Circle, Senki, Mingei, Starnet

The word saakuru, transliterated from the English “circle,” entered usage in Japan in 1931, adopted via a Russian influence. Literary critic and political theorist Kurahara Koreto attended the fifth congress of the Profintern (the Red International of Labor Unions) in Moscow in 1930, at which the “circle,” designating a social and organizational structure, formed a central part of a strategic resolution that sought to re-invigorate the out­lawed Communist movement in Japan through an emphasis on proletarian and agrarian revolution. Popular “art circles” were to be formed in factories and villages as a means to encourage the expansion of a primarily urban movement into a mass movement—to form a suture between the organization of industry-based unions and the rural, agrarian workforce. In Kurahara’s words, these circles were “support organs for spreading the political and organizational influence of the fundamental proletarian organizations (parties and unions) among workers and for mobilizing the workers under the leadership of these organs.” They were considered as structures to cohere and channel existing communal experience, what philosopher Nakai Masakuzu later defined along the lines of “a small Gesellschaft supported by a Gemeinschaft within it.”

Kurahara argued for these shifts in organizational structure through the pages of Battle Flag (Senki), the official organ of the All-Japan Federation of Proletarian Arts (Zen Nihon Musansha Geijutsu Renmei). The critic had been instrumental in the founding of the Federation and of Battle Flag in 1928, succeeding in uniting various factions of the proletarian cultural movement (including the Japan Proletarian Artists Alliance, the Labor-Farmer Artists Alliance, and the Vanguard Artists Union) under one banner. Prompted by the crisis that ensued after the nationwide crackdown on the leftist movement by the conservative Japanese government that year—the so-called March 15 Incident of mass arrests—the formation of the Federation marked the surmounting of divisions rooted in arguments around the autonomy of art’s value from a propagandistic function.

Between 1928 and 1931, Kurahara’s contributions to Battle Flag addressed both practical, organizational matters and literary methodological concerns. Of the latter, he published five essays that served as guidelines for a per­ceived “true” proletarian literature at the service of class struggle. The first, titled Road to Proletarian Literature, identified the inheritance of a realist method that emphasized an “objective” attitude to reality, free from subjective embellishment, yet simultaneously asserted the need to discover “in reality those things that are commensurate with our subjectivity—i.e. the class subjectivity of the proletariat—[by looking] at the world with “the eyes” of the proletarian vanguard.” The proletarian writer should therefore “remove from this reality things that are useless for, and accidental to, the emancipa­tion of the proletariat and pick up things useful for, and inevitable to it.” Battle Flag published the work of numerous writers that reflected the details of daily life under capitalism, including the writing of Kobayashi Takiji. The journal serialized the author’s cele­brated short novel Kanikōsen, (Crab Cannery Ship), about the exploitative working conditions of a ship’s crew, their revolt and ultimate suppression. Kobayashi’s earlier short story March 15, 1928, also released in Battle Flag, depicted the torture executed by the Japanese Special Higher Police after the March 15 Incident. During the years after the incident, many leftists pub-­

licly renounced their political beliefs under pressure from police and government. Kobayashi was an exception to this largely collective act of recantation (known as tenkō)—he was arrested in 1933, and died at the hands of his torturers. Kurahara had been arrested a year earlier, after also refusing tenkō. He remained in prison until 1940, dying shortly after from tuberculosis.

Nagata Issh, Kurahara Korehito with a copy of Pravda, 1928
Cover of Senki, 1930

Battle Flag existed until 1931, when Kurahara’s plans for the formation of “art circles” led to the dissolution of the All-Japan Federation of Proletarian Arts, and the creation of a new overseeing body called the Japan Proletarian Culture Federation. During its three-year existence, one of the editors of Battle Flag was Murata Gen, a figure who does not feature prominently in narratives around the leftist cul­tural scene at this time, but reappears in another context a decade later, in which a parallel notion of proletarian culture was advocated. Murata was in his mid-twenties when working at Battle Flag. The son of a farming family from Ishikawa Prefecture, he had moved to Kyoto in the early 1920s to study painting at the Kansai Art Institute. After graduating, he moved to Tokyo and worked as an editor, illustrator and designer of magazines.

