Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan

Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan

by Kim Brandt

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A Study of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University

Kingdom of Beauty
shows that the discovery of mingei (folk art) by Japanese intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s was central to the complex process by which Japan became both a modern nation and an imperial world power. Kim Brandt’s account of the mingei movement locates


A Study of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University

Kingdom of Beauty
shows that the discovery of mingei (folk art) by Japanese intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s was central to the complex process by which Japan became both a modern nation and an imperial world power. Kim Brandt’s account of the mingei movement locates its origins in colonial Korea, where middle-class Japanese artists and collectors discovered that imperialism offered them special opportunities to amass art objects and gain social, cultural, and even political influence. Later, mingei enthusiasts worked with (and against) other groups—such as state officials, fascist ideologues, rival folk art organizations, local artisans, newspaper and magazine editors, and department store managers—to promote their own vision of beautiful prosperity for Japan, Asia, and indeed the world. In tracing the history of mingei activism, Brandt considers not only Yanagi Muneyoshi, Hamada Shōji, Kawai Kanjirō, and other well-known leaders of the folk art movement but also the often overlooked networks of provincial intellectuals, craftspeople, marketers, and shoppers who were just as important to its success. The result of their collective efforts, she makes clear, was the transformation of a once-obscure category of pre-industrial rural artifacts into an icon of modern national style.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Kingdom of Beauty is first-rate. Kim Brandt’s analysis is sharp, her organization supple, her writing graceful. Moreover, her synthesis of the imperial with the domestic—and of the ideological with the material—makes the book a model of cultural history.”—Kären Wigen, author of The Making of a Japanese Periphery, 1750–1920

“A richly textured, beautifully written, and provocatively argued analysis of the Japanese folk-craft movement, this study sheds light on empire, middle-class material culture, the aesthetics of fascism, and much else common to twentieth-century societies in the throes of dislocating change. A beguiling book on important themes.”—Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History, Columbia University

Liora Sarfati
Kingdom of Beauty is an important work that contributes a grounded account of knowledge production processes, dynamics of art evaluation, and achievements of art centered social activism in a colonial setting that will be useful to scholars in many fields.”
Asian Ethnology
Kingdom of Beauty is truly the most compelling study of Mingei I have read: it not only answers questions hitherto unanswered, but also provides useful tools for the future study of Mingei, particularly in the context of today’s increasingly globalizing world. . . . I am deeply struck by the manner in which the author has approached often contentious topics with unabated tenacity, integrity, and sincerity.”
Penny Bailey
“[A]n impressive narrative of mingei’s cultural history . . . . Kingdom of Beauty is a rigorous scholarly work, much of which is based on Brandt’s judicious use of Japanese primary resources. It is beautifully written, and benefits from the inclusion of numerous . . . plates of mingei wares. Brandt’s argument is tight, comprehensive and engaging and, most importantly, groundbreaking in its excavation of the complex social forces at work and the entities associated with mingei’s ascent in the first half of last century.”

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Duke University Press
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Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society
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Kingdom of Beauty


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ISBN: 978-0-8223-3983-0

Chapter One

The Beauty of Sorrow

In the fall of 1914 Asakawa Noritaka, a Japanese schoolteacher in colonial Korea, paid a call on Yanagi Muneyoshi at his home in Chiba prefecture, outside Tokyo. Asakawa brought from Korea a Choson-period ceramic jar, which he presented to his host. The story has it that the twenty-five-year-old Yanagi fell in love with this object and that it helped to inspire in him a passionate interest in Korean arts and crafts generally. While Yanagi's fascination with Korean art persisted throughout his life, it was during the decade immediately following Asakawa's visit that he most avidly collected, appreciated, and promoted things Korean. Between 1914 and 1924, Yanagi made as many as ten trips to Korea, often staying for weeks at a time. In addition to building up his own celebrated collection of Korean ceramics and other objects, he devoted much of this period to writing a book and numerous articles on Korean art and related subjects, as well as giving well-attended public lectures in both Korea and Japan. He also joined with friends to organize several art exhibitions in both countries and led a widely publicized and successful campaign to establish a museum of Korean art in Seoul. The opening ceremonies for the Korean Art Museum (Chosen minzoku bijutsukan), as it was rather daringly named, were held in April 1924.

