2023 Autumn Conference, Special Panel “The Experience of the ‘Object’: Antiques and Folk Art as Thought”


         What is it that we experience when we view—or collect/possess—antiques or folk art (mingei)? Novelists and critics within the literary world, and those outside the literati, have sought to express this experience in language any number of ways.

         Aoyama Jirō, renowned collector and appraiser of curios and antiques, regularly associated with literary figures such as Kobayashi Hideo, Kawakami Tetsutarō, Nakahara Chūya, Ōoka Shōhei, and Nakamura Mitsuo in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Aoyama would go on to strike up friendships with Uno Chiyo and Shirasu Masako, among others, while also producing a considerable volume of writings himself. Kobayashi Hideo was among those to study with Aoyama, and Kawabata Yasunari, Andō Tsuguo, Ibuse Masuji, Murou Saisei were among the many writers who found themselves captivated by antiques. These writers not only collected curios and antiques, they also wrote essays and critiques about these objects and included them in their fiction works.

         This historical moment also witnessed Yanagi Sōetsu inaugurate the Mingei Movement (literally the Folk Arts Movement) based around everyday objects and the “beauty of utility.” Aoyama also participated in this movement’s early phase, though he later moved in a different direction. The Mingei Movement emphasized the value of craftsmanship by anonymous artisans who had not previously been recognized within the world of the high arts. It actively engaged in preserving peripheral regional cultures, including ceramics and folk arts from Korea’s Yi Dynasty, household furnishings, and Okinawan dyed textiles. Yanagi’s movement was eventually criticized for further reinforcing a ruler/ruled structural approach to peripheral regions, but aspects of this movement still provide ground for illumination through the lens of literary studies. The Mingei Movement did not include novelists per se, but Yanagi was a member of the Shirakaba-school and writers often responded to the movement’s activities, Yasuda Yojūrō being one example. Meanwhile, members of the Mingei Movement worked with literary figures on book designs, such as we find with Serizawa Keisuke; even Yanagi himself helped design books for his acquaintances.    

         In recent years, art and literary museums have put on a series of exhibitions related to both Aoyama Jirō and the Mingei Movement. In Aoyama’s case, Setagaya Art Museum held the 2007 exhibit Aesthetic Eyes of Aoyama Jiro and the Nakahara Chūya Memorial Museum held Aoyama Jirō and Nakahara Chūya in 2006. Other exhibitions have drawn from Kawabata Yasunari’s personal art collection, highlighting book and magazine design. Recent exhibits on the Mingei Movement have included The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo’s 2021 exhibit 100 Years of Mingei: The Folk Crafts Movement and the Nakanoshima Museum of Art in Osaka’s 2023 Mingei: The Beauty of Everyday Things. There have been few opportunities to critically engage with literary figures and their collections of curios and antiques, however, despite their frequent interactions with these objects and their own personal interests in the Mingei Movement being widely known. When compared to the reception of western art, this area remains underexplored when considering the historical contexts surrounding particular examples.

         Art historian Matsubara Tomoo provided a close reading of texts by writers engaging with such curios and antiques in his 2014 book, Thinking Cultivation: Antiques and Turmoil. He proposed a “(multiple) aesthetics of antiques,” writing: “We have yet to properly investigate the intellectual and cultural significance that ‘curios’ possess in their peculiar existence. This is not simply a premodern subset of ‘art’ or a hobbyist offshoot, but rather something which holds aesthetic value—unique artistic value.” To search for the beauty in the concrete “objects” that we call “curios” or “antiques” is to simultaneously generate some novel value vis-à-vis the act of discovery. Though this might be an individual experience, it occurs within the historical context of that moment’s intellectual currents. In this special panel, we will explore examples stretching from the 1930s to the present day, touching on writers, artists, and architects. We hope to illuminate the intellectual and aesthetic significance of experiencing “objects” that are (or could be) called curios or folk crafts.