Despite working for Battle Flag, Murata’s political beliefs and wider role within the All-Japan Federation of Proletarian Arts are seemingly un­documented (or, at least, this is information I have been unable to unearth), including the question of whether he accepted tenkō in order to evade arrest. Instead, in the wake of the dissolu­tion of the publication and federation, we know that Murata’s life took a signif­icant turn after he visited a “folk art” exhibition in 1934, and viewed a particular yunomi (an informal tea bowl) made by a potter from Mashiko, a town north of Tokyo with a rich history of ceramic production. After this experience Murata harbored a desire to become a potter himself—a sentiment that he finally turned into action in 1944, after seeing the work of Hamada

Shōji, a pivotal figure in 20th Century ceramics who had established a workshop in Mashiko in 1923. Murata promptly moved to Mashiko and presented himself to Hamada, asking to be taken on as an apprentice. While the scarcity of food and general daily resources caused by the war made it impossible for Hamada to provide him a home, he agreed that if Murata could find a place to stay, he would take him on. Murata found a decrepit house, not much larger than a chicken shed, and worked under Hamada’s guidance for four years, before striking out on his own. In 1954 he built his first kiln, a climbing multi-chambered noborigama in the style widely used in the region, designed to accommodate mass firings.

Murata has been called the “consummate Mashiko potter.” He only used local materials including clay dug in Mashiko, and traditional glazes such as nuka (a white glaze containing wood ash), kaki-yu (a reddish-brown glaze), and tenmoku (a black iron glaze). His pots were simple in form, and while superficially they bear close resemblance to Hamada’s, they are notably more impoverished in their use of glaze and decorative motif. While his teacher used dripped, poured and painted glazes and oxides in recognizably recurring gestures and combinations, Murata’s approach retained a raw openness to the accidental that bears comparison to the action-painting foundations of Gutai. When viewing a number of his pots alongside one another, it’s possi­ble to discern distinctive characteristics in Murata’s layering of glazes, interrupted by the occasional more deliberate and dramatic brushed or poured mark—yet singularly they often border on anonymity. Unusually for Mashiko potters of the period however, Muratasigned his pots, using either a stamp or a distinctive hand-carved diamond on the foot of the pot containing the character む (mu).

Murata Gen, undated Mashiko tsubo (narrow necked jar) Stoneware, squared form with thick white nuka glaze and dark iron splashes
Cover of The Mingei, journal of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, 2014, showing undated plate by Hamada Shōji.

This act of inscription may seem wholly appropriate at a time when the studio pottery movement, spearheaded in Japan by Hamada, had led to many potters’ work being treated as exhibition pieces, rather than merely utilitarian wares. Yet it brought Murata into direct conflict with the prevalent philosophy of mingei that had, rather paradoxically, underpinned these shifts in perceived value since the 1920s. Literally translated as “folk art” or “art of the people,” signing a pot broke the spell of the figure of the “unknown craftsman” that stood at the center of mingei. For this reason, despite being held in high regard, Murata’s work was excluded from the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Nippon Mingeikan), an institution founded in 1936 by philosopher Yanagi Sōetsu that otherwise, to this day, includes pots by the majority of Mashiko potters of the period.

It is perhaps also not irrelevant to this contretemps between Yanagi and Murata that the character “mu” connotes not only the potter’s name, but also a central principle in Zen Buddhism—that of nothingness, the void. This principle formed an active vector in Yanagi’s theorizing of mingei and its constitution around a criterion of beauty, or more specifically an appreciation of “thingness,” that he characterized as inherent to folk craft. In Yanagi’s words, an understanding of this quality requires one to “void your mind of all intellectualization, like a clear mirror that simply reflects … This nonconceptualization—the Zen state of mushin (“no mind”)—may seem to represent a negative attitude, but from it springs the true ability to contact things directly and positively.”