After 1924, Yanagi's focus shifted to the arts and crafts of his native Japan. Only two years later, he was at the center of a small group who declared themselves the champions of a category of objects they would name "mingei" (folk-craft). Their April 1926 manifesto, a pamphlet titled "Prospectus for the Establishment of a Mingei Art Museum," is often taken to mark the establishment of the so-called mingei movement (mingei undo), a loose assemblage of artists, craftspeople, collectors, and others generally thought to have concerned themselves with the discovery and promotion of a rustic, artisanal, and, above all, Japanese aesthetic.

Yet even today, the Korean objects admired so extravagantly by the youthful Yanagi remain embedded within mingei ideology and practice. It has become a truism among chroniclers of the movement that Yanagi was led to discover mingei as a result of his enthusiasm for Korean arts and crafts. In a sense, the origins of mingei are acknowledged to be Korean. Moreover, the specific Choson-period Korean objects Yanagi praised and collected continue to help define the mingei aesthetic. One room of the Japan Folk-Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan) in Tokyo, established in 1936 under Yanagi's direction, remains permanently dedicated to their display. For sale in the museum shop, as in all museum shops, are picture postcards of exemplary objects from the collection; almost always available are several reproductions of especially well-known Korean items. The curators of the museum actively maintain their status as experts on what is known in Japan as "Ri cho," or Yi dynasty. For example, two glossy paperback guides to the collection and appreciation of Yi dynasty crafts were published in 1998; one was produced under the guidance of members of the museum's curatorial staff, who also contributed essays to both volumes.

Korea also remains central to Yanagi's postwar status as a public intellectual. The reverence in which Yanagi's life and work are held by many both within and beyond mingei circles owes no small part to the reputation he gained posthumously, during the 1960s and 1970s, as a heroic defender of Korean art and culture against the once imperialist Japanese state. This reading of Yanagi's activism on behalf of Korean art was given influential expression by the well-known cultural critic Tsurumi Shunsuke, for whom Yanagi represented a rare instance of "gentle stubbornness" (odayaka na gankosa) in his resistance to wartime ideological mobilization. According to Tsurumi, Yanagi's attachment to Korean art, and his gently stubborn acknowledgment of a separate and honorable Korean cultural identity, were key demonstrations of his unwavering opposition to the imperialist militarism of the wartime Japanese state. Even the Japanese Ministry of Education may be said to have promoted Yanagi's postwar identity as an advocate for Korean culture against Japanese colonial rule; a 1974 high school Japanese (kokugo) textbook approved by the Ministry included the text of an emotional essay written by Yanagi in 1922 protesting the projected destruction of a historic Seoul landmark by the colonial government.

The postwar characterization of Yanagi as anticolonialist hero of Korean art has not gone unchallenged. During the mid-1970s, in particular, the publication of a Korean translation of Yanagi's 1922 book Korea and Her Art (Chosen to sono geijutsu) was the occasion for a spate of critical writings in Korea on what the poet Ch'oe Harim, who wrote an essay for the translation, called Yanagi's "aesthetics of colonialism." In the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, a number of Japanese scholars followed the Korean lead by developing further the arguments that Yanagi's approach to Korea and Korean art was flawed or somehow implicated in Japanese imperialism. Yet for the most part these discussions stopped short of any consideration of how the colonialist or anticolonialist nature of Yanagi's Korean activities might be related to the formation of mingei ideal and practice. Despite the close association-sometimes bordering on conflation-of Yanagi's life with the history of mingei activism, and despite the continuing importance within the folk-craft aesthetic of his Korean discoveries, the question of mingei's connection to Japanese colonialism in Korea or elsewhere has been little explored.

