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EDITORIAL | The Preservation of Japan’s Cultural Treasures is in Peril

The government’s Takumi Project will train new craftsmen to create, repair, and carry Japan’s cultural heritage into future generations. Action is urgently needed.

Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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This painting is among Japan's national treasures awaiting restoration.

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The Agency for Cultural Affairs (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) is set to launch a new initiative in 2022 to ensure the nation’s cultural treasures will be available for future generations. 

Called the “Takumi Project for Cultural Properties,” the initiative aims to make sure that there will continue to be craftsmen with the skills and materials needed to repair and preserve national treasures and important cultural properties. That is critically important, as skilled craftsmen increasingly lack successors and the few sources that produce the valuable raw materials are growing older. Takumi means “craftsman” or “artisan.”

Be they artworks, crafts, or buildings, important cultural properties require periodic restoration and maintenance. However, in recent years, in addition to a dearth of skilled craftsmen and essential raw materials, it has become increasingly impossible to even estimate when the necessary work could be completed. 

Cultural property of Japan.

Whereas in 2020, officials wanted to restore 207 important artistic and craft properties, they were able to approve work on only 190 of them. Likewise, for historic sites, natural monuments, and places of scenic beauty, only 57% of the requested amount for preservation measures was made available.

As a result, it has become impossible to set firm schedules for the required work. In the meantime, the properties continue to deteriorate, further exacerbating the vicious circle. And, in the long term, that will result in higher costs. 

At present, the Cultural Affairs Agency has a system in place for certifying and supporting selected preservation skills, including techniques for restoring cultural properties and the production skills required to make the materials and tools needed for restoration. Under that framework, it has provided assistance to 54 individuals and 39 groups. 

The list is dominated by fields where the skills and materials are endangered, such as lacquerware and samurai armor restoration, the production of handmade paper used in hanging scrolls and paper screens, and Japanese indigo dyeing. The average age for these experts is 73, and their priceless technical knowledge could be lost forever at any time. 

Japanese craftsman undertaking detailed, painstaking restoration work.

Under the Takumi Project, the cultural agency will provide support designed to increase the number of craftsmen with the skills to carry on these crafts and restoration work. It will, for example, provide generous support for trainees willing to learn how to carry on these skills, such as through subsidies for training expenses. 

Another problem is that it is becoming more difficult to procure the tools and raw materials required for restoration work. For example, the hybrid mulberry tree (kozo) provides the raw material used in the bindings for paintings and books. But due to the considerable time and hard labor needed to produce it, only a limited number of farming households are willing to make the effort. 

As things now stand, subsidies are provided to partially offset the production costs for five items, but that number is to be expanded. In other words, the initial steps are being taken to establish a new framework to stabilize production and distribution. 

One challenge has been securing adequate facilities for the restoration work. Since the workspace within the Kyoto National Museum is both outdated and cramped, the cultural agency plans to establish a new National Cultural Properties Repair Center (tentative name). The agency has included funding for the center in its FY2022 budget request. The new center is also slated to support the development of new skills, and research into raw materials.

Japan’s cultural properties are the crystallization of the Japanese aesthetic, and symbolize the spiritual culture that we have inherited from our ancestors. The government and the Japanese public must become aware of how their preservation is currently imperiled and their role to help preserve them.

Action is urgently needed if we are to be certain that Japan’s national treasures will be passed down to our descendants. 

(Read the Sankei Shimbun editorial in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun