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Japan has a broad range of cultural heritage that have been preserved and handed down over the generations. Of these, there are cultural heritage that are handed down on a national scale and those that are preserved within localities.

Under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, valuable intangible cultural heritage are designated as “intangible cultural properties” or “intangible folk cultural properties”.

In Japan, since the 19th century, there have been three major cultural reformations.

Before the Meiji restoration in 1968, Japan closed in principle its door to the outside world for almost 3 centuries. During that period, tangible and intangible cultural properties were protected by feudal lords, court nobles and temples/shrines individually. But after the Meiji Restoration, Japan experienced an influx of Western culture coming in to the country. As a result, Japanese people paid little attention to the authentic Japanese traditions, its art and culture, and were immensely neglected in the society. For instance, under the government policy, several Buddhist Temples were destroyed and precious Buddhist statues and paintings were taken abroad.

Around the time, artists were divided into mainly two schools: nihonga and yoga. Nihonga art form used historic Japanese materials and techniques, while yoga art form, adopted the Western-style oil painting.

Finally, the then-government realized the significance of losing such important traditional culture and started to set up protection measures for tangible cultural heritage by introducing some laws.

Looking at intangible cultural heritage, the traditional performing arts have changed their image, and became regarded as artistic expressions in the western sense. The Meiji government re-evaluated them as arts.

Lion Dance is one the many important cultural heritage assets of Japan
Lion Dance is one the many important cultural heritage assets of Japan

The next major change in Japanese cultural environment was the impact of WWII. As Japan was defeated nation, many cultural properties faced a big crisis. The performers evacuated to all over Japan, and the theaters for Kabuki and Noh were burnt down.

Therefore, no one was sure when they would be able to resume performing, so continuation of those performing arts was threatened. Just after WWII, incidentally, a very important Buddhist temple built in the 8th century, called Horyuji, was burnt in a fire. With this incident as a turning point, the law for the Protection of the Cultural Properties was established in 1950. The basic idea or philosophy of this Law was to protect tangible cultural heritage, and it was applied to safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage.Festivals of Japan

The third social change which had a big impact on the cultural environment was the period of high economic growth in Japan during the 1960s and 1970s. Many people migrated from rural areas to cities, and the lifestyle of the Japanese dramatically changed: people started having electric appliances at home and living in collective houses. One can say these changes continue even in present-day state. As a result of such a shift, many of the local festivities and folk performing arts ceased to be performed or changed in number of performers or programs etc. In 1975, the Law was amended and folk cultural properties were defined and added.

One may wonder why some performing arts fall into the category of intangible cultural properties while others in the folk cultural properties, when all are Japanese performing arts.

The Government considers that the performing arts in “Intangible Cultural Properties” have been passed down by the Japanese people collectively, whereas those in the “intangible folk cultural properties” are strongly connected to people living in particular regions. The latter are performed at such places as a local shrine on a local festival day. People who perform are often limited to locals. The reason why they perform is for such a thing as wishing for a good harvest. According to academic researchers, there are around 30,000 folk-cultural properties in Japan.

It can be concluded that in the modern era where such huge socio-cultural changes takes place, safeguarding intangible folk-cultural properties would make people recognize their identity and it is indispensable for the country’s future. The system employed in Japan was developed in correspondence to the history of the country. Therefore, to develop a country’s heritage and culture, like Japan, it is necessary to take steps to protect them or else risk neglecting them. How many Japanese cultural heritage assets  do you know about?

Written by: Vedika Singhania