On the beginnings of Mingei at Abiko

YANAGI SOETSU WAS IMPRESSED BY THE WARM, dignified and majestic ceramics of the Joseon Dynasty. His encounter with Joseon crafts became the prologue for the Mingei movement. In Japan, indeed in the world, when talking about Joseon ceramics and crafts, the names of the Asakawa brothers, Noritaka and Takumi, and Yanagi Soetsu cannot be excluded. This is because, until these three met, the general view was that the only Korean crafts deserving recognition, including ceramics, were the Goryeo celadon ware and also some bowls revered by Japanese tea masters that were attributed to the Goryeo period but actually came from the Joseon period.

This view was proven incorrect by the exhibition Art of the Korean People held at the Ryuitsuso Gallery in Kanda, Tokyo, from May 7th-15th, 1921. This exhibition was organised under the auspices of the Korean Folk Art Museum. That little-known museum is the reason why the names of the Asakawa brothers and Yanagi Soetsu cannot be excluded when talking about Joseon ceramics and crafts. The story of how the Korean Folk Art Museum became the crystallisation of the wisdom of the Asakawa brothers and Yanagi Soetsu, is the subject of this article.

In September 1914, Asakawa Noritaka, a schoolteacher in Korea, visited the Yanagi residence in Abiko Chiba Prefecture Japan, for the purpose of viewing a sculpture by Rodin, which had been presented to the Shirakaba group of which Yanagi was a member. Asakawa's present of several pieces of Joseon ceramics introduced Yanagi to Korean pottery.

Gazing at the gift of Korean pottery Asakawa had brought him, Yanagi said "I had never dreamed of discovering in cold pottery such warm, dignified and majestic feelings. As far as I know, the people (1) with the most developed awareness of form must be the ancient Korean people." Two years later in August 1916, Yanagi visited the Korean Peninsula for the first time, to investigate the true beauty of Korean crafts.

Asakawa Noritaka travelled down to Pusan to meet Yanagi and brought him back to Seoul, then known as Keijo. Asakawa wrote in his book Reminiscences of Korea: "In his zeal for Korean crafts, Yanagi has already bought a ferric-oxide decorated vase in Pusan and mailed it back to Japan. Despite the heat here (in Seoul), Yanagi has been doing the rounds of the antique shops and hunting through them every day."


Yanagi was fascinated by the beauty of form in Korean design and while in Seoul bought many Korean craft objects. But perhaps one of the most valuable things Yanagi was able to obtain on that trip to Korea was his acquaintance and subsequent friendship with Asakawa Noritaka's younger brother, Takumi.

Asakawa Takumi joined his brother Noritaka, who was seven years older, one year following Noritaka's move to Korea in 1914. Resigning from his job with the Akita Prefectural Forestry Office, Takumi found work with the Korean governmental Forestry Office. A devout Christian, as was his brother Noritaka, Takumi followed the missionaries in learning the Korean language and generally assimilating himself in the Korean way of life.

Yanagi enjoyed staying as a guest in Takumi's house. Observing the Korean craft objects which Takumi had acquired while setting up house with his wife, Yanagi experienced astonishment and inspiration in the true beauty of the Korean crafts.

On March 1, 1919, the Mansei Demonstrations or March First Movement (2) (in Japanese Banzai Jiken) occurred. In what he later refers to as "the first thing that I wrote about Korea after realising that there was no one speaking publicly in their defence" Yanagi hastily wrote Chosenjin o Omou (Sympathy Towards the Koreans). This lead to a series of articles being published in the Yomiuri newspaper from May 10 to May 24 that year. Through that series of articles Yanagi was able to express his sincere affection for the Korean people.

In 1920 accompanied by his wife Kaneko, a professional alto singer, Yanagi made his second visit to the Korean Peninsula. With the co-operation of Asakawa Takumi, Yanagi held lectures and Kaneko gave concerts, with the purpose of showing support for the Korean people's situation. The Yanagi's humanitarian acts made a great impression on Korean intellectuals and were received favourably. These positive results prompted Yanagi to consider with Takumi, the proposal of setting up an art museum, to further show support for the Korean people. In the January 1922 edition, Volume 13, Number 1 issue of the Shirakaba magazine, Yanagi announced the official proposal for the museum. The following is an excerpt from that article: "When trying to understand the humanity of any nation, I always think the easiest way is to examine that country's art. I believe it to be even more necessary now, when relations between Japan and Korea are in a pressing situation. If art could be used as a means of understanding, then I am confident that Japan could always remain the warm friend of Korea. I wish for all objects in my possession to belong to everyone. When the heart is consumed with beauty, there can be no thoughts of conflict. I have no doubt in my mind that the day when those excellent works of art of the Korean people will intersect and blend in our hearts, is not far off. I also have no doubt that the creators of those excellent works of art will become our heartfelt friends. To fulfil this hope and conviction, I propose the establishment of the Korean Folk Art Museum. First I intend to amass a collection which is representative of the unique characteristics of Korean folk art. Through this collection in the museum, I hope to convey the beauty of Korea which in turn represents the feelings of the people. It is also my wish that this will serve as a stimulus to promote the continuity and also the revival of the Korean ethnic art. "

Through the success of this exhibition, Yanagi and the Asakawas became confident in their mission and in October of the following year, 1922, were able to have the world's first Joseon Dynasty ceramic exhibition at the Kizoku Kai Kan (Aristocrats' Hall) in Seoul, the first event held under the name of the Korean Folk Art Museum. Finally, in April 1924, the Korean Folk Art Museum was officially opened at Chipkyongdang in the Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty, located in Seoul. In the process of establishing the new museum, Yanagi and the Asakawas were repeatedly requested by the Japanese colonial government of Korea to remove the word minzoku, meaning folk or ethnic, from the name of the museum. However, they refused to comply with the request to compromise on this important word in the museum's name. The reason for that is, as Yanagi had stated in his proposal for the establishment of the museum: "It is also my wish that this will serve as a stimulus to promote the continuity and also revival of the Korean ethnic art."

With this important point as a premise in its establishment, the Korean Folk Art Museum was established when Yanagi Soetsu was 35, Asakawa Noritaka 40 and Takumi 33 years old. It is because of this noble ambition, that even though the museum was destined to vanish after fulfilling its historical mission, their achievements are still spoken of with respect and their names have been immortalised.


Yanagi Soetsu's approach to craft, in particular folk craft or Mingei, was influenced by his experiences during his sojourn in Korea. Through his experience with Korean crafts, especially the beauty of Joseon crafts, Yanagi and the two Asakawa brothers were able to support the Korean people who were forced to endure the oppression of the Japanese rule after Korea's annexation by Japan in 1910.

It was the intention of the Asakawa brothers, Noritaka and Takumi, and Yanagi Soetsu to evoke a sense of pride in the Korean people, by exhibiting the excellent craft articles of the Joseon Dynasty. This intention was realised in the exhibition at the Ryuitsuso Gallery in Kanda, Tokyo, Japan.


(1.) 'Abiko kara: Tsushin 1' Shirakaba magazine, vol 5, issue 12, 1914.

(2.) The March First Movement was one of the earliest displays of Korean independence move ments during the Jap anese occupation of Korea. Massive crowds assembled in the Pagoda Park to hear a student, Chung Jaeyong, read the Korean Declaration of Independence.

Victoria Oyama is an Australian potter who spent many years in Mashiko, Japan. This article is written by Shinzo Ogyu and translated by Victoria Oyama. Photography courtesy Nihon Mingeikan.

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