National Treasure (Japan)

Kofukuji Eastern Golden HallEleven-faced Kannon (ekadaza mukha)Pigeon on a peach branch, by Emperor Huizong of Song Northern Song Dynasty
Buddhist ritual gong stand (kagenkei)Kaen type vessel found from SasayamaKaramon (Chinese gate), Haiden (prayer hall), and Honden (Main hall) at Toshogu
Some of the National Treasures of Japan

A National Treasure (, kokuhō) is the most precious of Japan's Tangible Cultural Properties, as determined and designated by the Agency for Cultural Affairs (a special body of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology). A Tangible Cultural Property is considered to be of historic or artistic value, classified either as "buildings and structures" or as "fine arts and crafts." Each National Treasure must show outstanding workmanship, a high value for world cultural history, or exceptional value for scholarship.

Approximately 20% of the National Treasures are structures such as castles, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, or residences. The other 80% are paintings; scrolls; sutras; works of calligraphy; sculptures of wood, bronze, lacquer or stone; crafts such as pottery and lacquerware carvings; metalworks; swords and textiles; and archaeological and historical artifacts. The items span the period of ancient to early modern Japan before the Meiji period, including pieces of the world's oldest pottery from the Jōmon period and 19th-century documents and writings. The designation of the Akasaka Palace in 2009, the Tomioka Silk Mill in 2014 and of the Kaichi School added three modern, post-Meiji Restoration, National Treasures.

Japan has a comprehensive network of legislation for protecting, preserving, and classifying its cultural patrimony.[1] The regard for physical and intangible properties and their protection is typical of Japanese preservation and restoration practices.[2] Methods of protecting designated National Treasures include restrictions on alterations, transfer, and export, as well as financial support in the form of grants and tax reduction. The Agency for Cultural Affairs provides owners with advice on restoration, administration, and public display of the properties. These efforts are supplemented by laws that protect the built environment of designated structures and the necessary techniques for restoration of works.

Kansai, the region of Japan's capitals from ancient times to the 19th century, has the most National Treasures; Kyoto alone has about one in five National Treasures. Fine arts and crafts properties are generally owned privately or are in museums, including national museums such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara, public prefectural and city museums, and private museums. Religious items are often housed in temples and Shinto shrines or in an adjacent museum or treasure house.


Background and early protection efforts

Portrait of an Asian man with moustache dressed in traditional Japanese clothes. He is looking down with his arms crossed.
Okakura Kakuzō

Japanese cultural properties were originally in the ownership of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and aristocratic or samurai families.[3] Feudal Japan ended abruptly in 1867/68 when the Tokugawa shogunate was replaced by the Meiji Restoration.[4] During the ensuing haibutsu kishaku ("abolish Buddhism and destroy Shākyamuni") triggered by the official policy of separation of Shinto and Buddhism and anti-Buddhist movements propagating the return to Shinto, Buddhist buildings and artwork were destroyed.[4][5][6] In 1871, the government confiscated temple lands, considered symbolic of the ruling elite. Properties belonging to the feudal lords were expropriated, historic castles and residences were destroyed,[4][6] and an estimated 18,000 temples were closed.[6] During the same period, Japanese cultural heritage was impacted by the rise of industrialization and westernization. As a result, Buddhist and Shinto institutions became impoverished. Temples decayed, and valuable objects were exported.[7][8][9]

In 1871, the Daijō-kan issued a decree to protect Japanese antiquities called the Plan for the Preservation of Ancient Artifacts (古器旧物保存方, koki kyūbutsu hozonkata). Based on recommendations from the universities, the decree ordered prefectures, temples, and shrines to compile lists of important buildings and art.[4][9] However, these efforts proved to be ineffective in the face of radical westernisation.[9] In 1880, the government allotted funds for the preservation of ancient shrines and temples.[nb 1][4][7][4] By 1894, 539 shrines and temples had received government funded subsidies to conduct repairs and reconstruction.[4][8][10] The five-storied pagoda of Daigo-ji, the kon-dō of Tōshōdai-ji, and the hon-dō of Kiyomizu-dera are examples of buildings that underwent repairs during this period.[9] A survey conducted in association with Okakura Kakuzō and Ernest Fenollosa between 1888 and 1897 was designed to evaluate and catalogue 210,000 objects of artistic or historic merit.[4][8] The end of the 19th century was a period of political change in Japan as cultural values moved from the enthusiastic adoption of western ideas to a newly discovered interest in Japanese heritage. Japanese architectural history began to appear on curricula, and the first books on architectural history were published, stimulated by the newly compiled inventories of buildings and art.[4]

Ancient Temples and Shrines Preservation Law

On June 5, 1897, the Ancient Temples and Shrines Preservation Law (古社寺保存法, koshaji hozonhō) (law number 49) was enacted; it was the first systematic law for the preservation of Japanese historic art and architecture.[4][9] Formulated under the guidance of architectural historian and architect Itō Chūta, the law established (in 20 articles) government funding for the preservation of buildings and the restoration of artworks.[9] The law applied to architecture and pieces of art relating to an architectural structure, with the proviso that historic uniqueness and exceptional quality were to be established (article 2).[9] Applications for financial support were to be made to the Ministry of Internal Affairs (article 1), and the responsibility for restoration or preservation lay in the hands of local officials (article 3). Restoration works were financed directly from the national coffers (article 3).