The philosophy of mingei, as espoused by Yanagi and his followers, has its roots in varying influences from both inside and outside Japan. A trip to Korea by Yanagi in 1916, and a meeting there with two Japanese brothers Asakawa Noritaka and Takumi, pioneers in the research of Korean ceramics, led to an interest in Korean artifacts, and specifically the collecting of every­day utensils produced in the Yi period, from pottery to wood-working. His further pursuit of Yi dynasty artifacts took him to the Japanese city of Kōfu in 1924, where he was introduced to mokujikibutsu, small wooden sculptures of Buddha produced by the 18th century monk Mokujiki Shōnin. Mokujiki belonged to an ascetic Buddhist sect, living a nomadic life traveling between towns and villages performing charitable acts. In each place he would leave behind a carved Buddha—it’s thought that he produced as many as 1300. Yanagi’s fascination with Mokujiki, and particularly the mokujikibutsu, led him into a period of intense research and writing in which he defined how:

“[Mokujiki’s works] are imperfect from an ordinary point of view. He did not work in a skilled fine manner … he was just given materials and carved honestly and naturally … In view of this, the beauty is not necessarily found in skillfulness, or in reworking coarse work into skilled fine work. The truth told in ‘The Way of Thusness’ in Buddhism is proved in these real objects.”

Between 1924 and 1925, Yanagi and a number of friends formed a research group that traced Mokujiki’s route, and identified 500 mokujikibutsu, as well as the monk’s autobiography, and a number of poems and other writ­ings. These travels—on which Hamada Shōji and fellow ceramicist Kawai Kanjiro often accompanied Yanagi—allowed also for the study of getemono (“objects of unstressed and ordinary everyday life”) produced by local artisans across rural Japan. It was during this period that Yanagi, Hamada, and Kawai began to use and theorize the term “min” (people) “gei” (art).

Mokujiki Shonin, Self-portrait sculpture
Bernard Leach, Yanagi in his studio, Abiko, 1918

While the synthesis of research into Korean and Japanese everyday utensils, and the qualities (both material and spiritual / moral) of the mokujikibutsu formed the ground for mingei, Yanagi was also undoubtedly influenced by knowledge of the Arts and Crafts Movement, with its roots in the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris. Around 1909 or 1910, Yanagi became acquainted with Bernard Leach, a British artist who had recently moved to Japan, and who stayed until 1920, becoming an influential figure in cultural discourse in the country and a cele­brated potter. Leach’s friendship with Yanagi, and later with Hamada Shōji, formed the backbone of the mingei move­ment well into the latter half of the 20th Century, through the circulation of ideas and artifacts as well as structures of production, with Leach singularly responsible for the translation of Yanagi’s philosophy into Western contexts. Yet Leach also conveyed to a Japanese context Ruskin and Morris’s ideas of the “art of the people", that were heavily grounded in medieval-

ism and a resistance to moderniza­tion and industrial capitalism through social reform. Leach married these principles with his own ideals of rural Japan rooted in mythic folk takes, a primi­tivist Orientalism that, it has been argued, found its way into the principles of mingei and the philosophy’s romanticism towards “peasant” life in Japan and Korea.

Yanagi’s philosophy of mingei heavily emphasized a criterion of beauty identified with use. He defined folk craft in distinction to artist crafts, the former being “never made for other than use.” He perceived a “far richer beauty” in folk crafts than the fine arts, theorized through “the indivisibility of mind and matter” wherein, beyond mere functional form, “good” pattern and decoration only aid “the respon­sive feeling of pleasure in use":

“they are inexpensive; they are made in quantity sufficient to serve masses of people daily. Their quantity production means repeated practice in their technique, thereby freeing them from ailments arising from artfulness. They are made without obsessive consciousness of beauty; thus we catch a glimpse of what is meant by ‘no-mind­edness’ whereby all things become simplified, natural and without contrivance.”

