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 Obama to Send 3,000 Troops to Liberia in Ebola Fight

At Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, President says US will take leadership role for a global response to deadly Ebola virus that is ravaging West Africa More

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

Muslims in Kunming say that they condemn the violence, it is not a reflection of the true beliefs of their faith More

Humanitarian Aid, Equipment Blocked in Cameroon

Move is seen as a developing supply crisis in West Africa More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Spacei
X
September 17, 2014 4:20 AM
The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Graham Nash has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – once for his work with The Hollies and once as part of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The legendary folk-rocker joins "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his latest project, “CSN 2012,” which captured on video recent live performances by Crosby, Stills & Nash.