Japan is perhaps the most advanced nation in the world when it comes to preservation of culture.  It has the most widely varied as well as the most comprehensive system for the protection of culture.  This paper examines historical and cultural factors which are critical in understanding how and why importance is bestowed on cultural properties in Japan. 



          In understanding value systems of Japanese which are historically rooted, it is important to understand the history of collections in Japan.  For the first millennia or so of Japanese Proto-history, which includes the Yayoi through the Early Nara periods, there is archeological evidence which backs later historical evidence that certain objects were valued above others.  Perhaps the most common grave goods to be found around the world are utilitarian objects which will go with the person and allow them to cope with the afterlife.  Next, items which act as protective talismans are important.  From the Yayoi period, both utilitarian items as well as talismans accompany graves.  The most prominent talismans are jewelry, and beads known as tomoe (“comma” shaped beads), along with mirrors.(Nat. Museum, 2000)  These are considered two of Japan’s three treasures, which are important in understanding Japanese folklore and myth as well as being horizon markers in Japanese history.  The third treasure is the Japanese sword.  These items were symbols of authority and are found in elite tombs through the Kofun period.  Though they are symbolic representatives of “right to rule” they also employ an important cultural aspect in understanding importance of Japanese goods.  This is the understanding of spiritual “mana” or “ki”, which objects are often thought to contain. 

          During Kofun times there is no hardcore evidence of collections, though there are examples of tombs in the Late Kofun period in which certain items such as swords and weapons are found in great multitude.  Perhaps this is early evidence of an affinity for swords and/or other items which were valued enough to collect, though it may also represent the understanding that during a battle in the afterlife swords may break, and thus more than one may be needed.

          It is not until the Nara period that a collection of note is recorded.  Surely, people who could have afforded to have more than one of an item existed in Japan before this tim3.  Because of a limited supply of craftsman (Morton,1994),  many of whom were imported or abducted from the Asian mainland on campaigns in Korea, it would have been difficult to obtain enough items to make a collection. 

The establishment of a firm ruling class in the Nara period, as well as stratification and diversity of society related to population growth, created new sources from which items could be gathered for collections.  During this period the establishment of the capital at Nara, and Buddhist missionaries returning home from China, led to the construction of Todaiji temple.  This temple became Japan’s first large scale repository for a collection of “Important Items” housed in the ShoSoIin.(Tadao,2001)  Many of the items are trade items which were brought back from trade missions between China and Japan, many of which are related to Buddhism.  Though many of the items are religious and utilitarian in nature, there is a strong emphasis on weaponry and items related to metallurgy. 

It is through the example of the ShoSoIin that we can understand two points about collecting. First, items of prestige are worthy of being kept close to a place of spiritual importance such as a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine.  It should probably be mentioned here that Ise shrine is said to have the original three treasures of Japan given the royal family by the head Shinto deities. Though these items do not constitute a collection, they do set a precedent for shrines holding items of power, or mana.  The second point is that from the Nara period onward the ruling line (the Yamato), came from warrior stock. Thus we see that many of the prestige items which were manufactured from this time onward were items that were held in prestige by the ruling class, which was closely affiliated with warriors, and later the Samurai class.  Therefore, many of the items that are considered valuable and have been preserved for millennia affiliated with the values of that class.



         Though the ShoSoIin was one of the first and largest collections in Japan, attention should be more rightly drawn to collections in Shinto shrines rather than Buddhist temples.  The reason for this is that the ShoSoIin’s collection was more or less the result of political connections with Emperor Kammu rather than spiritual connections with the objects in the collection. (Morton,1994)  It is not a trend for Buddhist temples to hold large collections of artifacts because there is not a religious connection to artifacts.  Shinto shrines are completely different and there is a trend for these shrines to keep large collections of artifacts.  Since the Nara period, one popular trend of Japanese elite was to donate gifts to Shinto shrines as a sign to ask for help from a particular deity or spirit or to offer thanks for something that the bearer of the gift believed was bestowed him/her by the spirit of the shrine. (Takemura, 2000)  Often gifts were items such as armor worn in battles by famous generals, swords, tea bowls, mirrors, or other items that were thought of as an important work of art.  Often such items were commissioned specifically for the purpose of donation to the shrine and were never used.  Because of this, many of the best surviving examples of artwork in its unchanged state representing a time and place are stored in shrines.

         Oyamazumi shrine and Omishima shrine in Yamaguchi prefecture are two examples of shrines that artifacts have been donated to for hundreds of years and have been kept in original condition.(Umesao, 2001)   Because Shinto is an animistic religion (Morton, 1994), there is a belief that spirits or deities occupy particular places or geographic areas.  Places, trees, and items are thought to have a sort of spiritual energy which in the Western sense could be defined as Mana (Peoples and Bailey, 2003). 

Shinto plays an important role in the importance of objects not only because shrines are responsible for the preservation of so many pristine historical artifacts from ancient times, but because this form of spirituality is responsible for the belief in the spirituality of objects.  As mentioned above, certain places are thought to be sacred, but certain objects are thought to possess spiritual energy as well.  In ancient times, artisans such as metallurgists, sword makers, and potters were thought of as “magicians”  because they could control the elements and draw works of art from raw materials.  Not all of their works were considered to hold spiritual energy, though on occasion it was thought that certain craftsmen were aligned with an individual deity. 

It is believed that the head Deity Amaterasu helped Sanjo Munechika forge the blade known as “little fox” which is purportedly the first curved Japanese sword.  Other sword smiths such as Masamune and Muramasa forged blades that were believed to posess magical powers. (Yumoto, 1994)  Often artifacts that are thought to be special or have spiritual energy are given names such as the “Tatenashi” (armor which needs no shield). The armor of Takeda Shingen  is thought to have spiritual energy and is enshrined to this day at Kanda shrine in Yamanashi prefecture. (Takeda Shingen) 

         Zen became a dominant spiritual philosophy in the Samurai class from the 1200s and trickled down through the classes and to artisans as well.  Zen was important in understanding values associated with sublimity, stillness, absence and austerity.  Feelings such as miyabi, and wabisabi, which are feelings difficult to express in the English language, became associated with helping one to gain enlightenment.  Perhaps these feelings are best explained as feelings of sadness, emptiness, or loneliness ─ extreme sublimity that can only be achieved by the correct sensory conditions.  Incidentally, these intense feelings are also evoked in places or when viewing works of art that are thought to hold spiritual energy (mana).  Zen also stressed proper form, form being important in the achievement of enlightenment.(Morton, 1994)   As a result of Zen, many forms of art sought to achieve strong feelings of sublimity from the viewers of the object.  Proper form became a value that was enlisted in the creation of art objects, as well as in the judging of objects. 



         Many important figures throughout Japanese history collected art artifacts.  The famous Tendai warrior monk from Mt. Hiei, Benkei was said to have a large collection of Samurai swords. Many daimyo and nobles maintained stocks of artwork such as paintings, pottery, and swords.  Toyotomi Hideyoshi is said to have kept a great stockpile of artwork at Osaka castle and to have been a great patron of the arts. It is no doubt that other people followed suit.    In one instance, Hideyoshi sent a suit of armor to the prince of India as a gift of appreciation.(Takemura, 2000).

The code of Zen, coupled with Neo-Confucian philosophy, set the standard for people to maintain a more austere life, and thus most people outside of the elite did not maintain large collections of “play” things. (Tadao, 2001)  Art objects played even a more important role in the lives of daimyo in the Edo period.  With “koku” system, tribute from local estates had to be paid to the shogun.  Rice could not be physically sent, so artisans would be contracted to create a work of art to serve as tribute.  In turn it was common for daimyo to strengthen bonds between them through the exchange of gifts. 

As a result of the new monetary values placed on items used in exchanges during the Edo period several different groups of appraisal specialists sprung up.  The Honami family which specialized in sword polishing since the Kamakura period, became a default sword appraisal family due to their extensive and historic knowledge of swords.  The Matsuda branch of the Myouchin armor smith family which dated to the Kamakura period as well became appraisers for armor.  The Ogasawara Ryu family became an important appraiser of tea ceremony items.  Other works of art were not as widely collected and/or controlled in terms of appraisers, possibly because swords, armor, and pottery (associated with tea ceremony) were items most widely sought and praised by the Samurai class.  Also, swords, armor, and pottery are more permanent forms of art that last throughout the centuries and can be restored and/or maintained without destroying the piece.  Therefore, there were many more actual antiques than could only be verified by families such as Honami, Myouchin, and Ogasawara, who would have had the most comprehensive collection of historical information about individual artisans and their forms from the most ancient times.  It is interesting to note that there have been many instances of the Honami family appraising a sword of a famous maker that are clearly authentic, yet are obviously not by the maker indicated in the documents.  This gives us insight to the pressures of the times and helps us to understand that often times the system can be bent to the whim of the people in power.  One unfortunate thing that has resulted historically from the practice of authentication and appraisal, is that people have come to judge works of art based on validity rather than on their actual historical, artistic or cultural value.

