Pass skills of craftspeople to future generation to protect cultural assets

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
From Right: The Cultural Affairs Agency, The Education ministry, The Japan Sports Agency. In Tokyo, Japan on November 3, 2020.

It is essential to carry out regular repairs to historical artifacts and architectural structures to preserve them for future generations. A foundation must be built to foster people who can protect cultural properties and pass them down to the next generation.

The Cultural Affairs Agency will launch an initiative called the “cultural properties artisan project” in the next fiscal year. Over the next five years, the agency will expand its support for the training of traditional technicians involved in the conservation and repair of cultural properties and the securing of raw materials.

Japanese artifacts and traditional architecture are made with fragile materials such as paper, silk and wood, which are easily damaged in Japan’s hot and humid climate. In recent years, many cultural properties have been damaged in floods. The need for repair work is increasing. It is significant that the government is providing support.

Artisans who are involved in specialized fields such as the repair of armor and woodwork are certified by the agency as holders of “select conservation techniques.” There are currently about 50 such accredited artisans, but they are aging. In some cases, there is a lack of successors, making it difficult to pass down the techniques.

Through the project, the agency aims to increase the number of holders of select conservation techniques by about 50% to about 80 artisans. The agency said it will ask workshop technicians and others to make manuals to train successors.

The raw materials used in some kinds of repair work are also becoming difficult to obtain due to a decrease in the number of producers. The agency has been subsidizing the production of materials for such items as washi traditional Japanese paper and will expand the range of items to be covered by the subsidy. A stable supply of raw materials must be secured.

Even if government subsidies are provided for the repair of artifacts and traditional architecture, there have been many cases in which the condition of some pieces has deteriorated through lack of maintenance, as temples, shrines and other owners have not been able to cover the costs. It is important to protect cultural properties by utilizing private funds and other means.

An initiative called “Tsumugu Project” has been launched under which a portion of the proceeds from exhibitions and other funds are donated toward the repair of cultural properties. There have been cases in which local residents have raised funds for conservation. Various ways of providing support should be explored.

Nowadays, more universities are teaching techniques for repairing cultural properties, and young people are becoming more interested. However, as there are only a limited number of cultural properties to repair, workshops do not have a sufficient financial strengths to hire young people. A virtuous cycle must be created by increasing the number of repair projects and fostering successors.

The paints used in repairs done at the Phoenix Hall of the Byodoin temple in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, were painstakingly made by artisans who crushed plants, rocks and other materials at art supply stores in the city of Kyoto. It is also important to publicize the work being done by the specialists who support the repairs.

Once intricate techniques stop being used, they will be difficult to recover. Society as a whole must get involved in efforts to protect traditional techniques so that the people involved can work with pride.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sept. 11, 2021.