Mainstream Handicraft: Interview with Matsumoto Mingei Kagu Managing Director Mototami Ikeda

Muneyoshi (Soetsu) Yanagi and others advocated the Mingei (folk-arts) movement during the early 20th century.

By Etsuko Motokawa

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“I’m grateful more people understand these products inherit the folk-art philosophy and preserve high quality.” (photo: Ashida Tsuyoshi)

Muneyoshi (Soetsu) Yanagi and others advocated the Mingei (folk-arts) movement during the early 20th century. Highlighting the beauty in everyday items rather than ornate crafts, the movement became a nation-wide phenomenon. Matsumoto Mingei Kagu (Matsumoto Folk Art Furniture) is the only workshop that legitimately inherits the concept to this day.

“Sole Provider of Furniture Inheriting the Mingei Movement”

“Couldn’t convince myself to become the third-heir in the family business and went on a pilgrimage in Spain. I felt I touched the human essence there.”

– The furniture industry is thriving amidst the COVID pandemic, with major retailers such as Nitori and IKEA marking increased revenues. How is it with folk-arts furniture?

Ikeda: Although they say demand for low-priced furniture increased and online sales are booming, the reality is tough for handmade furniture makers like us. Our sales for 2020 dropped 20% from the previous year. More people seem to value everyday life, but we don’t see it in our business performance. Under such conditions, we’ve been holding trade shows in the Tokyo metropolitan area and the Kansai region and making use of social media to expand our sales channels. Our competitors are major manufacturers and handicraft businesses. We sure have many rivals, but we are responsible as the only company inheriting the Mingei Movement that spread from late Taisho to early Showa eras (1920s-1930s), led by Muneyoshi Yanagi. As the mainstream, we must pass on quality products.

– Could you tell us about the origin of Matsumoto Mingei Kagu?

Ikeda: It began in 1948 shortly after the war when my grandfather, Sanshiro Ikeda, met Yanagi at the Second Conference of the Japan Folk Craft Association held at the Kyoto temple Shokoku-ji. At a time when people were barely surviving day to day, he was impressed with Yanagi’s idea that considered the benefit of the overall society and felt committed to manufacture furniture that would help rebuild people’s lives. With the advice to revive the traditional handicrafts of the region, he began by gathering the craftsmen of Matsumoto’s almost extinct furniture industry. Later, the company invited Keiichi Yasukawa, curator of the Toyama City Folk Art Museum, as the leader and established an inspiring environment for enhancing the skills of the wood craftsmen who often became unmotivated. Then, the company began making unique products, integrating the charms of Japanese and Western furniture.

Order from John Rockefeller III

– When was the company’s turning point?

Ikeda: In 1957 when we received an order from John Rockefeller III of the U.S. He saw our tables and chairs at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo and liked them. Through Yanagi, he requested to have rush chairs using softstem bulrush made. The several chairs we shipped to the Rockefeller Center in New York gained popularity, which led us to hold regular trade shows in department stores across the U.S. At the Nagano National Sports Festival in 1978, Emperor Hirohito visited Matsumoto City in Nagano Prefecture, and two of our craftsmen showed a demonstration. Looking back now, I still think it was a significant milestone.

– Now, as the third heir, are you mainly responsible for the company management?

Ikeda: Yes. In 1977, my father Mitsuo Ikeda, the second heir, became the company president. Although I am the managing director, I feel we need to develop our business in new ways. So I enhanced the company website and social media activities to attract not only our main customers in their 50s to 70s but also those in their 30s and younger. Fortunately, since the late 2000s, folk art is regaining attention, and together with the craft boom, there is growing interest among the younger generations. Thanks to our customers, we have managed to stay in business despite the COVID pandemic. Personally, I am truly grateful for their support.

In 1926, Muneyoshi Yanagi and others began promoting the lifestyle-focused Mingei Movement. They found beauty in the daily lives of ordinary people and claimed that folk crafts passed on through handiwork had a grace that rivaled artwork. The movement was also a warning against the rapid advance of western lifestyles and mass production. Matsumoto Mingei Kagu’s predecessor company, Chuo Kozai Kogyo, was established in 1944 in Matsumoto City, where the forestry industry flourished. With its woodworking skills, the company produced building materials. In 1948, it changed the name to the current one including “Mingei (folk-art)” and began manufacturing furniture.

– You were born during Japan’s rapid-growth period. How did you see the family business as a child?

Ikeda: I have the impression that craftsmen and trade partners came to our house day in and day out, discussing till late at night over drinks. My grandfather wasn’t a craftsman but a producer, so I think many people supported him in his work. Yet, he wasn’t the type to give me passionate talks about the history and tradition of the Matsumoto Mingei Kagu. My father didn’t learn first-hand from him either, but was sent to train at a folk craft store in Osaka and had a hard time. After returning to Matsumoto, he tried to strengthen the sales force as a working member and made efforts to develop the company. I dimly thought one day I would walk the same path.