With the end of the feudal era and the Meijii restoration many Samurai went into poverty and were forced to sell their goods.  Art objects that were once only accessible to the social elite were readily accessible to people of the new merchant class in pawnshops.  The deterioration of the centuries-old tradition of appraisal coupled with westernization, led to a loss of the traditional sense of valuation.  Many items fell into the hands of people who had no sense of the traditional values that were employed in the creation of the objects.  The understanding of the era of these items was lost.  During the Meijii period thousands of swords, armors and pottery were exported or collected by foreigners who collected them as curios.  Many important artifacts were lost to non-Japanese.  One of Japan’s most famous armors which belonged to Ashikaga Takauji rests today in the New York Metropolitan museum, collected along with two hundred armors from Japan at the turn of the century.(Metropolitan)  The Meijii attitude of “out with the old, in with the new” replaced feudal values that stressed tradition, form and spirituality. 



          Following the Meijii Restoration many traditional artisans went out of business or changed the medium that they worked with in order to keep up with the changing times.  Many traditional kanzashi (Japanese hair ornament) makers found their art replaced with mass produced, machine made, ornaments from bakelite or plastic.  Traditional armor- and swordsmiths working from the turn of the century were few in number, being forced to give up their traditional crafts to produce three dimensional art, such as statues, for the foreign export market and the “nouveau riche” in modern Japan. (Bottomley,)  Only small pockets of traditional “true” artisans survived.  Many of the appraiser schools could no longer exist due to the lack of enthusiasm amongst patrons.

         The one movement that actually resulted in the preservation of many forms of traditional Japanese culture was the rise of Japanese militarism.  Until the Taisho period there were no organizations, public or private, which protected Japanese art objects.  The first one to be formed was the “Society for the Appreciation of the Japanese sword”.  This society was led, founded, and patronized by many of Japan’s military elite up until the end of World War II.(Bowen, 2002)  This society sought to create a catalog of knowledge about the Japanese sword by gaining data from collections all over Japan.  This database would be used in the future for the purpose of judging and appraising Japanese swords.  It also sponsored sword shows where smiths and metallurgists would demonstrate their abilities in ancient and modern techniques through the creation of swords and sword furniture, and where swords would be judged and given points for artistic and traditional merit.  Through these gatherings and sword shows the art of the sword was preserved.  Smiths now had a venue through which to sell their works of art. 

         The demand for traditionally handcrafted swords actually was much higher than could be provided, due to rising militarism and the sword being revived as a symbol of Japan’s warrior past.  By the Taisho period the demand for swords was so high that traditional swordsmiths could not keep up with demand, and machine-made swords started to be produced so that every officer could have a sword.  Many traditional smiths were enlisted in the government’s production of such swords at the Showa and Seki arsenals, though they were not allowed to produce quality out of time constraints. (Yumoto, 1994)  Therefore traditional craftsmanship once again dwindled, due to over-enthusiasm. 

         Following WWII, swords were confiscated and destroyed during the occupation.  Through cooperation with the newly established Japanese government and the United States the sword society, now the “Nihon Bijitsu Token Hozon Kyoukai”  or “Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords”, worked to have revitalize the traditional craft once again through a call to traditional swordsmiths to produce swords for offering to the Yasukuni Shrine.  The Yasukuni project was a success and swords were considered art objects once again instead of weapons.  The Society for the Preservation of Japanese Swords established a non-profit government funded museum which would serve as a forum for sword study and house information about swords. 

         Following WWII others societies were created as well to study and preserve Japanese culture.  The “Nihon Kachu Bugu Kenkyu Hozon Kai”, or “Society for the Preservation of Japanese Armor”, is another major society based at Waseda University in Tokyo.  Other smaller, local societies have been created all over Japan for the study of ancient art objects such as Kanzashi (hair ornaments), Kodogu(sword hilt ornaments), Yakimono (pottery), etc.   These societies not only act as forums through which information can be gained about antiquities, they also serve as advisors to traditional craftsmen.  For example, many sword polishers such as the Honami School to this day send their students to meetings at the sword museum so that they can appreciate a good polish on rare, ancient swords.  The Armor Preservation Society acts as advisors to armor smiths who try to recreate proper styles of ages past so that the correct combination of characteristics is achieved to create authentic period pieces. 



         Many societies such as the armor and sword societies have an advisory relationship with the Japanese government as well as the national museum.  Following WWII the new government recognized that there was a need to preserve Japanese culture.  The Bunka Cho (Cultural Affairs) division of Monbusho developed a system for determining significance of art objects which were to be protected under law and stipend.  For a lack of a better term I will refer to this as the “Bunkazai System” or system for determining cultural properties. 

