A Critique of the
Living National Treasure System
Story by Aoyama Wahei
Pieces by Various Living National Treasures
Hold mouse over image to see artist's name.
We can't get enough of Living National Treasures. Kaneshige Toyo, Arakawa Toyozo, Hamada Shoji -- we reminisce these potters with almost holy reverence. Likewise, the term "Living National Treasure" rings with a certain legitimacy, as the title is officially stamped with the seal of approval of the Japanese government. The name vividly calls to mind something far beyond the layman's world. The greatest art and traditions of Japan -- Korin's screens, Koetsu's chawan, Rikyu's tearoom, Itsukushima Shrine, Matsumoto castle -- are all national treasures. By designating a person a "living embodiment" of a national treasure, one is led to believe that such a figure himself would surely be equivalent to the aforementioned symbols of Japanese culture. Unfortunately, this is far from truth.
The truth is this -- there is no such thing as a "Living National Treasure." It does not exist. If one visits the Agency for Cultural Affairs website, a subsection of the Ministry of Education and Science, one will not find the phrase on its pages, nor will they find a mention of it in any official document composed by the government. To put it bluntly, a Living National Treasure is a non sequitur. It is myth.
Then what were Kaneshige and Arakawa? Essential to tackling this question is the 1954 Cultural Property Preservation Act, and the phrase "Important Intangible Cultural Property" contained within it. The term "Living National Treasure" is merely a colloquial one coined by a newspaper journalist in 1955 to both simplify and mystify the official but clunky title "Important Intangible Cultural Property." Many Japanese are aroused by the glamour of "treasure," not "cultural property." Hence, the ingenuity behind the phrase. It both captivates and misleads the public eye.
Those persons designated with this distinction are not "Important Intangible Cultural Property" themselves. Rather, Kaneshige and Arakawa were "holders" or "protectors" of an important but intangible cultural property of Japan. In Kaneshige's case Bizen, in Arakawa's case, Shino. To put it simply, the Living National Treasure system is but a law designating some endangered thing for preservation, something akin to preserving forests or saving whales -- only in this case, we are saving something that is intangible, of cultural importance, and is held within the hands of certain individuals.
The cultural property being preserved is not the man, but the technique or style of pottery he creates. The man is not the treasure; rather, the treasure is the style of pottery. For example, Miwa Kyusetsu XI is not an important intangible cultural property (IICP); rather, he was designated the protector of an IICP (Hagi); it is his obligation to see that the traditional techniques behind IICP are passed onto the next generation (this may strike one as funny, as his son Miwa Kyusetsu XII is anything but the protector of Hagi). Likewise, Shimaoka Tatsuzo's Jomon-zogan (rope-patterns) and Matsui Kosei's Neriage (the technique of mixing different clay textures together) are eligible for protection. Emphasis is placed on a potter's "technique."
Of Law and Politics
Yet, to ignore the fact that we attach great importance to the phrase "Living National Treasure" is like shutting one's eyes from an eminent truth. We do not just look at a man's technique. We look at his product, his art. The works are works we wish to emulate. The works are desired for the status imparted by owning them. To us, the person should be paramount.
But if one may recall, the actual legal statute has nothing to do with honoring or awarding someone a title; the IICP system was not intended to praise individual potters, but was intended to protect an individual potter's craft. If so, then why do we hold a preconceived and flawed image of what a Living National Treasure is supposed to embody?
Both confusion and frustration abound within the LNT system. Prominent voices in the ceramic art world talk of reforming or abolishing the system altogether. Yet before descanting the relevancy of the law, we must first quell the misinformation surrounding the Living National Treasure system, not only for bettering one's understanding of the Japanese art world, but for the betterment of the Japanese art world itself.
Perhaps it is essential to begin with the history behind the Cultural Property Preservation Act. It is, quite frankly, the beginning to all the problems behind the current Living National Treasure system.
The original act, enacted in 1950, was specifically intended to "preserve such important Japanese heritage that, without government protection, will decline and fall to ruin." The law's purpose, thus, was to preserve the traditions and traditional techniques of Japanese arts and craft. In no way was the law intended to be an award that confers a higher status to an artist for contributions to his art, nor did the law designate the artist himself as a treasure; rather, the treasure was the traditional techniques he possessed. The law was not to praise, but to protect.