In its essence, mingei can be seen as an aesthetic, moral and political project in both its “weak” socialism—idealizing communal subsistence production as a counter-narrative to the alienating effects of mechanization and the exploitations of industrial capitalism—and in its implicit nationalism through the construction of an “‘in­nate and original’ Japaneseness of folkcrafts.” While such a philosophy could be considered as offsetting the surge of Western influences that entered Japan in the Meiji period, it was conversely suffused with an Orientalist perspective, and parallels a period of Japanese colonialism in the annexation of Korea in 1910, and the earlier annexing of the Ryūkyū archipelago—regions whose “folk crafts” Yanagi particularly valued. Compared to the political strategy of Gandhi in India (who was also heavily influenced by Ruskin), that effectively constituted an economic embargo on British colonial rule through Swadeshi—a movement focused on acting within and from ones own community, both politically and economically, that boosted traditional “homespun” craft production—mingei reified certain spiritual and aesthetic values in a manner that seemed intent on projecting a construct of “innate” cultural identity rather than addressing any structural or social ground.

Yanagi promoted the guild system in Japan, describing the cultural epoch as one in which folk craft was greatly at risk from industrial capitalism, with a need for artist-craftsmen to bridge the gap in maintaining the values of mingei until the arrival of a future wave of mass proletarian craft production. His idea of the guild, influenced by both Japanese Buddhist artist colonies of the 16th and 17th Centuries and the medieval model promoted by Ruskin and Morris, was loosely defined as “associations for mutual help and preserving order. Order involves basic morality. The morality guarante[es] the quality of the products.” Inspired by Yanagi’s writing, the Kamigamo Mingei Kyōdan (Kamigamo Folkcrafts Communion) was established in Kyoto in 1927 by four craftsmen. And at a similar time, Hamada moved to the village of Mashiko and founded a guild that gathered local crafts people including an indigo dyer, a blacksmith, a bamboo basket maker, a furniture maker and a horse saddle maker. The guild survived until the Second World War, and in this period Hamada and Yanagi led the promotion of mingei production through “model room” expositions at national exhibitions and department stores. Mingei products, transposed to modern liv­ing environments and often presented alongside western style furniture and room designs, became “objects of de­sire,” and the hybridization of Oriental and Occidental style the height of progressiveness and sophistication.

Model room designed by Yanagi, Hamada and Kawai for Nihon Mingei Shinseikatsu Tenrankai (An Exhibition of Japanese Folkcrafts for New Lifestyles) at Hanky department store in Osaka, 1938

The Mashiko of today is a mecca for ceramicists. Hamada’s home and studio complex is a permanent museum dedicated to his work and the philosophy of mingei he carried forward. The town also boasts a ceramics museum, and a bi-annual pottery festival that draws many local producers to the town to sell their wares. The area is still pop­ulated by studios, and dotted with noborigama, the giant kilns pointing to a rhythm of mass production that stands in contrast to the now highly valued and sought after “masterpieces” of potters such as Hamada and Murata that populate the museums.

Slightly off the beaten track, towards the fringes of the town, a fairly anonymous series of buildings houses Starnet, perhaps the most telling contemporary embodiment of Yanagi’s project. Founded in 1998 by designer Baba Koshi, the company’s various activities “practice lifestyle through creative self-sufficiency harmonized with nature.” Founded as pottery and clothing studios and showrooms, and an organic restaurant, the complex now also includes an environmental design office, a record label and an organic hair salon. Each space and prod­uct bears with it a common sensibility, a holistic countenance more familiar to the design boutiques that populate the side streets of Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s main shopping districts—indeed, in recent years Starnet has opened stores in both Tokyo and Osaka. Faded, rustic wood surfaces meet clean white walls; the earthy aesthetics of Mashiko pottery that stem from the use of the local grey clay, and white, brown and black glazes, bleeding into the design aes­thetic applied to every basic apparatus of daily life, every getemono. This turn to the handmade and organic, to raw material as an index of moral whole-­someness in the face of social and environmental alienation, is a far-reaching and familiar present-day “lifestyle” fetish, identifiable in Portland as much as in Mashiko (Portland’s Kinfolk magazine perhaps being the direct US equivalent of Starnet); in London, New York, Paris and Moscow as much as in Tokyo. Yanagi’s mingei theory, rather than build an epistemic or moral structure for the ongoing re-valuation of quotidian creative labor in the face of looming “real” subsumption, provided a blueprint for a colonizing, bourgeois subjectivity in which an aesthetic labor of individuality, and the anxiety of its transcendence, holds sway.


