Matt of No-sword has posted a nice quotation from Soetsu Yanagi‘s 1933 essay “Whither folk crafts?”:

Folk crafts, by definition, do not bear signatures. … Consider: Japanese people who don’t even know what grammar is can use complicated Japanese without difficulty. How different this is from speaking a foreign language, when we must awkwardly consider each point of grammar as we speak! When the words begin to come with ease, our use of the language is at its most unremarkable. Put another way, we can only use a language freely if we can use it in an unremarkable fashion. Folk arts must share this quality of being easily accessible to anyone. The “remarkable way” of the inspired genius is not the way of folk crafts.

As Matt says, “The main difference between folk crafts and language, then, is that there are fewer people going around insisting that cups without handles are ugly, or writing op-eds about the kids today and their loutish, insolent non-wicker chairs.”


  1. Ginger Yellow says

    Its seems to me he has it backwards. Our fluency in our native language is the remarkable thing – just think of the difficulty we have devising linguistically capable software. Moreover, such fluency isn’t accessible to anyone. It’s accessibly only to people who’ve been steeped in the language since childhood.

  2. I think that’s what he’s saying — not that the fluency itself is unremarkable but that we don’t remark on it (because we take it for granted). I believe it’s Matt’s own translation, and perhaps he’ll drop by and explicate. (He gives the Japanese characters rendered as “unremarkable”, 平凡, but that doesn’t help me.)

  3. Ginger Yellow says

    “I think that’s what he’s saying — not that the fluency itself is unremarkable but that we don’t remark on it (because we take it for granted).”
    But we do remark on it. We’re linguists – professional and dilettantes. Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve never taken native fluency for granted – at least not since a solipsistic phase in my early childhood when I was convinced that foreigners must use English for their internal monologue.

  4. Yes, Hat has it (right down to the assumption that it is my translation). He’s talking about subjective rather than objective remarkableness here. The benchmark for proficiency in a language is coming across just like a normal, everyday native speaker — even though being fluent in a language, even your native language, is a remarkable thing when viewed objectively. In retrospect I might have done better to translate 平凡 as “average”, “commonplace”, “everyday”, etc.
    Yanagi’s goal as described in this essay is to revive/develop good design in folk craft until it has this everyday quality — until, like language, being “fluent” in it is the unmarked state, and it evolves freely along with the community to stay relevant to its needs.
    The “accessible to anyone” thing is a good point. I think that Japanese speakers and Japanese are still the example here. In any case the idea is that, like a language, folk crafts should be accessible to anyone in theory, and we should vigorously resist any attempts to introduce to it the “you either got it or you don’t” of high art, which is by definition about remarkable works that only “true artists” can produce. A rising tide lifting all boats is better for the community as a whole.

  5. Am I in a minority, then, to find today’s hard plastic chairs completely loutish?

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