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Staff writer

A mission headed by Ikuo Hirayama, a leading Japanese artist, will be dispatched by Tokyo in September to explore the possibility of Japanese cooperation in preserving valuable cultural assets in Central Asia, government officials said April 24.

The cultural mission is part of Japanese efforts to achieve a new foreign policy goal by strengthening hitherto-weak relations with countries in what the government calls the “Silk Road region,” the officials said, asking not to be named.

The Silk Road region consists of five Central Asian countries — Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — and three Caucasian countries — Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.

However, with the exception of Hirayama, who also serves as chairman of the Foundation for Cultural Heritage and president of the Japan Institute of Fine Arts, the mission members have yet to be selected, the officials said.

Although the predominant religion in the Silk Road region is Islam, possible Japanese cooperation in preserving cultural assets there will be limited to Buddhist ones because Japan is much more knowledgeable about them, they said.

Hirayama’s mission will therefore focus on inspecting Buddhist assets in southern Uzbekistan, the officials said. Based on the mission’s findings, the government will identify specific cultural assets that Japan can — and may want to — help preserve, the officials said.

Tatsuo Kaneda, a professor at Suzuka International University in Mie Prefecture, said that among the five Central Asian nations, only Ubzekistan — and to a much lesser extent, Kyrgyzstan — have Buddhist assets.

Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to China by Buddhists in Central Asia between the third and fourth centuries, and was brought to Japan via the Korean Peninsula in the sixth century, Kaneda said.

However, it is quite doubtful that the governments of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are enthusiastic about preserving Buddhist relics in their countries, said the expert on Central Asian affairs, adding that Japan’s policy of extending cooperation on the preservation of Buddhist assets “may be a little bit off the mark.”

In the past decade, Japan has stepped up cooperation in preserving valuable cultural assets of its Asian neighbors — especially China, where innumerable cultural relics are scattered across its vast territory. In 1988, for example, when then Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita visited Beijing, he pledged financial assistance for restoration of relics in Dunhuang on the old Silk Road.

In 1992, then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa promised to extend $1 million in aid to help restore Turfan relics, also on the old Silk Road, when he visited Beijing. Morihiro Hosokawa, Miyazawa’s immediate successor, pledged $1 million in aid for restoration of the heavily damaged Sheyuan Palace in the ancient capital of Xian during a 1994 Beijing trip.

The new Japanese foreign policy goal of beefing up relations with the eight countries in the Silk Road region — which are all former Soviet republics — was spelled out by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in a speech he made last summer before the Japanese Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai).

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