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

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

There is growing uncertainty over whether West’s response to ISIS is adequate More

China Crackdown on Dual Citizens Causes Concern

New policy encourages reporting people who obtain citizenship in another country, but retain Chinese citizenship; move spurs sharp debate More

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

Losing ground to Islamic State fighters, Syria's government says it is ready to cooperate with international community More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?i
X
Henry Ridgwell
August 29, 2014 12:26 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Pachyderms Play Polo to Raise Money for Elephants

Polo, the ancient team competition typically played on horseback, is known as the “sport of kings.” However, the royal version for one annual event in Thailand swaps the horse for the kingdom’s national symbol - the elephant. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Samut Prakan reports that the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament is all for a good cause.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video America's Most Popular Artworks Displayed in Public Places

Public places in cities across America were turned into open-air art galleries in August. Pictures of the nation’s most popular artworks were displayed on billboards, bus shelters, subway platforms and more. The idea behind “Art Everywhere,” a collaborative campaign by five major museums is to allow more people to enjoy art and learn about the country’s culture and history. Faiza Elmasry has more.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

Israel and the Gaza Strip have been calm since a cease-fire set in Tuesday evening, ending seven weeks of hostilities. Hamas, which controls Gaza, declared victory. Israelis were more wart. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Shaikh Azizur Rahman reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category

Pianist Myra Melford’s new CD “Life Carries Me This Way” features solo piano interpretations of drawings by modern artist Don Reich. She performs songs from the album, talks about turning art into music, and joins host Eric Felten in some Chicago boogie-woogie on "Beyond Category."