A second law was passed on December 15, 1897, that provided supplementary provisions to designate works of art in the possession of temples or shrines as "National Treasures" (国宝, kokuhō). The new law also provided for pieces of religious architecture to be designated as a "Specially Protected Building" (特別保護建造物, tokubetsu hogo kenzōbutsu).[4][11] While the main criteria were "artistic superiority" and "value as historical evidence and wealth of historical associations," the age of the piece was an additional factor.[2] Designated artworks could be from any of the following categories: painting, sculpture, calligraphy, books, and handicrafts. Swords were added later. The law limited protection to items held at religious institutions, while articles in private ownership remained unprotected.[12] Funds designated for the restoration of works of art and structures were increased from 20,000 yen to 150,000 yen, and fines were set for the destruction of cultural properties. Owners were required to register designated objects with newly created museums, which were granted first option of purchase in case of sale.[4] Initially, 44 temple and shrine buildings and 155 relics were designated under the new law, including the kon-dō at Hōryū-ji.[4][12]

The laws of 1897 are the foundation for today's preservation law.[11] When they were enacted, only England, France, Greece, and four other European nations had similar legislation.[5] As a result of the new laws, Tōdai-ji's Daibutsuden was restored beginning in 1906 and finishing in 1913.[11] In 1914, the administration of cultural properties was transferred from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Ministry of Education (today MEXT).[13]

Extension of the protection

At the beginning of the 20th century, modernization transformed the Japanese landscape and posed a threat to historic and natural monuments. Societies of prominent men such as the "Imperial Ancient Sites Survey Society" or the "Society for the Investigation and Preservation of Historic Sites and Aged Trees" lobbied and achieved a resolution in the House of Peers for conservation measures. Eventually these efforts resulted in the 1919 Historical Sites, Places of Scenic Beauty, and Natural Monuments Preservation Law (史蹟名勝天然紀念物保存法, shiseki meishō enrenkinenbutsu hozonhō), protecting and cataloguing such properties in the same manner as temples, shrines, and pieces of art.[8]

By 1929, about 1,100 properties had been designated under the 1897 "Ancient Shrines and Temples Preservation Law."[2] Most were religious buildings dating from the 7th to early 17th century. Approximately 500 buildings were extensively restored, with 90% of the funding provided by the national budget. Restorations during the Meiji period often employed new materials and techniques.[4]

A white castle with a large five-storied main tower and two smaller towers all built on a stone base.
In 1931 Himeji Castle became a National Treasure under the National Treasures Preservation Law of 1929.[14]

In 1929 the National Treasures Preservation Law (国宝保存法, kokuhō hozonhō) was passed and went into effect on July 1 of that year. The law replaced the 1897 laws and extended protection for National Treasures held by public and private institutions and private individuals in an effort to prevent the export or removal of cultural properties.[10][12] The focus of protection was not only for old religious buildings but also for castles, teahouses, residences, and more recently built religious buildings. Many of these structures had been transferred from feudal to private ownership following the Meiji restoration. Some of the first residential buildings to be designated National Treasures were the Yoshimura residence in Osaka (1937) and the Ogawa residence in Kyoto (1944).[4] The designation "National Treasure" was applied to objects of art and to historical buildings.[2][4][15] The new law required permits to be obtained for future alterations of designated properties.[4]

The restoration of Tōdai-ji's Nandaimon gate in 1930 saw improved standards for preservation. An architect supervised the reconstruction works on-site. Extensive restoration reports became the norm, including plans, results of surveys, historical sources, and documentation of the work done.[4] During the 1930s, about 70–75% of restoration costs came from the national budget, which increased even during the war.[4]

In the early 1930s Japan suffered from the Great Depression. In an effort to prevent art objects not yet designated National Treasures from being exported because of the economic crisis, the Law Regarding the Preservation of Important Works of Fine Arts (重要美術品等ノ保存ニ関スル 法律, jūyō bijutsuhin tōno hozon ni kan suru hōritsu) was passed on April 1, 1933. It provided a simplified designation procedure with temporary protection, including protections against exportations. About 8,000 objects were protected under the law, including temples, shrines, and residential buildings.[4] By 1939, nine categories of properties consisting of 8,282 items (paintings, sculptures, architecture, documents, books, calligraphy, swords, crafts, and archaeological resources) had been designated as National Treasures and were forbidden to be exported.[12]

During World War II many of the designated buildings were camouflaged, and water tanks and fire walls were installed for protection. Nonetheless, 206 designated buildings, including Hiroshima Castle, were destroyed from May to August 1945.[4] The ninth-century Buddhist text Tōdaiji Fujumonkō, designated a National Treasure in 1938, was destroyed by a fire in 1945 as a result of the war.[16]

Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties

A large wooden building with a hip-and-gable main roof and a secondary roof giving the impression of a two-story building. Between these roofs there is an open-railed veranda surrounding the building. Below the secondary roof there is an attached pent roof. Behind the building there is a five-storied wooden pagoda with surrounding pent roof below the first roof.
Kon-dō and five-storied pagoda at Hōryū-ji, two of the world's oldest wooden structures, dating to around 700[17][18]

When the kon-dō of Hōryū-ji, one of the oldest extant wooden buildings in the world and the first to be protected under the "Ancient Temples and Shrines Preservation Law," caught fire on January 26, 1949, valuable seventh-century wall paintings were damaged. The incident accelerated the reorganization of cultural property protection and gave rise to the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties (文化財保護法, bunkazai hogohō), which was drafted on May 30, 1950, and went into effect on August 29 of that year.[3][13][15][19] The new law combined the laws of 1919, 1929, and 1933. The scope of the previous protection laws was expanded to cover "intangible cultural properties" such as performing and applied arts, "folk cultural properties," and "buried cultural properties."[15][19] Before the enactment of this law, only intangible cultural properties of especially high value at risk of extinction had been protected.[2][3][15] Even by international standards, a broad spectrum of properties was covered by the 1950 law.[15] The law was the basis for the establishment of the Committee for the Protection of Cultural Properties, a precursor of today's Agency for Cultural Affairs.[20] It allowed the selection of the most important cultural properties; set restrictions on the alteration, repair and export of cultural properties; and provided measures for the preservation and utilization of such properties.[21]

The regulations implementing the law specified three broad categories of properties: tangible/intangible cultural properties and "historic sites, places of scenic beauty, and natural monuments."[15][20] Tangible cultural properties were defined as objects of "high artistic or historic value" or archaeological materials (or other historic material) of "high scholarly value."[15] Designated buildings were required to be outstanding in design or building technique, have a high historic or scholarly value, or be typical of a movement or area.[15]

A system for tangible cultural properties was established with two gradings: Important Cultural Property and National Treasure.[15][19] The minister of education designates important cultural properties as National Treasures if they are of "particularly high value from the standpoint of world culture or outstanding treasures for the Japanese people."[15] All previously designated National Treasures were initially demoted to Important Cultural Properties. Some have been designated as new National Treasures since June 9, 1951.[15] Following a decision by the National Diet, properties to be nominated as a World Heritage Site are required to be protected under the 1950 law.[22]

Recent developments in cultural properties protection

National Treasures have been designated according to the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties starting from June 9, 1951.[15] This law, which is still in force, has since been supplemented with amendments and additional laws that reorganized the system for protection and preservation and extended its scope to a larger variety of cultural properties. Some of these changes indirectly affected the protection of designated National Treasures.

Box with design of wheels in gold and white on black background all over.
Lacquer toiletry case with cart wheels in stream design.

In the 1960s, the spectrum of protected buildings was expanded to include early examples of western architecture.[15] In 1966, the Law for the Preservation of Ancient Capitals was passed. It was restricted to the ancient capitals of Kamakura, Heijō-kyō (Nara), Heian-kyō (Kyoto), Asuka, Yamato (present day Asuka, Nara), Fujiwara-kyō (Kashihara), Tenri, Sakurai, and Ikaruga, areas in which a large number of National Treasures exist.[10][10][22] In 1975 the law was extended to include groups of historic buildings not necessarily located in capitals.[2][19][22][23]

The second significant change of 1975 was that the government began to extend protection not only to tangible or intangible properties for their direct historic or artistic value but also to the techniques for the conservation of cultural properties.[23] This step was necessary because of the lack of skilled craftsmen resulting from industrialization.[23] The techniques to be protected included the mounting of paintings and calligraphy on scrolls; the repair of lacquerware and wooden sculptures; and the production of Noh masks, costumes, and instruments.[19][23]

A large palace built of white stone in neo-baroque style. The façade is adorned with columns.
The Akasaka Palace is the only National Treasure in the category of modern residences (Meiji period and later).

The two-tier system of "National Treasures" and "Important Cultural Properties" was supplemented in 1996 with a new level of Registered Cultural Property for items in significant need of preservation and use. Initially limited to buildings, the newly established level of importance functioned as a waiting list for nominated Important Cultural Properties and as an extension for National Treasures.[19] A large number of mainly industrial and historic residences from the late Edo to the Shōwa period were registered under this system.[24] Compared to Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures, the registration of Cultural Property entails fewer responsibilities for the owner.[24] Since the end of the 20th century, the Agency for Cultural Affairs has focused on designating structures built between 1868 and 1930 and those in underrepresented regions.[15] The insufficient supply of raw materials and tools necessary for restoration works was recognized by the agency.[23] In 1999 protective authority was transferred to prefectures and designated cities.[19] As a result of the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake, 714[nb 2] cultural properties including five National Treasure buildings suffered damage.[25] The affected National Treasures are Zuigan-ji (Main Hall and Priest's Quarters),[nb 3] Ōsaki Hachiman-gū,[nb 4] Shiramizu Amidadō[nb 5] and the Buddha Hall of Seihaku-ji.[nb 6][25]