Japanese traditional culture received a big boost late last year when UNESCO added 13 Japanese cultural assets to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. This worldwide list details cultural arts, traditions and practices that deserve safeguarding for humanity’s future. Japan should be proud that it has a living cultural tradition to showcase, but on the other hand, it is a bit shameful it needs outside protection.
Japan already boasts a total of 14 buildings, centers, temples and natural resources on the relatively older World Heritage Site list, established in 1976. The new intangible list, started in 2003, focuses on less material things: oral traditions, performing arts, festivals and rituals, craft-making skills and forms of knowledge. The Japanese assets accepted last year included gagaku court music, sacred Shinto ceremonies, harvest rituals, Ainu dance, paper and textile techniques and numerous festival parades. The year before, kabuki, nougaku and bunraku theater were the first Japanese entries on the list.
The entire list of Japanese treasures, detailed on the UNESCO Web site with documents, photos and video clips, is impressive. But though Japan’s cultural traditions are clearly alive, they are at risk of being lost. These intangible assets can disappear quickly if not passed from generation to generation in active, creative communities. All too often, Japan maintains respect for its cultural traditions, but keeps them hidden like family heirlooms secreted in a locked box at the back of the closet.
UNESCO found Japan’s assets to be of universal value to the world’s heritage. They were accepted because they have a clear lineage, specific techniques for being passed down, consent from the community, and distinct safeguarding measures. So, these traditions are still strong, even if little known, but they deserve more government support and broader public recognition.
As Japanese “pop culture” lurches from one corporation- produced fad to the next, it seems a pity that the vibrant expressions of Japan’s rich past are better recognized outside the country than inside. With foreign visitors to Japan down 17 percent in 2009 from 2008, these unique assets would also seem to have appeal for many tourists. Next year, hopefully, even more of Japan’s cultural assets will be added to the list.