Mingei and the History of Japanese Folk Art
Yanagi Sōetsu developed the idea of mingei to understand arts that he said were ‘born’ not ‘made.’ Closely connected to the idea of finding beauty in everyday life, mingei encompasses cultural artifacts that come from the hands of anonymous Japanese craftspeople.
In 1926, Yanagi christened the folk art movement in Japan. He did so after coining the term mingei to understand sets of pottery from the Edo period whose makers had long since been forgotten by historians. Pottery, like textiles, is a foundational art of civilization, universally connected to basic subsistence and the early formations of human spirituality. And for Yanagi, it was valuable in the sense that it revealed the birth of beautiful works—produced not through the designs of an author—but through the necessities of everyday life.
In Western fashion and the arts, there has always been an emphasis on the centrality of the great artist, the named author. Since late 19th century couture houses like that of Mariano Fortuny first branded themselves with designer names, much of our cultural grammar for understanding fashion and design has been framed by the elite personas of specific individuals.
For Yanagi, this emphasis on the individual name stemmed from a failure to appreciate beauty for itself. In an introduction to one history of Japanese folk art, he writes,
One of the notable features of the folk-art movement in Japan has been its emphasis upon the significance of anonymity. As we all know, ours is an age of signature. Everyone rushes to sign his name to his work, and society too tends to value signed works. Folk art, however, by its very nature, has always been inevitably anonymous; it shows us the beauty of a world in which there is no necessity for the individual to make his name known. Perhaps in this way it can help to correct some of the evils of the present age of individualism. Man keeps demanding his own personal liberty, but at the same time he falls victim to new restrictions of his own making. This is why the folk-art movement seeks to show the profundity within the world of beauty of a world without self. In this sense the movement in Japan is more than a mere industrial-art movement; it is also significant, to a certain extent, as a new religion of beauty.
Boro as Mingei
Boro is, at its root, an art of mending. It is a true example of mingei in the sense that original boro textiles were produced, not for the sake of artistic demonstration, but for the sake of keeping clothing functional, moving forward with life against the necessities of nature. The process of traditional Japanese mending introduces imperfections, unexpected stitches, new memories of old cloth.
The textile is a palimpsest. It is written anew with each act of darning, rendered again for daily life. For Yanagi, it is this creative movement that comprises the beauty of mingei. Art, in this view, does not subordinate life to its spectacle, but puts itself in service of living.
In mid-20th century Japan, it was hard for many to appreciate the mingei-inspired textiles that some seamstresses had begun to offer. In the aftermath of the war, faced with crushing poverty, many Japanese found difficulty taking solace in clothes that appeared to some as ruined and tattered. As decades passed, though, boro was reclaimed as a beautiful, valued cultural heritage, helping to facilitate the revival of mingei. Towards the end of the 20th century, Japanese deconstructionism emerged in the work of Rei Kawakubo and others who incorporated torn, ripped garments. Two interesting developments to consider side-by-side.
From Folk Art to Fashion
Today boro is produced with the same intention and direction that is put into any fashion brand. It can no longer just be considered a production of ‘ordinary people,’ but must be gauged in the same way we gauge all commodities within the global capitalist system of fashion. Given Yanagi’s emphasis on the anonymity of mingei, would it even be right to call the contemporary boro that makes its way into the world of fashion a part of this tradition?
To be sure, the patched denim produced by brands like Kapital is a far cry from the anonymous cloth Yanagi recovered from Edo period craftspeople. At the same time, however, there remains a kernel of Yanagi’s call to reveal “the world of beauty of a world without a self.” What remains in boro, despite its appropriation by markets and trends, is an undeniable care for specific materials—layers of differential repetition. Layers that draw one out of the self,, into the specific imperfections that define the process of mending.
In a way, the actual expertise required to produce these beautiful works of cloth is inextricable from the tradition of mingei and the artistic values enshrined by early 20th century critics like Yanagi.
It would not be quite right to understand the production of boro in fashion in terms of commercialization. True boro requires an attention to traditions of craft that cannot be developed outside immersion within those histories. Artisans like Kiro Hirata of Kapital come from generations of experience in Japanese textiles.
And yet, at the same time, boro is a fascinating example of the way trends within folk art and art history can inflect trends within conspicuous consumption, can define trajectories of taste within high fashion. Ultimately, folk art is dialectically bound to the structure of late capitalism—it is the pervasive uniformity of commodity production that provokes our nostalgia for the lost, old, and anonymous, and it is this very structure of production that recuperates our nostalgia in the form of new products for sale.
For the designer and historian though, the emphasis must always be on the history of the materials, how they were treated, and the intention behind that treatment.