The Beauty of Everyday Things by Yanagi Sōetsu

The Beauty of Everyday Things by Yanagi Sōetsu
Indeed.

Over the last decade, we’ve enjoyed a shift in ideals towards a modest lifestyle. Part of this move was a natural reaction based on viewing some of the self-indulgent excesses of the modern age.

But other influences have come from Japanese literature, such as Tanizaki’s rather sublime In Praise of Shadows.

We also recently discovered Yanagi Sōetsu (1889-1961), a philosopher and founder of Mingei theory, which celebrates the hand-crafted art of ordinary people. Because in the minor details of the world, that’s where you can find the joys of life itself.

The Beauty of Everyday Things

Sōetsu’s work sets out a clear statement that everyday and mundane things are therapeutic. From a teapot to a cup, these are singular objects to cherish.

Over the last 50 years in particular, chronic excess has led to a world of big business, globalisation, overpopulation, and all the destructive attributes these create: pollution, greed, climate change, mass inequality etc.

There’s a clear need to return to a minimalistic past. To drop the self-aggrandising crap, as this age of excess drives the idea riches are the only main goal to aspire to.

Our reaction to this is one of disdain. You don’t need a helicopter, Ferrari, or mansion to experience the best of life. And it’s in The Beauty of Everyday Things where you can read about how achieve that state of mind – all for a calmer existence, of course.

As common things in commonplace settings tend to get overlooked in the grand scheme of wants and desires. But, the Sōetsu states, they’re to be cherished. And this means they should be made with due care, attention, and skill.

The focus is on a natural, sturdy, and safe aesthetic – objects that can last a lifetime. Duly noted, then, this is the exact opposite of our gadget crazy lust for the latest device.

His philosophical leaning is one that has an artistic quality, all of which led to one of the more obscure theories of this here world.

We’ll touch on that in a second, but in the meantime if you’re looking for an enlightening read to take your mind off the madness of modern life – this book is for you.

Mingei (民芸)

Mingei type teapot
The type of “thing” that defines Sōetsu’s concepts.

A translation into English of this theory is: “folk arts” or “arts of the people”.

Sōetsu was influenced by Korean crafts after a visit to the country, so he began formulating his philosophy in the 1920s and 1930s.

The idea is as follows, in simple terms:

The hand-crafted art of ordinary people - 民衆的な工芸 (minshū-teki-na kōgei)

It’s about revelling in the creations of ordinary people you don’t know and will never meet; finding beauty in the enigmatic history of each piece.

He had a particular focus on serviceable objects. The type of things designed for their purpose, rather than to look really good. He believed that the products made by common people were simply “beyond beauty and ugliness”.

But being fastidious in his philosophy, he did have a few stipulations for his concept. The “thing” must be:

  • Made by an anonymous person.
  • Produced by hand.
  • Be on the cheap side.
  • Something in use with the masses.
  • Offer a function in day-to-day life.
  • In some way represent the region from whence it hails.

There’s an appreciation of ceramics, lacquer, textiles, and woodwork. And lacquer was, in particular, for Tanazaki something to be utterly cherished.

But for Sōetsu the focus appears to be more on pottery, which takes a lot of dedication and patience to master.

And whilst the theory has received criticism from some scholars who claims it promotes ultra-nationalism, we like to think of it as a more sedate appreciation of the little things in life.

A handemade bowl or cup that you can spend years with and enjoy through its famaliarity and simplicty.

Because there’s a goddamn crazy world out there. But some objects remind us of the beauty of life – it’s all about the minor things.

4 comments

  1. Personally, I think The Beauty of Everyday Things would be a great name for a documentary about Yasujirō Ozu. But seriously, I do think one should seriously take a look at one’s surroundings every now and again. Maybe by walking down a new road or checking out an unfamiliar park?

    Liked by 1 person

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