By considering Yanagi's role in the emergence of Korean art, and especially in the emergence of the genre of Yi dynasty wares, it is possible to see that the categories of both Korean art and mingei were partly produced by Japanese colonial power in Korea. Yet the larger, if more diffuse workings of Western imperialism in Asia were also formative. During the Taisho era (1912-1926), Yanagi was only one among a number of cosmopolitan Japanese who partly turned away from Western high culture to celebrate the artistic and spiritual traditions ascribed to the "Orient" (Toyo), a geocultural entity usually identified as comprising China, Japan, Korea, and India. The "return to the Orient" (Toyo e no kaiki), as later scholars have referred to this fascination with the idea of an ancient Oriental civilization, represented a complex adaptation of Western ideas about the non-West. Yanagi and others accepted and employed Western systems of knowledge, including those mechanisms that, like the very idea of an Orient, implied Western superiority. At the same time, however, they sought to refute Western dominance by asserting indigenous Oriental value, and Japanese autonomy in particular.

The significance of the early-twentieth-century Japanese enthusiasm for Korean, Japanese, and other Asian objects must also be understood, therefore, within the context of a world increasingly dominated and defined by Western power. The discovery of Korean art, like the discovery of mingei, represented an effort to resist the controlling hierarchies and categories of Western knowledge. Yet the meanings and value that Yanagi and his cohort of collectors successfully attached to Korean objects were also instrumental in the reproduction of Japanese colonial power. The Korean art museum founded by Yanagi and his friends, for example, served ultimately to promote the legitimation and therefore the stability of the Japanese regime in Korea. More generally, the writings of Yanagi and his fellow enthusiasts of Korean art contributed to a larger body of colonial knowledge about Korea and Koreans. They praised Yi dynasty wares and the culture and people that produced them in terms that made Korea's status as a colonial possession of Japan seem both natural and inevitable.

Canon Revision and the Uses of Colonialism

Yanagi was certainly among the most prominent and active of those who took up Yi dynasty, or previously overlooked categories of Choson-period Korean objects, during the early twentieth century. He was by no means alone, however. In addition to Japanese residents of Korea such as Asakawa Noritaka and his younger brother, Takumi, who helped to tutor Yanagi in the appreciation of Choson ceramics, woodwork, and other wares, there were others based in Japan who, like Yanagi, were struck by the new aesthetic possibilities to be found in relatively humble objects of Korean provenance. An alternative narrative of Yanagi's discovery of Korean art, for example, suggests that he was introduced to it by his friends Bernard Leach and Tomimoto Kenkichi, artists who had both become ardent admirers of Choson ceramics after viewing some examples at a colonial exposition in Tokyo in 1912.

The young men who began to congregate in Seoul and Tokyo around their shared enthusiasm for later Choson-period porcelain and stoneware were also linked by similar social and cultural station. As middle-class intellectuals-artists, writers, university students, teachers-they shared a somewhat precarious position as members of a cultural elite largely cut o from the monopoly capital that was rapidly producing a new haute bourgeoisie of industrialists and financiers. Yet the opportunities opened up in Korea by Japanese colonial power gave Yanagi and his peers the means to contest the increasing sway of bourgeois economic elites in the cultural field, especially in the highly prestigious domain of art ceramics. By challenging the authority of the tea ceremony establishment in particular, Yanagi and other middleclass literati were able to revise the art ceramics canon in Japan to include the objects they had discovered in Korea. Through their success in promoting novel categories of Korean ceramics, they gained the cultural capital-or the status and authority-that enabled their campaign to promote mingei.

Korean ceramics have been highly valued in Japan for centuries. Certain types of Korean bowls produced during the Koryo (918-1392) and early Choson periods, in particular, achieved iconic status during the late sixteenth century in the context of the elite practice of the tea ceremony. Over time there were vagaries in the popularity and status of Korean bowls relative to other, usually Chinese or Japanese teabowls. Nevertheless, the old tea maxim "First Ido [the most important category of Korean teabowl]; second Raku; third Karatsu," which ranks Korean bowls above the two most famous types of Japanese teabowl, suggests the extent to which Korean ceramics achieved a preeminent position in one of the most influential aesthetic institutions of early modern and modern Japan.