The 1950 statute states that "intangible cultural property, such as theatre, music, crafts etc., which to our country is of high historical and/or artistic value," will be deemed "intangible cultural property" and will be "eligible for protection."
All intangible Japanese things possessing high historical and/or artistic value were considered intangible cultural properties. Of course, there are many things in Japan that have high historical and/or artistic value, and thus this definition was subject to criticisms of broadness and inability to discern what property is really of value, both historically and artistically.
1954 brought an amendment to the 1950 Cultural Property Preservation Act by adding the word "important" to "intangible cultural property." This was intended to weed out the "unimportant" aspects of a particular art. For example, Satsuma-yaki is an intangible cultural property, yet it is not designated for protection due to its smaller impact upon Japanese culture as a whole (yet aren't smaller kiln sites in greater need of protection from extinction?). On the other hand, Shino and Bizen are considered "important intangible cultural properties," and those individuals with masterful technique are designated as holders of "important intangible cultural properties."
How is an "important intangible cultural property" selected? The Cultural Property Preservation Act states that the Minister of Science and Education appoints LNTs. The Minister makes his decision based on the proposals of the Committee for Cultural Property Preservation, comprised of academics and members of the Agency of Cultural Affairs. It is this Committee which debates, discovers, and researches potential candidates for IICP status. They gather their information from small regional committees throughout Japan. In fact, these regional committees are similar to lobbyists that try to promote their respective prefectures by pushing a regional potter for LNT status. Receiving such a status will bring fame, prestige, and tourists to local kiln sites associated with the potter. Unfortunately, this process has become one reason for the politics and discontent behind LNTs.
Of Purpose and Practice
This politicization is further seen in the long rivalry between two Japanese institutions: the Japanese Traditional Arts and Crafts Exhibition (Nihon Dento Kogeiten) on the one hand, the Japan Fine Arts Exhibition (Nitten) on the other. The former predominantly exhibits works associated with traditional kiln sites and craft art, while the latter features a more eclectic, modern selection of potters and pots. In fact, the "puppet-master" behind the LNT selection process is the Japanese Traditional Arts and Crafts Exhibition. The Exhibition and the Committee for Cultural Property Preservation are intertwined, and it is now a silent truth that only potters associated with the Japanese Traditional Arts and Crafts Exhibition will be designated LNT's. Nitten potters (and conceptual ceramic art, for example) are excluded altogether, and the highest award for a Nitten potter is being named a Fellow of the Japan Art Academy (Nihon Geijutsuin Kain), an institution with the "purpose of honoring artists for their contributions to art." Itaya Hazan, Kusube Yaichi, and Ohi Chozaemon are examples of Fellows. Undoubtedly, a "Fellowship" hardly receives the same fame and reputation as a "Living Treasure." This is unfortunate, as the "Fellowship" is a full-fledged award honoring potters for their artistic merit, not for the preservation of traditional techniques.
Perhaps it is optimism that leads me to believe that Bizen will never die out. The Japanese government does not seem to share my opinion, as the Ministry of Education has designated four "Living National Treasures" from Bizen alone -- the most out of all Important Intangible Cultural Treasures. Surely, this should imply that Bizen is on the brink of extinction. Yet, I think it's more than obvious that this isn't the case. There are pottery centers that are in far more dire straights, but have yet to muster a LNT from its ranks. Echizen is a good example.
This becomes strong evidence for the fact that preservation is not the only premise for selection, and that the committee choosing LNTs are not merely looking for vanguards of tradition. Naming four Bizen LNTs gives way to their true intent. They are praising the artist and his art. Or are they just bringing home the notion that Bizen is four times as important as other kiln sites or traditional techniques? This notion is hard to swallow. If we go against the initial raison d'etre of the system and use it as a reward for contributions to art, past selections will make sense. But at the same time, acknowledging LNTs as a type of reward will be a refutation of its initial purpose of saving traditional art and techniques from "decline and ruin." Ultimately, smaller kiln sites will fade away like shadows on a cloudy day.
But at the same time, the 2001 LNTs were, to put it crudely, straight from the kiln. Many a voice could be heard mumbling that the potters were actually big CEOs of "business-oriented" kiln sites, and were but victors of the politics behind the selection process.
