Yanagi Soetsu: Philosopher of Folk Art and Imperfection

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“The love of the irregular is a sign of the basic quest for freedom.”

-Yanagi Soetsu (1889–1961)

Few texts capture the essence of Japanese aesthetics as Yanagi Soetsu’s The Unknown Craftsman. The imperfect, the vernacular, the handmade — Yanagi reconceptualized these in an era of industry. Since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan’s leaders had been trying to present an image of the country based on their top-down perspective. Heavy emphasis was given to the development of monarchy, Shinto, and national institutions. Conflicting notions of Japanese history and culture with regard to museums dominate Noriko Aso’s Public Properties: Museums in Imperial Japan. In response to this top-down approach, there were bottom-up responses. Yanagi Soetsu established the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in 1936 as a means to showcase Japan’s craft traditions.

Mingei refers to Japan’s folk art. Yanagi Soetsu was passionate about the art of the people, the works of nameless craftsmen used on a daily basis. Those who influenced his aesthetic ideas included John Ruskin and William Morris, prominent figures in Britain’s arts and crafts movement in the Victorian period. His passion began with collecting Korean pottery. Indeed, one of his favorite works was a Korean-made tea bowl called the Kizaemon Tea Bowl (26th century).

“This single Tea-bowl is considered to be the finest in the world. When I saw it, my heart fell. … So simple, no more ordinary thing could be imagined. …The clay had been dug from the hill at the back of the house; the glaze was made with the ash from the hearth; the potter’s wheel had been irregular. The shape revealed no particular thought: it was one of many. The work had been fast; the turning was rough, done with dirty hands… Made for a purpose, made to do work. Sold to be used in everyday life. …” -Yanagi Soetsu, The Unknown Craftsman

Yanagi Soetsu’s aesthetic philosophy had several key components:

-rejection of the perfect: it has no suggestion of the infinite

-see as the core and knowing as the periphery: intuition takes in the whole whereas intellect only takes in part



-the conceptualization of national identity in terms of the common people rather than elites

- musō: the unchanging formlessness behind all phenomena (eternal present, Buddhist term)

Such ideas are commonly associated with quintessential Japanese culture. Wabi-sabi and kintsugi (golden joinery) emphasize the beauty of what is imperfect, irregular, and withered. Yanagi was interested in what the people of his own country used on a daily basis. As he toured Japan, “he was gradually paying attention to the healthy and the honest beauty which he found in ordinary people’s craftworks made by unknown craftspeople.”[1] In recent decades, Yanagi’s philosophy has influenced increasing numbers of people in the West. For example, Tim Seggerman drew inspiration from The Unknown Craftsman as he remodeled his constantly-changing Brooklyn home.

“That which is profound never lends itself to logical explanation: it involves endless mystery.”

-Yanagi Soetsu


Japanese Folk Crafts Museum Website:

[1] http://www.mingeikan.or.jp/english/about/

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