Being a merchant in 19th century Japan was sort of a mixed bag. On one hand, merchants were lightly taxed and many grew wealthy serving the island nation’s rapidly expanding urban area ugg flip flops s. There was money to commission fine textiles, intricate wooden boxes and colorful ceramics.
Still, in the feudal society, the merchants were thought of as fairly low class far below the samurai, and even below farmers and artisans.
They were forbidden to wear certain fabrics and were not allowed to enter the political arena. They simply were not considered to be very important in the social caste system.
“And that’s another reason why it became important for the merchants to have textiles and chests to show what their real status was,” said Signe Mayfield, curator at the Palo Alto Cultural Center.
The Cultural Center is currently showing “Mingei Merchants,” an exhibition of primarily 19th century mingei (Japanese folk art). The exhibit features about 100 pieces that illustrate both rural and urban folk art styles. It has been culled from collections throughout the Bay Area.
The connection to merchants is strong because much of the mingei of this period was c ugg flip flops ommissioned by that group. The Cultural Center has taken the goods and arranged them especially in the merchant’s office exhibit so that it is easy to see how the items would have fit together back in the 1800s.
There’s a merchant’s gate a barrier separating the customers from the merchant in a store that gave the merchant a degree of respectability and allowed him to keep private the handling of accounts. There’s also a weathered, painted clay statue of a calico cat (circa 1868 1912), a prominent totem that promised good fortune to merchants. A 19th century indigo dyed cotton jacket on display gives viewers a good idea of the type of coat that Japanese merchants wore.
Still, as much as the context adds, understanding the merchant theme is not a prerequisite for enjoying the exhibit. Viewers can take each item such as the dark wooden chest with ornate met ugg flip flops al shapings in the form of money bags and just enjoy it as a fine example of rural or urban folk art.
“I could have called this ‘Urban and Rural Folk Art,’ but I don’t think that’s as good a title as ‘Mingei Merchants,'” Mayfield explained.
In the back of the exhibit rests one of the more ugg flip flops interesting displays and it doesn’t really have anything to do with merchants. It’s a display of about a dozen items relating to Japanese firefighters.
There’s a ceramic water jar, dating back to 1885, that would have stood near a main door of a building, kept full at all times in case of a fire. A firefighter’s heavily stitched hood and gloves, as well as his handmade tools pick, pump and ax are also on display.
During the 19th century, the Japanese relied heavily on flammable materials such as bamboo for construction, and several devastating fires hit the country’s rapidly growing urban areas. Firefighters were seen as extremely important individuals during this time. They achieved an unexpected status level in the feudal society. The designs on their garments were emblematic of their status and also often served as images meant to ward off dangers.
The firefighter’s coat on display uses the design of a phoenix on its interior. While in the West the phoenix is thought of as a bird that rises from its own ashes, Eastern folklore believes that the phoenix is a selective bird that only lives in peaceful and prosperous kingdoms. By wearing the phoenix design, the firefighter not only invokes peace for himself, but also for the community he serves. The design also includes waves, another emblem of protection.
The fact that the design is done on the coat’s interior is another telling aspect about the art of the period. Like the other pieces on display, this is not art for art’s sake; it has a purpose.
“It’s all pretty much utilitarian,” Mayfield said of the exhibit’s pieces.
The bland side of the coat would be worn outside when fighting fires, and then after the blaze is extinguished, the coat would be turned inside out and worn as part of the celebration that would follow. The coat was also very heavily stitched so that it would hold the water that was poured on it and protect the firefighter from the blaze.
“When they throw water on it, it could weigh as much as 70 pounds,” Mayfield said.
To further illustrate the utilitarian approach, Mayfield points out the firefighter’s gloves in the display, gloves that were actually used.
“This piece actually smelled a little bit (of smoke),” she said.
Also on display at the Cultural Center is “The Intimate Brush,” which features pieces done by women of Asian descent. It includes paintings on sections of logs by Alison Moritsugu; paintings on handmade paper with tea, vegetable color, dry pigment and water color by Shahzia Sikander; and paintings on antique Korean pillows by Woonsuk Kim Linton.