If one carefully reads the statute, the selection process appears flawless and on the mark. If the intent of the law is to preserve and protect, the techniques and traditions of Arita and Kutani are well worth protecting. Even if the artists named are not often found on top of collectors' wish lists, their traditional techniques give them a quality worth recognizing. If the law's purpose is to preserve and protect technique, the discontent should be quieted.
It seems we have jumped back on the right path. Why, then, the frustrated voices pleading for something more?
That "something more" is symbolized by the early LNTs, like Kaneshige and Arakawa -- legendary potters with amazing technique and the utmost in artistic excellence. Living Treasure? You bet. We don't want to simply preserve technique. We long to praise worthy artists.
Thus, we sometimes find an odd conundrum at play. The more we strive to fulfill the law's original intent (protecting potters whose art may die out), the less we reward potters for artistic creativity. The less we heed the law's original intent (hence ignoring the preservation of traditional technique), the more we might reward potters we want to praise for artistic excellence. With the present law, it can be difficult to gratify its intentions and our inner wishes at the same time. Something has got to give.
Of course, the legal connotations are not always negative. Ito Sekisui, the latest addition to the LNT club, well illustrates the idea that the Cultural Property Preservation Act actually works. Ito Sekisui is undoubtedly a kiln-site CEO. But at the same time, his kiln site, located on tiny Sado Island, is not exactly a tourist destination, and its traditional technique of Mumyo-yaki (see photo at right) is truly endangered. Designating Ito as LNT brings tourists and publicity to a small locality, and at the same time, it preserves the tradition of an island's craft. On top of this, the government is recognizing the artistic contributions of Ito Sekisui. Praise and protection, therefore, do not automatically contradict, for conferring LNT status to a dilapidated kiln-site or to a near-dead traditional technique can also be recognizing its high artistic value.
Perhaps the ambiguity would have been cleared if not for the premature deaths of Yagi Kazuo and Kamoda Shoji. Not only did Yagi Kazuo possess great technique and skill with clay, he made challenging, avant-garde works that sent shock waves through the art world. He deserved every bit of respect for his work with Sodeisha, yet the nature of his work would commonly suggest awarding him a Fellowship of the Art Academy, not entitling him a LNT. If he was designated a LNT for "avant-garde" yakimono, it would be clear to all that the law has changed its course. Not merely the preservation of traditional technique, but the rewarding of artistic merit and new techniques -- is this not what a LNT system should strive for?
Likewise, Koie Ryoji received the most votes in the Toujiro magazine's "Critics Poll of Contemporary Ceramists" in 2002 -- which asked "who do we want as LNT" in 2002. As the conundrum maintains, if it is merely traditional techniques we seek to have protected, it is highly unlikely that Koie will ever be designated. Yet if the law were also to be an award recognizing artistic creativity, excellence, and contribution to the ceramic art world, Koie would undoubtedly be head of the nomination process.
Chawan by Koie Ryoji
Kawai Kanjiro and Rosanjin refused the LNT -- Kawai because he was too humble, Rosanjin because he did not want to belittle himself by tagging a label that associated himself to his "apprentice" Arakawa and his disgust for Hamada Shoji and the Mingei Movement. If these potters had accepted, one might make a stronger claim for the fact that the award is also based on merit and artistic excellence.
I find it only natural for fans of pottery to want "Living Treasures." We relish the mystique behind the idea. But if we are to continue the current system, we must stop the idolatry and exaggerated status of LNTs and follow the law -- to preserve and pass on, not to praise and honor. If we long for a reward system backed by the government that recognizes significant contributions to ceramic art, the Agency for Cultural Affairs should make an award that is independent from the protection of intangible cultural properties. Yet if we are to honor, why ask for government intervention in the first place? A non-government organization should suffice, although it is hard to ignore our love for "authenticity" and the "official-ness" behind a government stamp. In the meantime, there is no denying the transformation of the "Important Intangible Cultural Property" system into an art Hall of Fame. This does not necessitate despair. Let us simply hope for clarity and consistency, as well as a strict eye for quality, in regards to future LNT selections.
by Aoyama Wahei (2004/02/26)
** NOTE: Living National Treasure Shimizu Uichi passed away on February 18th, 2004 at the age of 77. A master of iron glazing, his aesthetics live on in his work.