Art

What makes a National Treasure?

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

Together, Japan’s National Treasures provide a cacophonous ode to the nation and its heritage for its historical, cultural, geographical and stylistic dissonances. Yet, this is the first time in 41 years that 210 such works (or sets) have been displayed en masse.

On their own, National Treasures are sometimes called “lonely,” because what distinguishes them is peerless creativity and ingenuity.

The tallying of dates and figures of the Kyoto National Museum’s current exhibition is as striking as the aesthetic experience. Now is the 120th anniversary of the museum’s foundation. This coincides with the 1897 Ancient Temples and Shrines Preservation Law, a Meiji Era (1867-1912) edict that brought about the modern “National Treasure” (kokuhō). It was a tumultuous time when Japan officially opened its borders to wider international trade. It was also a time for establishing a national and international identity through rediscovering and constructing a patrimony.

For example, with Western culture in vogue and Buddhism seemingly to be abolished in the late 19th century, mid- and late Heian Period (794-1185) Buddhist painting known as “Fujiwara Buddhist painting” could sometimes be sold off at bargain prices. But with the later 19th-century recognition of the Heian Period as having inaugurated the beginnings of Japan’s “genuine national culture,” Fujiwara painting values surged to become coveted symbols of wealth and taste among tea ceremony-practicing industrialists such as Takashi Masuda and Sankei Hara.

In sum, there are 885 objects assigned National Treasure status. These span the Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C.) through to the Edo Period (1603-1868) painting “Snowclad Houses in the Night by Yosa Buson (18th century). All of these National Treasures predate the 1897 law, suggesting that anything produced thereafter is not yet treasurable.

New additions of old things, however, are occasionally made. “Seated Dainichi Buddha” (12th century) from Kongoji Temple in Osaka was made a National Treasure in 2017.

Perhaps surprisingly for the land of the tea ceremony, only 14 ceramics are National Treasures. Of these, eight are of Chinese origin, from the Song and Yuan dynasties. The most celebrated Japanese piece on display is “Shino Tea Bowl, named Unohanagaki,” (16th-17th century).

Of the 134 sculptures that have been determined treasures, only eight are located outside of West Japan. Works from Kyoto and Nara are historically eminent, such as “Standing Komokuten” from Horyuji Temple, one of Japan’s oldest surviving representations of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism (first-half of Asuka Period, 552-645). Anything from Tokyo, or considered “modern,” is marginal.

But “national” treasure is also a slippery concept, because what the catalog foreword calls “the purest embodiment of the country’s distinctive aesthetic tradition” also introduces contributions from other nations. Items subject to the designation include distantly prehistoric earthenware; the “King of Na Gold Seal” (first century Yayoi Period, 200 B.C.-A.D. 250) discovered on Shikano Island in Fukuoka, Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa); lacquer-ware that was diplomatically gifted to Japan and China; Chinese paintings; and the unexpected and distinctly un-Asian calligraphy work “Letter from the Viceroy of Portuguese India to Toyotomi Hideyoshi” (1588).

Adapting novelist L.P. Hartley’s famous phrase: Japan’s past, and treasures, are also those of foreign countries.

“Kyoto National Museum 120th Anniversary Commemorative Special Exhibition — National Treasures: Masterpieces of Japan” at the Kyoto National Museum runs until Nov. 26; 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri., Sat. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/index.html