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Friday, February 13, 2004

A Japanese philosopher's art of seeing
Elizabeth Heilman Brooke IHT
Thursday, November 20, 2003

TOKYO There is a quiet refuge here that celebrates the handiwork of nobodies. Yes, here in the land of stunning repositories for designer handbags and name-brand masterpieces, two traditional Japanese-style buildings of stone and wood and tile dare to display the everyday production of "unknown" craftsmen.

On a recent evening, people knelt, people stood, people lined the walls of the main exhibition hall of the Mingeikan, the Japan Folk Crafts Museum. There were designers, potters, architects, art dealers, even the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker, and his wife, Nancy Kassebaum Baker, a former senator.

Watching from the walls, gasping, grinning, frowning wooden masks also witnessed a rarely performed "intangible treasure," Kagura, sacred dance to the gods.

In honor of the exhibit, "Sacred Masks of Kyushu," on view until Dec. 20, Shinto priests and local villagers in white robes and tall black bamboo hats chanted songs and prayers, gracefully whirled and twirled, hopped and flapped their gaping sleeves to the music of flute, bells and drums. One dancer appeared in a green bug-eyed mask of red. The mask was charged with emotion. It was frightening, haunting. No eminent mask maker made it. It was not a designer mask. Why all the rapt attention?

Even in our digital age of instant imaging, robotic manufacturing, fashion as art and art as fashion, people remain enchanted by the simple challenge to see. Soetsu Yanagi, a Japanese philosopher and scholar, who founded the Mingeikan and the folk art movement, first began to study the definition of beauty in the early 1900's. Amid criticism, he passionately upheld that an eternal beauty extends beyond the individual artist.

With the many sensory intrusions of daily 21st-century living, it is hardly surprising that an appreciation for a timeless, "natural, healthy beauty," as first described by Yanagi, lives on at the Mingeikan and an ever-expanding network of similar collections. Established in 1936, the Mingeikan today remains an inspiration for potters, papermakers, photographers, fiber artists, designers and tourists interested in exploring an unexpected presentation of Japanese aesthetics. The fashion designer Issey Miyake is a great admirer of the Mingeikan. He has said he receives inspiration for his designs from mingei.

Yanagi and his friends Kanjiro Kawai and Shoji Hamada, both potters, coined the expression "mingei" in 1925. It is an abbreviation of "minshuteki kogei," which Yanagi also came up with, to mean "people's art." As he defines it, "utensils" that fall into this category are "functional objects of daily life" made by "anonymous craftspeople."

Yanagi's words impressed Warren MacKenzie, an American ceramist, who, at nearly 80, describes himself as a "potter, still making utilitarian pots."

MacKenzie first heard Yanagi's philosophy in 1952, when Yanagi, along with Hamada and the English potter Bernard Leach, toured the United States lecturing about and demonstrating the unique beauty of anonymous crafts. MacKenzie had studied under Leach in St. Ives, Cornwall, in England.

"My late wife and I had attended the Chicago Art Institute and been able to visit Chicago's many fine museums, particular the Field Museum of Natural History," MacKenzie said in a telephone interview from his studio in Stillwater, Minnesota. "Everywhere we went we noticed that across history the pots we most liked, were all the pots people used in their everyday lives."

When MacKenzie heard these far-off scholars speak about rejecting the industrialized world, prizing the everyday, the inexpensive, the anonymous, he felt his own ideas had been validated. He said that the first time he saw the Mingeikan's collection, "it was like nirvana."

Yanagi wanted the Mingeikan to stand for "the arts of the people, returned to the people." He, Hamada and Kawai traveled throughout Japan collecting objects that represented "country crafts of the Japanese people" bamboo pieces, textiles, pottery, woodwork, metalwork, lacquerware and dolls. In a 1954 essay published in English in his book "The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty" Yanagi explained his intent:

"A visit will convince any open mind of the great beauty that the simple and ordinary men and women of the countrysides of Japan put into the work of their hands, despite a long history of war, earthquake and fire. There was little freedom in old Japanese society, the hand of the samurai was very oppressive, but out of the life of the mass of the people these fresh flowers bloomed."

Since those first years, the museum's collection has grown to more than 17,000 pieces. Situated in Meguro, a residential neighborhood where Yanagi once lived, the museum buildings stand on opposite sides of the street. One is a 200-year-old gatehouse transplanted from Hamada's village. In 2002 the Mingeikan completed a structural renovation, but rain is already leaking through the roof of the historic gatehouse.

The museum is desperately seeking to plug a financing shortfall of nearly ・50 million, or about $460,000, and could also use an additional ・80 million to repair Yanagi's former residence and open it to the public. A nonprofit organization, the Mingeikan's primary source of income is its ・1,000 entrance fee.

Each year the Mingeikan organizes four exhibitions. By organizing events like the dance performance or a lecture on the Korean court artist Yi Am, the museum hopes to "attract a new audience that spans across generations, nationality, gender and professions."

Yanagi first came to appreciate the delightful freedom and imperfection of village crafts in 1914 in Korea, then a Japanese colony. One room of the Mingeikan is, therefore, always dedicated to Korea's Yi dynasty. An enormous rust-red kimchi pot sits in the center of the second-floor room. In glass cases there are "suiteki," water dippers for calligraphy, rice bowls, sake and incense containers.

Korean bitterness over the colonial period is still strong and it is striking that, in the midst of a world war, a Japanese Buddhist scholar visited Korea and not only lauded the works of Korean commoners, but then founded a museum, the Korean People's Craft Museum, in Seoul in 1924. A great deal of what Yanagi preserved is now in the basement of Seoul's National Museum of Korea.

The mingei movement has spread throughout Japan. There are 12 smaller mingeikan in various Japanese prefectures.

Yanagi had been a follower of William Blake and Walt Whitman, and, in turn, the mingei philosophy has for decades extended its reach. For example, Leach, who is often described as the father of British earthenware pottery, had never worked as a professional potter until he met Yanagi.

An exhibition called "The Beauty of English Slipware" will be on display at the Tokyo Mingeikan from Jan. 7 to March 28, and Korean Yi dynasty wares will be on view from June 1 to Aug. 8.

"Mingei of Japan, the Legacy of its Founders: Soetsu Yanagi, Shoji Hamada and Kanjiro Kawai" is on show at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, which was opened by Martha Longenecker in 1978. On Dec. 6, Mingei International will open a satellite museum in Escondido, California.

A potter and art professor, Longenecker, like MacKenzie, met Yanagi during his international tour. She said that experience "changed my life." She chose the Japanese word mingei for her museum, because "it is the only word in any language that describes the art of the people, that is, the unfragmented expression of body, mind and spirit."

The works on display at the Tokyo Mingeikan have very little labeling, and Longenecker explained: "Yanagi used few labels, because the moment you have labels the mind takes over. He taught us the art of seeing. The art itself is the powerful universal language."

Elizabeth Heilman Brooke is a writer based in Tokyo.

International Herald Tribune