Japan is home to dozens of traditional arts dating back hundreds or even thousands of years. Many of these, sadly, are in danger of disappearing as both their practitioners and appreciators dwindle.
To help preserve its rich cultural heritage, Japan designates some of its most talented citizens as “living national treasures”. Learn who becomes a living treasure, how they keep culture alive, and why they sometimes get swept up in controversy.
(Thanks to Rin at Mainichi Kimono for research assistance!)
The National Living Treasures law
They’re known informally as Japan’s Living National Treasures (人間国宝; ningen kokuhou). More officially, they’re known as 重要無形文化財の各個認定の保持者 (juuyou mukei bunkazai no kakko nintei no hojisha) – Specially Designated Holders of Intangible Cultural Assets.
Legally the Cultural Preservation Law (文化財保護法; bunkazai hogohou) defines cultural treasures in Part 2, Section 1, Paragraph 2. Legislators passed this law in 1949 after the main building at Horyuji Temple in Nara caught fire. The building itself was in the process of reconstruction. However, the fire destroyed over half of the ancient paintings on the building’s walls. (Horyuji was originally built in 607 CE.)
“Intangible” in the National Treasures law means the law designates people or organizations that embody certain arts or crafts. Other laws prior to the Cultural Preservation Law also designated such intangible cultural assets. However, in reality, the government only used the designation when a cultural asset was in danger of extinction.
The government nullified the 80 or so intangible assets recognized under previous laws when it added the Human Treasures paragraph to the Cultural Preservation Law in 1954. It recognized the first living national treasure in 1955.
Who selects Japan’s national treasures?
Fitting enough, the job of designating national treasures belongs to the minister of Japan’s MEXT, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (文部科学省; monbukagakushou).
There are three ways the Ministry can designate national living treasures: Individual, composite/group, and organizational. The Ministry awards group designations to one or more individuals acting as a single unit. It gives the organizational designation to preservationist societies.
How many designated national treasures are there in Japan?
The number of national treasures changes every year. Every year, MEXT designates new artists and craftspeople. And of course, some prior designees pass away.
As of March 2023, over 1,400 people have earned the 国宝 designation. Of those, the majority represent Noh (962) and Kabuki (446). The remainder represent a variety of categories, including bunraku (人形瑠璃, ningyou ruri; Japanese puppet theater – 160 people), gagaku (雅楽; traditional Japanese court music); kumi odori (組踊; a form of traditional Ryukuan dance – 117 people), and gitdayuubushi (義太夫節; a style of narrative music accompanied by a shamisen – 69).
What do living national treasures get?
The living national treasure designation isn’t just a title. An artist who receives the designation also receives a one-time stipend of ￥2,000,000 (appr. $15,208) from the government. Groups awarded the designation also receive a portion of that stipend as a donation to their work.
In other words, a decent sum of money – but not enough that anyone would be thirsting for it. Most of the people who aim to become national living treasures (if they even aim for it explicitly at all) aren’t aiming for a big payout. They’re doing what they love.
Promoting the work of Japan’s living national treasures
Just being a national living treasure doesn’t confer fame and fortune. Many of the recipients aren’t what you would call household names. Others became well-known on their way to certification.
Some – particularly in arts like rakugo (traditional Japanese comedy), kabuki, and shamisen – are students who work in a specific lineage of their craft. These performers and artists inherit the stage names of their teacher, who passes it down to them after several long years of tutelage.
According to site Rank1-Media, some of the most famous recipients of the national living treasures designation include:
- Katsura Beicho (桂米朝) (3rd generation) – rakugo performer (1925- 2015; certified in 1996)
- Kineya Kitaro (杵屋巳太郎) (7th generation) – shamisen player (1937; certified in 2007)
- Yanagiya Kosan (柳家小さん) (5th generation) – rakugo performer (1915-2005; certified in 1995)
- Yanagiya Kosanji (柳家小三治) (10th generation) – rakugo performer (1939; certified 2014)
A few organizations exist to preserve and promote the works of national living treasures in their field. Perhaps the most famous is the Japan Kogei Association (日本工芸会), which has some 1,300 members and holds events throughout the country. The group has close ties to the Emperor and has historically been chaired by a member of the royal family. Their previous leader was Kumoro Mako (formerly Princess Mako of Akishino), who left her position when she married a commoner and left the royal family. The group is now led by her sister, Princess Kako of Akishino.
Other organizations and companies work to promote the work of Japan’s living national treasures through creative means. Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun recently announced an exhibit at the National Crafts Museum in Kanazawa to celebrate the work of metal carver and national living treasure Katsura Morihito and younger artists.
To draw interest from younger people in Japan, the event focused on Pokemon-themed works that Katsura and others have created in collaboration with Nintendo. The works focus on the Pokemon Blackie (ブラッキー) and include items such as an obi (kimono sash) holder (帯留め; obidome) made with a gold-copper alloy.
According to Yomiuri, Katsura is one of only 10 craftspeople in all of Japan who makes obidome via metal carving.
It’s not often – seldom, even – that national living treasures are scandalous. Earlier, I said that most living national treasures don’t do what they do for the title or for fame.
You’ll notice I said “most” and not “all”. Some people desperately want it. But not everyone, in the public’s eyes, deserves it.
This holds true for aspiring living national treasures as well. A scandal can effectively kill someone’s ambitions at receiving the honor – no matter how much they might want it.
Such was the case with rakugo performer Katsura Bunshi (78). Katsura went as far as to say he wanted to become a living national treasure “quickly”. However, that was before reports emerged of his multiple affairs. His most long-lived affair was with the signer and adult video star Shien, who told a magazine that she and Katsura started dating when she turned 18.
Shien passed away alone in 2016 in her home at age 41 in a case eerily similar to the death of AV star Iijima Ai. That, plus news of another affair Katsura had, have
Beyond a few scattered reports of other affairs by other artists, it doesn’t appear any national living treasure has been so controversial they’ve ever had their title vacated. Most honorees seem content living their lives and focusing on their work. In the process, they continue to produce works of beauty based in Japan’s traditional arts that will undoubtedly continue to delight people in Japan – and around the world – for generations.
What to read next
國宝 法隆寺壁画 焼く. NHK
人間国宝. Wikipedia JP
元不倫相手の孤独死で…桂文枝「人間国宝」認定は絶望的に. Nikkan Gendai
「ポケモン×工芸展」金沢で２１日開幕…人間国宝・桂さんの作品は「ブラッキー」モチーフ. Yomiuri Shimbun