Yanagi Soetsu

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  • Born: 1889
  • Died: 1961
  • Sons: Yanagi Sôri (1915-2011)
  • Other Names: Yanagi Muneyoshi
  • Japanese: 柳宗悦 (Yanagi Souetsu)

Yanagi Sôetsu, also known as Yanagi Muneyoshi[1], is widely regarded as the father of the mingei (folk arts) movement of the 1910s-40s, which sought to promote appreciation of craft, of the handmade, of the local, rural, anonymous craftsman and his work, the product of a long tradition. The movement was a reaction to rapid modernization & Westernization in Japan, and held up Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and the Ainu as peoples/places where a stronger sense of the traditional, and the beauty of the handmade, which had been lost in Japan, could be found.

Early Life

Yanagi was born in Tokyo into a wealthy aristocratic family. His mother was from the family of a Navy official, and his father, a member of the House of Peers, was likewise a veteran rear admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy. His father, who died less than two years after Sôetsu was born, was known for his expertise in hydrographic mapping, and for botany, poetry, and a number of other pursuits.

Yanagi attended the elite Gakushûin Peers' School and Tokyo Imperial University. While a high school student at Gakushûin, he developed an interest in bingata, as well as a friendship with Shô Shô, grandson of the last king of the Ryûkyû Kingdom. With Shô's help he planned a trip to Okinawa for 1921 or 1922, but as Shô's father Marquis Shô Ten died suddenly in 1920, followed by Shô Shô himself in 1923, Yanagi was forced to cancel his trip. He would first visit Okinawa many years later, in 1938, alongside the potters Hamada Shôji and Kawai Kanjirô; they stayed for about three weeks, from December 1938 into the following January, after which Yanagi made three more trips to Okinawa over the course of 1939-1940, as a member of groups of craftsmen, photographers, publishers, and so forth. During his multiple brief visits to Okinawa, Yanagi absorbed much about Okinawan pottery, holding five special exhibitions of such materials in Tokyo, and organizing two documentary films. He also wrote numerous articles, special issues of the craft magazines Kôgei and Mingei, and at least one monograph, focusing especially on the arts of Okinawa.[2]

Yanagi latched onto Okinawan ceramics and textiles in particular, taking this as model examples of his personal aesthetic ideals of beauty. That he lauded these as mingei ("folk art" or "the people's arts"), however, is ironic, since many of the particular forms he so embraced were in fact traditionally exclusive to the royal family and/or aristocratic class. This association of Okinawan arts with elite, rather than folk, aesthetics can be seen further in his comparison of the skyline and architecture of the royal capital of Shuri, and the main commercial & port town of Naha, to that of Heijô-kyô (Nara) in the Tenpyô period (729-765), i.e. at its height; in other words, he saw in Okinawa a connection to the ancient, aesthetic greatness of a time when the Japanese Imperial family, and Imperially-commissioned architecture, were at their height. In his eyes, this was a classical greatness that modern Japan had long-since moved past, and lost.[3]

Yanagi was a staunch defender of the maintenance of the Okinawan language, and advocate for its continuing to be taught; however, he did so for arguably Orientalist and paternalist reasons. Essentially, he argued that, firstly, regional culture was essential to Japanese culture, and that the destruction of regional cultures was the destruction of Japanese culture. Second, he asserted that Okinawan and Tôhoku dialects were a crucial resource for understanding the linguistic origins and history of the Japanese language. Next, he expressed concern that Okinawa was being selected out as different from any other region of Japan, and being treated more harshly; why the emphasis on teaching "correct" or "proper" Japan in Okinawa, when this was not being pushed as strongly or as harshly in other parts of the archipelago? He argued that Okinawan was an important Japanese national language, and that for the spiritual and cultural well-being of the Okinawan people, and for the maintenance of a fuller and richer Japanese culture, education should be conducted bilingually in both languages. He was opposed, however, by various Japanese mainlander officials of the Okinawan prefectural government, who emphasized practical economic and social concerns, arguing that the Okinawan people needed to learn proper Japanese in order to get jobs, and to avoid discrimination, and that Yanagi was being unrealistic and paternalistic, treating Okinawa like "a house plant or a pet animal," or like "an antiquarian object which can be preserved," when in reality language and culture are constantly changing.[4]

He also strongly opposed assimilation programs in Colonial Korea, for similar reasons, and asserted that the most proper course of action was for development to be pursued beginning from, first, an appreciation of the positive value of Ryûkyû (or Korea).[5]


  • Kikuchi, Yuko. Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory. Routledge Curzon, 2004.
  1. Muneyoshi and Sôetsu are alternate readings for the same kanji; Muneyoshi is the more official of his names, but as a writer and cultural figure, he is better known by the name Sôetsu.
  2. Kikuchi, 142-143.
  3. Kikuchi, 143.
  4. Kikuchi, 150-152.
  5. Yokoyama Manabu 横山学, Ryûkyû koku shisetsu torai no kenkyû 琉球国使節渡来の研究, Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan (1987), 13.