- the Japan Folks Museum. Located in a quiet residential neighborhood of Tokyo, the museum is a testament to the vision of its founder, 19th century philosopher Soetsu Yanagi.
With a sense of urgency as the industrial revolution was drastically changing the role of hand crafted items in daily life, Yanagi dedicated himself to the collection and preservation of ordinary handcrafts made by the “unknown craftsman”. Yanagi’s collection is diverse- over 17,000 items of various folk arts ranging from Ainu textiles to Korean folk paintings to Japanese laquerware, stationary items and pottery. The term “Mingei” which Yanagi coined in the 1920’s, proposed a new standard of beauty and was created in sharp contrast to the mainstream attraction to rarefied and precious art made by a few renowned artists.
On the event of the Mingeikan’s 75th anniversary, the museum is currently showing some of its most important and stunning pieces. I had the opportunity to lead a small English tour for members of the Tokyo American Club’s Women’s Group on the day after the show opened. Thrilled to have the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for this unique collection, yet at the same time wishing to maintain respect for Yanagi’s belief that one observes aesthetic value by intuition, not information, I was conscious of the fine line I was treading. For this reason, the Museum consciously refrains from explanation of the exhibited objects, and the minimal information that accompanies the pieces, hand-written in Japanese, is notoriously difficult for a non-Japanese audience to decipher.
It was an interesting challenge to try to provide enough context for Yanagi’s contribution to the development of Japanese aesthetics, whilst at the same time leaving room for the visitors to form their own impressions of the works. The two hours of the tour though seemed to pass in a flash, and it was rewarding to see that the members were moved to bring home pieces they had selected from the gift shop, supporting Japan’s next generation of craftsmen and women.
There is however, a wealth of information on Mingei to be found easily on the web, including the Mingeikan’s own excellent site, from which these photos were drawn. If you have the chance to stop by the museum before the exhibit closes on June 26th, this is a show not to be missed.