News / Arts & Entertainment

Q&A: Exploring Japan's Mingei Folk Pottery

Pots drying in a potter's yard.
Pots drying in a potter's yard.
The mix of an Irish anthropologist with an interest in pottery, a small southern village in Japan and plenty of sake or rice wine to drink would inevitably produce none other than a great story. It is indeed told in the book Folk Art Potters in Japan. Brian Moeran has had a long and distinguished career as a Professor of Social Anthropology at Copenhagen Business School and part time at the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of many books, but his account of potters in Japan, with a focus on the Japanese Mingei movement or the field of "folk art" is especially interesting in terms of the style of pottery itself, the hidden social structure of the village that defined the ways of the craft, and the surprise British influence nearly a century ago. Professor Moeran tells us more from Hong Kong.


STEVENSON:  This looks like a very interesting book, a very specific topic you normally do not see on the shelves in book stores.
 
MOERAN:  It is decently written and it doesn’t have jargon. But it is an academic book. I am an anthropologist. We like to go and do things with the people we are studying. So when it came to potters, I went to a pottery village in the south of Japan and stayed there for two years. There were only 14 houses. Ten houses made pots, [there were] 82 people. I got to know them pretty well and they got to know me pretty well. In order to get my information for the most part, I had to spend an awful lot of time drinking sake, Japanese rice wine, with the potters.
Clay in various stages of drying, on a straw matted frame and in planters.Clay in various stages of drying, on a straw matted frame and in planters.
x
Clay in various stages of drying, on a straw matted frame and in planters.
Clay in various stages of drying, on a straw matted frame and in planters.
Potters tend to drink a lot. The reason I had to drink was that when we were drinking, the potters would tell me all the things that they never told me during the daytime. So I had two kinds of information. One was the public story that went on during the daytime when they would answer my questions quite frankly but also holding back. And so they would tend to give me the official version of their life. When it was nighttime and we started drinking, then they would start to tell me all the things that were really going on behind the scenes. That was quite amusing but not very good for my liver.
 
STEVENSON:  This is the village of Sarayama, correct?
 
MOERAN:  That is right. Sarayama is a very common name in the south of Japan. It just means “plate mountain.” It refers to where clay is dug. The one I was staying at was named Sarayama Onta. I was looking at the Japanese folk art movement which was led by a gentleman called Yanagi So etsu. Back in the 1920s, they came up with this notion of folk art, which they called Mingei.
The 8-chambered cooperative climbing kiln in Sarayama.The 8-chambered cooperative climbing kiln in Sarayama.
x
The 8-chambered cooperative climbing kiln in Sarayama.
The 8-chambered cooperative climbing kiln in Sarayama.
One other person who was involved, very importantly, was the British potter Bernard Leach, sort of the courier or cultural intermediary between Europe and the Orient, and made [Japanese] folk art famous in both Europe and America.
 
STEVENSON:  You have written this book essentially twice because you have updated it. What were some of the differences that you found as you were doing it the second time?
 
MOERAN:  The second time I did not go back there. I updated more in terms of theoretical developments that had taken place in anthropology and sociology of art. But I did a few years after that and was really quite surprised. The village as a whole and Onta pottery has now been designated an important intangible cultural property by the Japanese government. They are not allowed to change [the way they make pottery and adapt to current trends]. The market demand has totally changed. When I was there, there was what is known as the Mingei boom.
Large water and pickled onion jars.Large water and pickled onion jars.
x
Large water and pickled onion jars.
Large water and pickled onion jars.
Tourism was centered on going around different folk art villages. That finished by the 1980s. In the beginning of this new millennium, the demand fell away totally. So the potters at the moment are really disappointed and don’t know what to do. It could well be that the whole traditional way of doing things will actually disintegrate within the next generation unless market demand somehow picks up.

Jim Stevenson

For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.

You May Like

Ukraine Purges Interior Ministry Leadership With Pro-Russian Ties

Interior Minister Avakov says 91 people 'in positions of leadership' have been fired, including 8 generals found to have links to past pro-Moscow governments More

US Airlines Point to Additional Problems of any Ebola Travel Ban

Airline officials note that even under travel ban, they may not be able to determine where passenger set out from, as there are no direct flights from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone More

Nigerian President to Seek Another Term

Goodluck Jonathan has faced intense criticism for failing to stop Boko Haram militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category

At Washington’s Blues Alley jazz singer Jane Monheit and her quartet perform songs made famous by Judy Garland. Monheit sits down with "Beyond Category" host Eric Felten to talk about her music, the singers who influence her, and her life traveling with family on tour.