The Cultural Affairs Agency has come under public criticism for slipshod preservation work on the Takamatsuzuka ancient burial mound in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, which is well known for its colorful painted frescoes. Not only has the agency failed to prevent the formation of mold in the mound — which has caused the paintings to deteriorate — but it also has been reported that the agency tried to cover up some destructive work habits of its preservation workers.

If the agency’s true goal is to save this precious cultural asset for future centuries, it should publicly release all relevant information about its activities. Only through a public airing of such information will the agency be able to gain the sorely needed assistance, encouragement and advice from interested parties in various public as well as private sectors of society.

The Takamatsuzuka burial site is important because it is one of only two ancient burial mounds in Japan that have maintained colorful frescoes. The paintings inside Takamatsuzuka were discovered in March 1972. The mound, estimated to have had an original diameter of 23 meters, is believed to date back to between the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Kitora, the other burial mound containing colorful frescoes, dates back to the same period and is located about 1 km south of the Takamatsuzuka mound. It is about 14 meters across and its frescoes were first noted in November 1983.

These frescoes drew the attention of scholars because it was thought that they might be closely related to paintings from the early years of China’s Tang Dynasty and the Koguryo Kingdom of the Korean Peninsula. Painted on the walls of the Takamatsuzuka mound are three of the four ancient symbols for directions — the Blue Dragon of the east, the White Tiger of the west and the Black Turtle Snake of the north. (The Red Phoenix of the south is believed to have worn off when robbers tunneled into the mound.) Other paintings include depictions of four women and four men. In the Kitora mound, all four ancient direction symbols were discovered.

Mold has now formed in both mounds, causing the mortar layer on which the frescoes are painted to deteriorate. The Cultural Affairs Agency has removed the Kitora paintings, taking with them the mortar layer, and begun work to preserve them. But the Takamatsuzuka frescoes have deteriorated to such an extent that the agency cannot use the same preservation method. Last summer, the agency decided to disassemble the entire stone chamber of the Takamatsuzuka mound and move it elsewhere to begin preservation work. This, however, is not expected to start until 2007 because of the time needed to test work procedures.

Recently, though, worrying facts have come to light concerning the agency’s previous efforts to preserve the Takamatsuzuka paintings. In April, the agency admitted that, in February 2001, a person worked near the entrance to the stone chamber without wearing the required special clothing coated with mold inhibitor. As a result, a large amount of mold formed the following month.

A former official of the Cultural Affairs Agency testified before an agency investigation committee that violations of clothing requirements and disinfection procedures had become customary. It is now known that workers were working near the entrance without proper clothing as far back as 17 years ago.

The agency also admitted in April that on Jan. 28, 2002, a worker engaged in removing mold knocked over an air-purifier, which scratched part of the west wall (where there were no paintings) leaving an 8-cm-long gash. Later the same day, a light stand fell, also hitting the west wall, and a 1-by-1-cm-square portion of a painted image of a clothed man was scraped away. To repair the damage, the agency in March that year secretly had earth inside the stone chamber disinfected and plastered onto the wall. It is now known that colors were also secretly added to, in total, five spots on the walls.

It would not be far off to say that the Takamatsuzuka paintings have sustained man-made damage. When it was revealed that Cultural Affairs Agency workers were instructed to explain to the press that the damage caused in 2002 was due to “natural deterioration,” the agency’s reputation was further tarnished.

The agency’s mistakes that have surfaced are elementary as well as indicative of malicious intent. Agency officials and workers appear not to have considered the consequences of irreparable damage that their mistakes might have led to. The public should ask the agency whether it has ever truly felt a sense of responsibility for the burial mound. Giving the agency a bigger budget and more talented experts could help the situation. But changing the mind-set of agency officials and workers, and demanding disclosure of all relevant information, should be the first step to a solution.

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