AMJLS Organizing Committee


MATSUBARA Tomoo, Seinan Gakuin University: Modern Media, Antique Mediums: An Introduction to Modern Japanese Curio Culture

         As is now widely known, a considerable number of modern Japanese writers had a passion for curios and antiques. Kawabata Yasunari, Kobayashi Hideo, Aoyagi Mizuho, and Andō Tsuguo are amongst the most well-known examples. These authors, and others writing about these objects, saw art objects as more than mere episodic motifs to be used to fill out a text. Rather, it was the act of collecting and appreciating these objects as the fundamental motive/motif that animated their literary creations and considerations. Their works emphasize the composition and materiality of antiques, where the objects function to mediate a series of binaries: life and death, real and fake, true and false. These works verbalize a double meaning of medium where antiques exist as both media and mediator. This forces us to reconsider modernist modes of art appreciation that presuppose a distance between the subject and object, disavowing any involvement of bodily interests or desires.

         When considering the rise in popularity of curios in the early Showa period, particularly intellectual’s growing interest in antique ceramics, we might look to the various magazines and trade journals that began publishing on antiques and folk crafts during this period, from Yanagi Sōetsu’s Kōgei to Kitaōji Rosanjin’s Hoshigaoka. The majority of research on antiquarian interests to date has considered collectors and genres separately. Magazines, insofar as they are a form of modern literary media, grant us a cross-sectional revelation that illuminates previously unknown aspects of exchanges occurring across varying artistic fields as mediated by antiques.

         It goes without saying that “media” is the plural form of “medium.” In the modern and contemporary period, artists beyond writers have imbued their works with the experiences of antiquarian passion. Examples include any number of creators that draw from various expressive media: western-style painter Chōkai Seiji, architect Shirai Seiichi, film director Ozu Yasujirō, manga artist Tsuge Yoshiharu, book designer Kikuchi Nobuyoshi, and contemporary artists Sugimoto Hiroshi and Murakami Takashi. In what ways do older and newer mediums coalesce or conflict within these works? Do they bring about a reciprocal rejuvenation? Answers to these questions will likely emerge from interdisciplinary perspectives.

         In this presentation, I intend to touch on some important aspects of the topics I have introduced here. I will highlight the multiple relationships that bind antique mediums (in multiple senses) to modern media as a first step in reconsidering the importance of curio culture in modern Japan.

Paper Abstracts

YAMAMOTO Hayato, Osaka Metropolitan University: Positioning Kobayashi Hideo’s “Antiques” and “Authenticity”: Correlations Between Literary/Aesthetic Critique

         In 1938—or 1941, depending on the source—Kobayashi Hideo visited Kochūkyo in Nihonbashi and saw a Yi Dynasty pot. This sparked his interest in antiques, and he soon developed his “eye” under the guidance of the collector Aoyama Jirō. He would later explain, “I spent two years wrapped up in ceramics and didn’t write a single word. I simply spent my time buying and selling pottery.” In the postwar period, Kobayashi went on to write two widely read essays about the experiences he discovered through these “objects”: “Antiques” in 1948 and “Authenticity” in 1951. In these essays, Kobayashi described an aesthetic experience that emerged from his “tinkering with antiques” that was wholly separate from a western, modern mode of “art appreciation.” This experience also offered the possibility of an expressive act which might “produce new beauty.”

         Kobayashi’s experience with these curios has taken on a kind of legendary status, drawing from both his own pronouncements and those of Aoyama, Shirasu Masako, Hirota Hiroshi, and others. More recent scholarship has offered an analytical perspective on these experiences, such as Nagahara Takamichi’s 2003 Antiques of Death, Matsubara Tomoo’s 2014 Thinking Cultivation, and Ishikawa Norio’s 2009 essay “From ‘Kyongju’ to ‘Curios’.” Recent research has repositioned Kobayashi’s essay “Antiques” such that it is now seen as one motivation for Kobayashi’s intellectual formation and transformation within his approach to art, history, and critique.

         In this presentation, I will also address Kobayashi’s discourse on “antiques” as found in these two essays, and examine correlations between these works and prewar/postwar literary and art criticism (especially Japanese/East Asian art criticism). Where should we position Kobayashi’s experience of encountering these “objects”—and his act of writing about that experience—within his critical activities as a whole? We can read aspects of these texts as guiding mechanisms to Kobayashi’s work: physicality as it is impressed upon the critical texts, systems which take up the object and the friction present within them, and an inclination towards latent spirituality. I will close by returning to Matsubara’s theory of “antiques” as a medium for life and death and offer a new interpretation of these objects from the perspective of “mourning” a lost existence.

