How Can We Identify Japanese Folk Crafts (Mingei)?

Japan House London recently finished a book display about mingei (民藝). When I read those books, the photos of baskets grabbed my attention immediately. Despite having the same outlook, the difference between the thickness and colour of bamboo strips gave each of them a unique personality.

Comparing to those art pieces presented in Louvre Museum, the beauty of folk crafts is subtle and simple. Just like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, they were both charming but in a different way.

Handmade crafts are gaining more popularity these days, we could even find them in well-known fashion stores. Do those crafts identify as folk crafts? Not necessarily. Everything will become easier once you know the definition of mingei.

Crafts of The People

Mingei stands for “crafts of the people”. They are everyday items that were made by the people and used by the people, such as dishware. Furthermore, they are sold in low price that most of us could afford.

All of them serve a practical purpose. The mission of craftsman is to make products that fulfil the need of users perfectly. A chair should be comfortable and supportive, while paper should be smooth enough for pens to write on it.

Since most of the folk crafts are handmade, every item looks slightly different even being made by same artisan. For example, the width of the mouth and the pattern vary from bowl to bowl. It worth taking time to compare the look and your feeling when you try the craft before buying it.

The Work of Anonymous Artisans 

Unlike those artistic crafts which aim to show craftsmen’s techniques and personality, mingei have a simple appearance, and does not aim to show off craftsman’s skill. Artisans make crafts not to be famous, but only to satisfy the need of people.

Several craftsmen will work together to finish one item, rather than making the whole item by themselves. This allows artisans to produce more products quickly to meet the demand, and lower the selling price due to the huge supply.

Yanagi Soetsu’s “8 requirements for Mingei”

According to Yanagi Soetsu (柳宗悦), the leader of Folk Crafts Movement, crafts could be categorised as folk crafts when they satisfy all requirements below.

  • Practicality – For practical use instead of art appreciation

  • Nameless – Crafts are made by anonymous artisans who do not aim to be famous through their work

  • Mass production – Craftsman produce a lot of crafts to meet the huge demand

  • Low selling price – Since the crafts are being used in daily life, they should have a low selling price

  • Demonstration of local characteristic – The shape, colour, and pattern of the crafts should reflect the characteristics of the place where the studio is rooted in

  • Division of labour – In order to produce sufficient products, skilled workers should work together to faster the production process

  • Tradition – Continue passing the skills and knowledge of the last generation on to the new generation

  • Recognition of the influence of various factors – Apart from individual factor, other factors such as climate, culture, and tradition would affect the outcome of the craft

Final thoughts

Mingei is good looking, practical, and cheap crafts that people use in daily life. Brand is not a factor to define the quality and beauty of the objects. I have been using the plate I brought from a flea market five years ago, food look more delicious with its clear blue glaze, and it will always be one of my favourite plates.

Does this post help you understand what is Mingei clearly? If you have any folk craft, welcome to tell us how it looks like and where did you get it!