George M. Beckmann, Genji Okubo,

The Japanese Communist Party,

1922–1945, Stanford University Press, 1969

Christopher Gerteis, “Political Protest in Interwar Japan—Posters and Handbills from the Ohara Collection (1920s–1930s),” Visualizing Cultures, MIT, http: // / ans7870 / 21f / 

Mats Karlsson, “Kurahara Korehito’s Road to Proletarian Realism,” Japan Review, 2008

21f.027 / home / index.html

Yoko Kikuchi, Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory, Routledge­Curzon, 2004

Yanagi Sōetsu, The Unknown Craftsman—A Japanese Insight Into Beauty, Kodansha USA, 1972

Shunsuke Tsurumi, A Cultural History of Postwar Japan 1945–1980, Routledge-Curzon, 2010

Starnet, http: //

Starship 13: Geld Alkohol Feminismus Sex - Cover Monika Baer
  1. Cover Monika Baer
  2. Editorial Starship 13 Martin Ebner, Ariane Müller, Nikola Dietrich, Henrik Olesen
  3. Greer Lankton Greer Lankton
  4. New New Impressions of Africa Jakob Kolding
  5. Contents
  6. Lost in numbers Karl Holmqvist
  7. Interview with Robert Bittenbender Robert Bittenbender, Robert McKenzie
  8. Das Lamas-Haus Florian Zeyfang, Lisa Schmidt-Colinet, Alexander Schmoeger
  9. Clouds Stephanie Wurster, Vera Tollmann
  10. Das Licht ist so hell Hans-Christian Dany
  11. Mollicutes Tenzing Barshee
  12. Crumbs Gerry Bibby
  13. Petting Zoo Francesca Drechsler
  14. Lee Miller Ariane Müller
  15. Dull and Bathos Jay Chung
  16. Liotard Christopher Müller
  17. Littoral Madness Chris Kraus
  18. aus: Am kühlen Tisch Amelie von Wulffen
  19. Visiting Highgate Cemetery Mercedes Bunz
  20. sub rosa Scott Cameron Weaver
  21. Institute of Flexibility Marte Eknæs
  22. The Bank of England Museum David Bussel
  23. Die kleinste Einheit (eine verrufene Münze kursiert geheim) Ulla Rossek
  24. Circles Drawn in Water: Play in the Major Key Lars Bang Larsen
  25. Orgy Marte Eknæs, Nicolau Vergueiro
  26. Circle, Senki, Mingei, Starnet Richard Birkett
  27. Untitled (F.P. #2, H.B.—  part 1 & part 2, Q.B. #2, Q.B. #1) Liz Deschenes
  28. 3 bad habits Monika Baer
  29. Moneydreams Rainer Ganahl
  30. Mathieu Malouf Mathieu Malouf
  31. Hallo, Dr. Fanta Max Schmidtlein
  32. Arts & Foods Amy Lien, Enzo Camacho, Ilya Lipkin
  33. Die Morschen Monika Rinck
  34. 1976, 1983, 2015 Julie Ault, Lucy R. Lippard
  35. what am i doing here David Antin
  36. 1. Get on board! Peter Wächtler
  37. Vacation Tobias Spichtig
  38. if you did, do we share something now? Lou Cantor
  39. Marinoni Tennis Club Ariane Müller, Martin Ebner
  40. Valparaiso Martin Ebner
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