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

Turbulent Transition Imperils Tunisia’s Arab Spring Gains

Critics say new anti-terrorism laws worsen Tunisia's situation while others put faith in country’s vibrant civil organizations, women’s movement More

Burundi’s Political Crisis May Become Humanitarian One

United Nations aid agencies issue warning as deadly violence sends tens of thousands fleeing More

Yemenis Adjust to Life Under Houthi Rule

Locals want warring parties to strike deal to stop bloodletting before deciding how country is governed More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threati
X
Greg Flakus
May 29, 2015 11:24 PM
Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threat

Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video New York's One World Trade Center Observatory Opens to Public

From New Jersey to Long Island, from Northern suburbs to the Atlantic Ocean, with all of New York City in-between.  That view became available to the public Friday as the One World Trade Center Observatory opened in New York -- atop the replacement for the buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks.  VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”