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Joseon folk arts champions

2012/06/09 Source

By Kim Ji-myung

While Koreans had the talented hands to create remarkable artifacts, it was the Japanese who had the eyes to appreciate their value.

It is a provocative equation, but this dynamic comes to mind when we think of the handful of Japanese art connoisseurs who helped awaken Koreans to the beauty and value of Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) porcelain and crafts during the occupation (1910-1945).

Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), also known as Yanagi Muneyoshi, is probably the most famous and respected researcher and collector of Korean folk crafts. Of course, there are many others whose names were obscured from the general public until recent years.

For example, since last year, a series of events have been held in Korea and Japan to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the birth of Takumi Asakawa (1891-1931), and his brother, Noritaka (1884-1964).

Special exhibitions commemorating the brothers were held in 2011 at Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art in Kofu City, Japan, the Chiba City Art Museum and the Museum of Oriental Ceramics in Osaka.

In Korea, an international symposium was held at the Seoul Press Center on Sept. 6, 2011 with some 200 people attending from both Korea and Japan.

Additionally, a film about the brothers was recently released. "Takumi: The Man Beyond Borders" was directed by Banmei Takahashi and profiles the life of Asakawa Takumi. It was premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in 2011 and at the Osaka Asian Film Festival in January 2012.

On May 31, the film under the title, "The Way: Man of White Porcelain", was premiered in Seoul. This Korea-Japan coproduction stars Hisashi Yoshizawa and the Korean actor Bae Soo-bin.

You may be wondering, why so much fanfare?

It is said that Noritaka Asakawa discovered a white porcelain jar from the Joseon Dynasty at a Seoul tool shop and immediately recognized its radiating beauty and artistic quality. This encounter with the fine piece drove him to embark on a lifetime quest for Joseon ceramics. As a result, he documented some 700 old kiln sites across the entire Korean Peninsula. What's more, he gathered countless shards excavated from kilns and classified them with detailed notes and drawings.

Noritaka reportedly inspired his brother, Takumi, to also collect and study Joseon ceramics. As Noritaka wrote important essays on Joseon ceramics for magazines, his brother published, "Survey of Korean Ceramics", which remains in print and is an invaluable, textbook-like reference work detailing the types, names, materials, methods and tools used in Korean ceramics, including a thorough survey of kiln marks.

Born in Yamanashi Prefecture, the brothers moved to the Korean Peninsula and chose to live in a Joseon-style house and blend into the local community. In 1913, Noritaka was posted as a Japanese elementary school teacher to Seoul. One year later his younger brother, Takumi, joined him here as a forest engineer sent to restore war-ravaged woodlands.

Takumi lived as a Korean would. He even wore the traditional Korean costume (baji jeogori). In fact, it was said that his last words were, "bury my bones in the land of Joseon". When he died at the young age of 40, those wishes were honored. Loved by the many locals who lined up to carry his coffin, Takumi had become a legendary figure in Korea. His life was subsequently immortalized in the novel, "The Man of White Porcelain" by Emiya Takayuki.

In the summer of 1914, another Japanese art connoisseur, Yanagi Soetsu, was enamored by a small blue-and-white Joseon jar that Noritaka Asakawa had brought to him. The profound humanity and aesthetic acumen of the Asakawa brothers inspired Soetsu to begin his own collection of Joseon Kingdom folk crafts. He understood that the most beautiful objects were the work not of individual artists, but of the collective genius of Korean artisans.

At the time, Yanagi was preoccupied with introducing Western Impressionist masters like Rodin and Van Gogh to the Japanese public. His introduction to Joseon-era ceramics, however, changed his life trajectory. He wrote, "My encounter with Yi [Joseon] Dynasty everyday utensils was a critical one in that it determined the course of my whole life".

As the Japanese occupation attempted the Japanization of Korea, both the Asakawa brothers and Yanagi criticized the colonial authorities and emphasized the importance of preserving Korea's vibrant indigenous culture.

The tireless work of Yanagi brought about answers to the question, "What is the criteria for folk art?" The work must be made by anonymous craftsmen and produced by hand. It must be sufficiently inexpensive to be affordable, and utilitarian enough to be desirable by the common people. Finally, it should represent the region in which it was produced.

It is fitting that the former National Folk Museum of Korea in Seoul ― founded by Yanagi along with Takumi Asakawa in 1924 ― was the culmination of their efforts. The museum showcased Korea's invaluable cultural heritage with superb, hand-selected examples of Joseon ceramics as well as their wealth of research materials.

Later this year, the National Folk Museum of Korea in Seoul will present an exhibition of the Asakawa brothers. I sincerely hope it will provide the opportunity to appreciate the value and outstanding discernment of Noritaka and Takumi Asakawa, two Japanese men who studied and cherished the art and culture of the Joseon Kingdom.

The writer is the chairwoman of the Korea Heritage Education Institute (K*Heritage). Her email address is

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