“Don’t Sell at Discount”

Rush rocking chair and stool, featuring deep glossy brown color (photo: Ashida Tsuyoshi)

– However, you didn’t go straight into the family business.

Ikeda: When I was young, I couldn’t convince myself to become the third heir, and my father let me go abroad for a while. Just because it was most remote from Japan, I chose Spain. I went to the University of Salamanca to study art history. I wanted to learn not only about furniture but also the European art with its long history. After studying for a year and a half, in my last three weeks in Spain, I walked to Santiago de Compostela (in north-west Spain) along one of the Christian pilgrimage sites with the other pilgrims. It was supposed to be a normal trip at first, but a Catholic I became acquainted with got me a pilgrimage passport at a church, and I ended up travelling without using money by receiving alms along the way. Through that experience, I was impressed with the pious people and the beauty of the many crosses and icons in the churches, and felt I touched the human essence. Simultaneously, though vaguely, I understood the spirit of the folk craft furniture—craft work of the people, by the people, for the people—and felt ready to work in the family business.

– How was it after you went back to work for the family company?

Ikeda: It was immediately after the burst of the bubble economy, when furniture sales slumped, and the business was tough. There was a vast difference in taste from the rapid-growth period, and unvarnished or colorful furniture was becoming popular. Looking at our dark-colored products, a customer said, “I don’t want to see furniture like these that makes the house gloomy.” We received a claim that “such heavy furniture will break my hands.” It was a really tough time. I felt really hurt, but I remembered Yanagi’s words, “Life is like a pendulum; it’s okay if you are always in the middle,” and motivated myself.  

– Matsumoto Mingei Furniture products are not cheap, with a rush chair costing over 100,000 yen.

Ikeda: People often thought our products are expensive or high-class, but the prices are not exorbitant, since all products are made by hand, investing in materials and labor. Our craftsmen work on a piece-rate basis, so for producing one rocking chair, we calculate the cost by approximately 10 hours of labor. It has also been our policy since my grandfather’s time not to sell at a discount. I am truly grateful that under such circumstances, more people understand our products inherit the folk-art philosophy and maintain the high quality.

The main wood used at Matsumoto Mingei Furniture is Japanese cherry birch, a tall deciduous tree in the birch family. Although difficult to process, it has excellent strength, and becomes more attractive with years of use. The deep glossy brown is obtained by applying multiple layers of lacquer or Japanese lacquer by hand. The chair comfortably fits the body and can be used for generations—the ultimate furniture. As for the craftsmen inheriting the techniques, there are currently 30 at the factory in Matsumoto City, and 40 people in all, including the subcontractors. There is a ceaseless flow of young people aspiring to become craftsmen.

A Decade to Train a Qualified Craftsman

– What is the manufacturing process of a chair, your main product?

Ikeda: First, there is the woodcutter, the craftsman who prepares all the materials. Then one craftsman takes on the assembly and processing. Next is the most laborious lacquer application process. In our company, there are 13 steps. With buffing and filing in between, eight coats are applied, which brings out the beautiful deep color. This process alone takes over two weeks. After these labor-intensive steps, a chair is complete.  

– What is the current average age of the craftsmen?

Ikeda: In their 40s. When they reach a certain point, they start their own business, so we hardly have any craftsmen in their 60s. Every year, young people seeking to become craftsmen come to us, but we turn down all those who say, “I’m not good at engaging with people, so I want to make things.” You need the mindset to do good for others to do the work, and if you’re not the type who is happy to engage with people, you won’t last long. It takes about a decade until a craftsman is ready to receive the order for a chair. The company employs and helps the craftsmen to grow, so it is extremely painful to have them quit mid-career. I sometimes say harsh things as the management, but as I continue to say the same things, they understand over time. So I have high expectations for the craftsmen who have made it through that far.

– Do you have a future vision?

Ikeda: When you consider things like the population decline in the future, I think traditional crafts need public involvement. Matsumoto City has several craft products, including the temari (thread balls), oshiebina dolls, and misuzu zaiku (bamboo craft), but all are facing lack of successors. Together with the local government, we should preserve these important industries that add color to the Matsumoto landscape. Eventually, it’s possible that we cannot sustain the business. I’d like to appeal to have some kind of system established before that happens.

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Mototami Ikeda
Born in Matsumoto in 1968. Graduated Matsumoto Misuzugaoka High School and Kokushikan University, then studied a year and a half at the University of Salamanca in Spain. Joined Matsumoto Mingei Kagu in 1993. Under the tutelage of his father, second-heir President Mitsuo Ikeda, he learned the family business from the basics of furniture manufacturing and became the Managing Director in 1997. Currently, he is focusing on reviving the rush chair, the icon of the company, and also cultivates its material softstem bulrush.

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