Friday, September 17, 2021


UNESCO nod first step to protecting crafts

Traditional Japanese craftsmanship used in wooden architecture has been approved for addition to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list by an intergovernmental committee of the Paris-based international body.



The committee approved the registration of "traditional skills, techniques and knowledge for the conservation and transmission of wooden architecture in Japan" at an online meeting last month.

The government and related organizations intend to promote Japanese craftsmanship worldwide, but there are still many tasks to be tackled when it comes to handing down skills and expertise.

The UNESCO registration covers 17 types of skills related to the preservation, repair and decoration of historical wooden structures. The government selected the 17 from a list of "chosen preservation skills" necessary for the conservation and repair of cultural properties and recommended that they be registered on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

In approving the registration, the UNESCO panel recognized skilled craftspeople's fostering of successors and the activities of preservation organizations in conserving cultural assets, including timber-framed structures, of which the prime example is Horyuji temple in Nara Prefecture, the oldest wooden building in the world.

The panel emphasized that the registration is significant because it is in line with sustainable development.

Behind the government's aim for registration was a sense of crisis over the passing down of technical skills. Wooden structures that require conservation are primarily national treasures and important cultural properties, and their repair cycles are said to come at intervals of several decades or every few hundred years. This fiscal year, there have been about 180 government-financed repair projects for such treasures and assets.

If skills are not passed on, it may affect the conservation of traditional buildings. These skills were predominantly used in the construction and maintenance of general housing, but demand has decreased due to the spread of modern construction methods, causing a serious shortage of craftspeople who belong to the 14 organizations responsible for passing down such techniques.

In the city of Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, which is an urushi lacquer production center, there were reportedly about 200 craftsmen in the period immediately after World War II who specialized in harvesting the unrefined sap of lacquer trees. But the number of such tappers has declined to 30 today. In Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, there are only 20 craftsmen in the association for the preservation of the traditional technique used to produce entsuke gold leaf 10,000 times thinner than a millimeter.

The Association for Conservation of National Treasures in the city of Kyoto has 12 member companies and the number of craftspeople is barely holding at about 130. The ACNT is an assembly of experts involved in repairing artwork on paper sliding doors and walls. It takes 10 years for such skills to be fully acquired. But it is said that the member companies cannot afford to hire and foster craftspeople because they face financial difficulties.

The selected conservation skills, which include the 17 types registered on the UNESCO list, have already received government support for projects such as training successors. The registration does not mean that international conservation measures will be taken and is unlikely to lead to boosting consumption and attracting customers, unlike washoku Japanese cuisine and traditional performing arts like kabuki and noh, which have already earned Intangible Cultural Heritage status.

In fiscal 2019, the Cultural Affairs Agency launched a support program for intangible cultural properties. An official said the agency wants to "take advantage of the UNESCO registration to accelerate the momentum for conservation by promoting the spread of information."

The national association in Kyoto for the preservation of techniques for roofing at shrines, temples and other facilities began to foster more craftspeople in 1974 after receiving government subsidies.

The number of craftspeople with expertise in cypress bark roofing, shingling and thatching had declined to critically low levels, but the association managed to expand it to about 170. The number of young craftspeople has been rising as a result of aggressive public relations activities. An association official hopes that the UNESCO registration will "provide further momentum."

The Amanosan Cultural Heritages Research Institute in Kawachinagano, Osaka Prefecture, which is a member of the Shrine and Temple Architectural Decoration Heritage Skill Association in Kyoto, successfully produced nikawa animal glue in 2012 after conducting repeated studies on the constituents of animal hides and other materials. This was prompted by a shortage of traditional nikawa adhesives used for the conservation and repair of buildings. The institute has been expanding its sales channels of the glue to entities within the same trade and foreign countries. "[Nikawa] is an indispensable material for conservation and repair techniques. But there is a limit to what can be done singlehandedly," the representative director of the institute said, emphasizing the need for government support.

Karoku Miwa, head of Japan Conservation Project, who is also former executive director of the Kyushu National Museum, proposed making cultural property restoration a profession in which craftspeople can play an active role.

Restoration of the Daigokuden hall at the site of Heijokyo Palace remains in the city of Nara was completed by the Cultural Affairs Agency in 2010. The hall is in the style of the ancient Nara period. If historical timber-framed structures can be restored with traditional craftsmanship and materials, it will become possible to maintain skills and for craftspeople to promote their abilities. "In addition to continued assistance and the development of techniques to produce materials in short supply, it is necessary to provide opportunities for craftsmen to display their skills in various forms," Miwa said.

To help preserve traditional techniques, the government has been striving to secure the materials needed to produce and maintain traditional crafts.

One thing that proved successful in recent years is a project to expand forests capable of ensuring a stable supply of timber, lacquer and rushes, which are necessary materials for the repair of cultural properties.

Started in fiscal 2006, the project was prompted by a considerable delay in the restoration of the five-story pagoda of Murouji temple in the city of Uda, Nara Prefecture, due to a shortage of cypress bark for roofing when the national treasure was damaged by a typhoon in 1998.

The number of designated forests, which initially stood at eight, has now increased to more than 80. These forests are used also to train craftspeople for cypress bark harvesting and lacquer tapping.

Published : January 08, 2021

By : Syndication The Washington Post, The Japan News-Yomiuri · Yasuo Hayakawa, Masafumi Taga