The importance of Korean bowls, many of them produced during the Choson period, only increased during the early decades of the twentieth century, with the revitalization of the tea ceremony as a pastime for the very rich. It may not seem surprising, therefore, that Japanese aesthetes and collectors of the early twentieth century were disposed to take an interest in the Korean ceramics rendered increasingly accessible by Japanese colonization. Indeed Yanagi himself often cited the aesthetic tradition of tea in explaining the importance he attached to Korean craft objects. He frequently expressed reverence for the creativity and sophistication demonstrated by the early tea masters who, in the early sixteenth century, first recognized the beauty of ordinary Korean rice bowls. Yanagi believed that the tea masters had thereby helped to form a special Japanese aesthetic in which his own discovery of Korean and, later, Japanese and other crafts shared. He proposed that the regard in which he and other Japanese held the pottery and other arts of the Choson period in Korea was an organic development of the Japanese aesthetic tradition and directly linked to the genius of Sen Rikyu, the most famous of the sixteenth-century tea masters.

Yet the enthusiasm of Yanagi and others for Yi dynasty ceramics, not to mention woodwork and other handicrafts, cannot be explained by the tea aesthetic alone. For one thing, the types of pottery and porcelain they helped to bring into vogue among Japanese dealers and collectors during the 1920s and 1930s were quite distinct from the older Korean bowls admitted within the tea canon. Many of the objects that would later come to epitomize Yi dynasty, such as white porcelain (hakuji) vases and other objects associated with Confucian ritual practices in Korea, or the small, whimsically shaped "water droppers" (suiteki) customarily used by Korean literati to wet their ink stones, had no function in the tea ceremony. Moreover, there was a difference between the way objects-Korean or other-were understood in the tea ceremony and the way they were approached by young Japanese collectors in colonial Korea. By the nineteenth century, the tea ceremony had become a site at which individual objects were appreciated as utterly particular and unique; to participate in the culture of tea was, in part, to accept a highly elaborated, semiapocryphal system of knowledge about a limited number of teabowls and other items. A cherished tea implement (cha dogu), housed like a jewel in layers of custom-made silk bags and inscribed boxes, was surrounded by an aura of iconic originality. Its value was produced largely by esoteric convention, which assigned it a name, a category, and a pedigree of origin, past ownership, and use.

By contrast, the middle-class intellectuals who browsed the antique shops and markets of colonial Seoul drew on a much more cosmopolitan, self-consciously modern fund of knowledge to evaluate objects. They used universalist standards associated with Western art and science to resist the parochial conventions of the tea world and to assert their own aesthetic authority. Yet at the same time they continued to rely on certain aspects of tea tradition to obtain legitimacy for their efforts to expand the field of collectible objects. Yanagi, for example, claimed that in promoting Yi dynasty ceramics (and, later, certain categories of Chinese, Southeast Asian, rural Japanese, and even English handicraft goods), he was reviving the true spirit of the early tea masters. Later followers of the first geniuses of tea, Yanagi charged, had fallen into an increasingly stylized and imitative formalism. He felt that the tea ceremony as practiced in his own day had lost most of its originally creative character; it venerated the individual objects hallowed by centuries of tradition but failed to recognize the value that also existed in newer or otherwise unfamiliar things.

Yanagi's characterization of the tea ceremony as an ossified, conservative set of persons and practices was not entirely fair. In fact, during the decades around 1900 the tea ceremony saw one of the more exuberant periods of change and creativity in its long history. Beginning in the 1880s and 1890s, tea was transformed from what had become a genteel, mostly private pastime for literary men into a highly competitive arena for the expression of power, status, and wealth by a variety of rising social groups. Most conspicuously, during the economic boom associated with World War I, a new class of industrialists, particularly those connected with the Mitsui zaibatsu, or financial conglomerate, used their wealth to dominate the tea world with a lavish new style of tea that centered on the uninhibited acquisition and display of art objects new to the tea context. Kumakura Isao, in his history of modern tea, argues that the new "zaibatsu tea" of late Meiji and Taisho manifested the capitalistic outlook of successful entrepreneurs reveling in their liberation from an earlier, Confucian suspicion of commerce and money. As a result, the style of tea promoted by these men was characterized by a hedonistic materialism. Spiritual or religious elements the tea ceremony had once incorporated were downplayed in favor of a frankly worldly concern with fabulously expensive tea implements, other art objects for display at tea gatherings, and the opportunities these provided for the negotiation of social status and power.


Excerpted from Kingdom of Beauty by KIM BRANDT Copyright © 2007 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Kim Brandt is Associate Professor of Japanese history at Columbia University.

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