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  • Writer's pictureTamanna Mohapatra

Living Treasures of Japan

I am not sure why but it has always been my lifelong dream to visit Japan. Perhaps because this small island country has so much to offer in terms of culture, natural beauty, technological progress, and people habits. Japan’s gifts span from the very beginning of society to today’s world of bullet trains, robotics and more.

In preparation for the trip, I bought a DVD from national Geographic’s website called ‘Living Treasures of Japan.’ It would not be far from the truth to say I was blown away by what I learnt..the concept, the art forms, the dedication and humility of the artists. I had to write about it both to share my learning as well as to capture it for future reminiscence.

Let’s start by first understanding what is a living treasure:

It is a Japanese term that refers to individuals certified by the government as Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties. They are elderly men and women who are given a government stipend that requires only that they exhibit their creations publicly and teach their skills to apprentices.

It is true all the living legends covered on the DVD and described below are not living anymore but they continue to live through their art and stories and mostly their inspired lives. And of course, many of them live through the art being practiced by their apprentice.

The Living Treasures the documentary covered were:

Arakawa Toyozo– He was a master potter; his pottery is said to mimic the pottery style from the stone-age era. His simple pottery reminds one of Zen Buddhism in qualities of simplicity and serenity.

Juzo Kagoshima- doll maker par excellence. The technique he created for doll making sought lessons that went 4000 years back into the history of doll making. The color is applied on them by hand gluing layers and layers of brightly colored local paper. His only apprentices were his daughter and granddaughter and it took them a period of years to make just one doll.

Tamao Yoshida is the only puppeteer designated a Living Treasure. Bunraku is the most developed form of puppetry practiced in the world and Yoshidasan was the master of this highest form of puppetry. Today only the ‘Bunraku of Osaka’ survives. In 2008 Bunraku was incorporated into the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. When asked about his success, he once said, “from the day I started until today every day has been discipline, learning, and practice. And it will be so till the day I die”

Eishiro Abe was the first Japanese papermaker to be designated as a national living treasure. Washi is the japanese name given to the ancient tradition of paper making which was initially taken up as a means to earn some extra income in the non-farming winter months. It is truly an art form, for washi is made from fibers, laboriously extracted from various shrubs and trees.

Koto recital is considered music of the Japanese people. It gained unprecedented popularity at its height. It is a Japanese string instrument about six feet long, with thirteen silk strings passed over small movable bridges. Fumiko Yonekawa started practicing it at age 3 and lived to be a 100 years. Her association with the instrument was then just shy of a century’s worth. Watch this.

Sword making-There is a Japanese saying: Three sacred objects establish imperial rule on earth, “The mirror of wisdom, the jewel of nobility, and the sword of strength.” The sword was once considered the soul of the samurai. The living treasure selected to represent this art form was Sadakatsu Gassan. He used secret rituals created by his ancestors from a thousand years ago to create his swords and is considered by many as the greatest sword maker of the twentieth century.

Ayano Chiba was a traditional indigo dyer who grew her own indigo and hemp, wove the cloth on a manual loom, fermented her own dyes, and dyed the cloth by hand using traditional methods. She was designated a Living National Treasure in 1955 for her preservation of shōaizome, indigo dyeing.

Kabuki theatre is considered today Japan’s favorite classical theatre. Utaemon Nakamura VI was a Japanese kabuki performer and a Living Treasure of this art form. The name Utaemon indicates personal status as an actor and is not bestowed lightly on one. He was best known for his oyama roles (woman roles).

In my opinion, the most unique art and therefore artist described in this DVD was that of bell making; an art perfected by Masahiko Katori. According to Mr. Katori, “Each bell has its own spirit, its own personality.” Doing research on Mr Katori’s bell making I learnt about this other remarkable worldwide peace phenomena. Japanese bells were cast for the express purpose of symbolizing peace. Founded in Tokyo in 1982, the World Peace Bell Association (WPBA) has placed 21 World Peace Bells (WPB’s) in 15 different countries.

Importance of this concept: I have always been attracted to art and history and culture. So it was no surprise that I found the concept of a Living treasure mesmerizing. But what was most astonishing and eye opening for me was the fact that we live in a world surrounded by such deep and rich crafts tradition. One small island country has so much, imagine how much there is in the whole world.

If you are interested and have about an hour to spend, I invite you to watch the DVD which is so generously available online.Thank you YouTube!

I invite everyone reading this page to take a moment and think deeply about the importance of art in his or her life. Which art form are you more attracted to? Dance, singing, painting, pottery, cooking? It can be literally anything and then see if you can make an opportunity to learn a little bit more about it, and maybe someday even think about practicing it. I assure you your life will be richer and maybe even a little bit more joyful because of it.

Some additional related fun links:

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