Official art criticism has a long history in Japan. The Heian Imperial Court and the Muromachi and Tokugawa shogunates all had staffs of experts to classify, authenticate and evaluate works of art. Many famous artists doubled in this capacity, and not a few emperors and shoguns were known for their critical expertise.

The modern Japanese government does not neglect its responsibilities in this area, and the system of designated National Treasures is known and admired around the world. The National Treasures of Japan show now at the National Museum in Ueno until May 7 celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Asset Protection Act of 1950, but that act itself was a revision and expansion of earlier laws going back to the early years of the Meiji Era.

The opening of the country after its long isolation brought a double threat to Japanese art. On the one hand, the enthusiasm for exotic, “modern” Western culture led many Japanese to discount their own; alert and discriminating foreigners were not slow to take advantage of this, and many artworks and relics of great value were sold at absurdly low prices to end up in foreign collections and museums.

On the other hand, the nationalist ideology of the Restoration demanded a purified Shinto as the heart of the nation and denounced Buddhism as a foreign heresy. The two religions, which had lived together for 15 centuries in such harmony that their boundaries had become blurred, were forcibly divorced by the Shin-Butsu Bunri Rei (Shinto-Buddhism Separation Decree) of the first year of Meiji. Nationalist zealots went so far as to attack historic temples and destroy Buddhist statues and relics. Temples suddenly bereft of government support sold their treasures to foreign collectors to raise funds.

Reaction was swift in coming, and from 1872 a series of decrees gave protection from destruction or export to koki kyubutsu (antiques and relics) and created the forerunner of the National Museum. In 1889 a national survey held by the Imperial Household Ministry identified 215,091 homotsu (treasures) worthy of preservation, and in 1898 the Koshaji Hozon Ho (Old Shrine and Temple Preservation Act) set up a panel to designate religious buildings and relics for protection. In the first year, 44 temple and shrine buildings and 155 relics were designated as National Treasures. Categories covered were paintings, sculpture, calligraphy, books and handicrafts; subsequently swords were added.

The law was limited to religious institutions, and the problem of privately owned art leaving the country continued. Accordingly, in 1929 the Kokuho Hozon Ho (National Treasure Preservation Act) was passed, extending protection to all public and private institutions and private individuals, with the specific intent of preventing export or unwarranted removal of such objects.

By 1939, 8,282 items in nine categories of painting, sculpture, architecture, documents, books, calligraphy, swords, crafts and archaeological resources had been designated as National Treasures. A further number were given the lesser title of Important Cultural Assets, also forbidden to be exported. Even through the hardships of the war, great efforts were made to ensure the preservation of the National Treasures.

The loss to fire in 1949 of several important historic buildings stimulated the Diet to overhaul and revamp the law, and in May 1950 the present Bunkazai Hogo Ho (Cultural Asset Protection Act) was promulgated.

The new law expanded its range far beyond its precursors, recognizing and taking charge of Tangible Cultural Assets (paintings, etc.), Intangible Cultural Assets (“Living National Treasures” and performance arts), Folk Cultural Assets, Archaeological Cultural Assets, Historical Sites and Natural Monuments, one of the most comprehensive cultural preservation laws in the the world. An amendment in 1975 added Scholarly Resources of Political, Economic, Social or Cultural Importance to National History.

All the articles designated under the previous laws are recognized under the Bunkazai Hogo Ho as Important Cultural Assets; among them, those of truly exceptional workmanship, deep importance for cultural history or exceptional value to scholarship are designated as National Treasures. At present, there are 9,956 designated Important Cultural Objects, including 845 National Treasures.

The 200 included in the exhibition at the National Museum in Ueno’s new Heiseikan show the diversity comprehended by the law. From Jomon pots to Edo paintings, every one of the above categories is represented. Treasures held in distant corners of the country by old temples or private collectors and normally exhibited once a year, if that, can be seen here. Things you’ve only seen in books are here in, so to speak, the flesh.

What to mention? The two landscapes by Sesshu? The sections from the “Choju Giga (Funny Animals Scroll),” sometimes considered the original manga? Calligraphy by Fujiwara no Michinaga and Emperor Godaigo? The 5,000-year-old “Jomon Venus”? The 6th-century “Tamamushi Zushi” reliquary from Horyuji, considered the oldest work of lacquer art in Japan? The 4th-century seven-pronged sword with its mysterious inscription from the dawn of Japanese history, preserved at Isonokami Shrine? Paintings by Kano Eitoku, Hasegawa Tohaku, Tawaraya Sotatsu, Ike no Taiga? Swords by Kunimitsu and Masamune?

There is no point in listing them. Go and look for yourself. You may never have another chance.

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