TANIGUCHI Sachiyo, Ochanomizu University: Experiencing the Antique “Object” in Kawabata’s Literature

         Kawabata Yasunari was an author enamored with art. His interests were not limited to visiting museums or exhibitions, or perusing catalogs, rather he collected those objects which struck his fancy and strove to keep them as near to him as he possibly could.

         Kawabata’s personal collection of art objects ranged from Jōmon period clay figures to sculptures by Rodin to paintings by Kusama Yayoi. His wide-ranging interests included genres from painting to calligraphy, ceramics to sculpture. His collection also includes extremely important works in art history, including designated national treasures Uragami Gyokudō’s Snow Sifted Through Frozen Clouds—which was designated after Kawabata acquired the work—and the joint painting by Ikeno Taiga and Yosa Buson, Ten Conveniences and Ten Pleasures.

         Kawabata frequently took up the topic of art in his essays. His collected works published by Shinchōsha included self-authored introductions and pictures of some of his favorite objects. Indeed, his love for art was well known even before his passing. More recently, a series of exhibitions have opened to display objects from his collection and art magazines have published special issues dedicated to his relationship with art. There is certainly renewed attention to Kawabata’s image as an art lover.

         I argue that Kawabata’s appreciation for art objects—and antique objects in particular—was not merely a hobby or diversion, rather it was closely tied to his literary production. In this presentation, I will address some of Kawabata’s works that feature antique art objects, such as The Sound of the Mountain and Thousand Cranes. I will explore the actual objects that appear within his novels and analyze what their appearance signifies in each work. A concrete analysis of Kawabata’s texts reveals the significance of Kawabata’s personal aesthetic approach which transformed the experience of viewing the “objects” we call antiques, and the act of collecting and possessing those objects, into creative expression. In doing so, I will attempt to position Kawabata within his historical and social context, comparing him with other contemporaneous examples of other artists.

SAKAMOTO Masaki, Kumamoto University: Japanese Modern Literature and the Mingei Movement: A Genealogy of Mingei as Thought

         What kind of historical relationship did modern Japanese literature share with Yanagai Sōetsu’s Mingei Movement? Certain aspects, such as Yanagi’s connection with Mushanokōji Saneatsu and Shiga Naoya as members of the Shirakaba School are well established, but a number of other modern writers also had connections with the movement. Literary critic Yasuda Yojūrō is one such example, having been interested in both Yanagi and the Mingei Movement. In his 1940 essay “Contemporary Japanese Culture and the Mingei Movement,” Yasuda—one of the central figures in the Japanese Romantic School—recalls how one of his first attempts at criticism was a response to Yanagi’s 1928 book The Path of Craft. In this essay, Yasuda contends that Yasuda’s Mingei Movement was a “transformative methodology” within the history of Japanese aesthetics akin to the folklore movement spearheaded by Yanagita Kunio and Orikuchi Nobuo. He criticized Aono Suekichi’s view of folkcraft as an art of the dispossessed, arguing that Yanagi’s “aesthetic movement” demonstrated a “Japanese consciousness.” Yasuda reiterates this assessment of Yanagi and the Mingei Movement in his 1969 memoir The Age of Japanese Romanticism, demonstrating the important role that Yanagi’s thought—and the Mingei Movement—played in the development of Yasuda’s own intellectual development. Yasuda wont on to formulate a concept of “Japanese consciousness” vis-à-vis the Mingei Movement, emphasizing an approach to “national formation” across multiple texts. This concept of “national formation” contained interesting elements drawn from Yasuda’s connections with Yanagi’s Mingei Movement. Beyond simply referring to the Mingei Movement, Yasuda in fact had direct exchanges with Yanagi and members of the movement, even accompanying the group on an organized trip to Okinawa in 1940. In this presentation, I consider both Yanagi’s approach to Mingei as well as Yasuda’s reception and response to that movement. In doing so, I would also like to unpack the wider impact that Yanagi’s thought and movement had on modern Japanese literature.