Is modernisation, in fact, the same thing as Westernisation?
Well, here, in this beautiful brooch by the Japanese artist Ritsuko Ogura, lies one answer.
Ogura has taken the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of mingei, which praises a common, natural and humble beauty, and applied it to jewelry, the wearing of which is not a typically Japanese practice.
Between the 7th and 19th c, during which time Japanese culture made a conscious turn towards China, personal adornment in Japan was kept to a minimum with the exception of hair ornaments (not for them the diamonds, rubies and emeralds of sub-continental maharajas and maharanis).
It was only with the modernization drive of Meiji Japan, at the end of the 19th century, that jewelry in the sense of rings, necklaces etc. became popular as part of a government-led push to create products for export markets.1
In the face of Japan’s rapid industrialization, many Japanese intellectuals began to question whether modernization had to mean the loss of Japan’s rich native crafts traditions.
Wasn’t it possible to retain a Japanese way of looking at things while having Western knowledge (i.e.Wakon Yosai)?
Out of this intellectual turmoil was born the Mingei aesthetic philosophy of Yanagi Sōetsu, an abbreviation for “minshu teki kogei,” the common people’s craft. A typical Mingei object was produced by an anonymous craftsman from humble materials and made for daily use. It was also, however, elegantly designed—a work of beauty in its simplicity.2
By working with a humble piece of corrugated cardboard, Ogura pays homage to the Mingei aesthetic. However, she also subverts it in several ways: firstly, her creativity and her individuality shine through in a contravention of the Mingei commandment of anonymity; secondly, by choosing the medium of jewelry, she takes that which is meant to be humble (the cardboard) and transforms it into something precious (a brooch, sold in an exclusive gallery in Milan). In so doing, she also turns the Western idea of precious jewelry on its head.
Wakon yosai, indeed.