          It is proper to mention the system for judging, appraising and authenticating that has been adopted by many private organizations since this system resembles and served as a model for the structure of the “Bunkazai system” developed by the Bunka Cho.  There are two general levels of designation for cultural properties; private and public.  Private designations are given by societies and are the lowest designation that a cultural property can receive.  Private designations are broken up into levels of importance.  Most societies use a system with three or four tiers.  They are generally as follows with 1 being the lowest and 4 being the highest;

1. “Hozon/Kicho”

2. “Tokubetsu Hozon/Kicho”

3. “Juyo”,

4. Tokubetsu “Juyo” 

         The first designation of “Hozon/Kicho” translates as “protected or valued”; this general designation maintains that the item is authentic, signature is correct and that it is a part of history.  The designation “Tokubetsu” placed in front of the “Hozon/Kicho” means “special”.  Items which fall into this category generally have something which rates them above the first level.  Perfect condition, excellent skill, uniqueness, or great antiquity are factors that may play into than item rating this level.  The level of “Juyo” is generally reserved for items that are in excellent condition in consideration of age.  Their quality would have been top quality at the time of manufacture and therefore the artwork represents master craftsmanship or is particularly indicative of the vogue of the age in which the object was made.  “Tokubetsu Juyo” was a distinction created for a select few items that had achieve “Juyo” designation yet were beyond comparison to others in this category. 

         Unfortunately, the private level of designation has suffered many setbacks resulting from intra group disagreement.  When a designation is determined, a panel of judges is brought together to create certificates of authenticity.  If all the judges do not agree, then papers cannot be made.  If two judges believe that an item deserves Juyo status and three believe that an item only deserves Hozon status, then the item will only achieve the Hozon status.  This system has created division amongst the societies where certain cliques form. 

        It is known especially in the NBTHK that politics plays an important role in whether or not certificates are issued.  Since all of the people in the society have a vested interest either political or monetarily it is nearly impossible to choose impartial judges.  The Japanese Sword Society has undergone three divisions in the last fifty years one of which resulted in a heated legal battles.(Token to Rekishi, vol 647)  The Japanese armor society has undergone only one division resulting in the creation of a separate unaffiliated armor society.  It is important to mention these drawbacks when discussing designation so that one can understand the great difference between public and private designation.

        Public designation is based on a scale above and beyond that of the private institutions.  Public designations occur on varying degrees of locality and importance.  First of all, public designations can be given as “Bijitsuhin” or “Bunkazai”.  Bijitsuhin are “Important Art Objects”.  These are objects that are given “Bijitsuhin” status because they are important works of art created by a master craftsman during the era of creation.  This is reserved for objects that are important in the development of Japanese art and in turn culture or may represent an important innovation that changed the art community thereafter. 

       The purpose for understanding the values and methodology for judging Japanese art employed in the Feudal Era is now apparent.  The values that were represented in art objects created in ancient times must be understood in the designation of public cultural properties because this is the basis for judging whether or not something is important to or properly represents a forgotten era. 

        “Bunkazai” status is given to objects that are important culturally and historically.  Items that belonged to important people, and/or were used in important events fall under this category.  There is overlap to some degree with these two categories.  Artifacts can be in one or the other or both, since often times items that are important artistic innovations changed the history of art and also may have fallen into the hands of historically important people. 

         Both Bijitsuhin and Bunkazai can come at varying degrees of local importance.  Generally, the lowest level of public designation is “Shiryo” bunkazai/bijitsuhin.  It is a designation given to an item of city level historical/artistic importance.  This represents a very important item that is representative of the history of all the people within a city.  The next level is “Kenryo” bunkazai/bijitsuhin.  This is the prefectural designation of historical/cultural/artistic value.  Such items are of regional importance and represent the historical interests of the prefecture.  The final level is that of national level.  National Level Important Cultural Properties are designated “JuyoBunkazai/Bijitsuhin”.  These are items that are so important that they are protected legally by the government from destruction and/or deterioration.  Advisors and stipends are set up for their preservation.  These items represent national values, spirituality, eras, people, culture that was historically of national importance.  Only one level of designation lies above this and it is that of Kokuho which is “National Treasure” Kokuho are items that are extremely unique and are considered particularly representative an important to Japanese national identity.

         In conclusion, there are many factors that must be taken into consideration when understanding systems for determining cultural significance and importance in Japan today.  It is important in understanding traditional values deeply rooted in spiritual awareness, history, culture and tradition that affected the creation of artwork throughout Japanese history.  Japan has a unique system of authenticating and appraisal of items which correlates with these values.  Japanese culture and tradition is revered by the Japanese and because of this there have been many private organizations created from groups of voluntary members.  Both private organizations and Public institutions have developed systems for designation of importance of artifacts.  The national system is the most comprehensive and diligent in terms of employing, preserving and protecting the ideals of the past in terms of the qualifications for designation.  




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