Japanese Living National Treasure.

Click here to make sense of the rest of this article.  Scroll up to the top of the page to start reading.

The whole thing  starts out with the bombshell that there is no such provision for a Living National Treasure, LNT from here on, in the Ministry of Education and Science website, nor in any official document. LNT is a myth the reader is told, a term ingeniously created to both captivate and mislead the public since everyone loves a treasure. The whole purpose of the original act  was to protect the technique, the technique is the key.  The argument surges forward; smash the hold the traditional ceramics society has on the LNT, make it a reward,  or don’t, for artistic contributions, for creativity. Demystify the man, guard the art world from this tired demagoguery,  look beyond the system for new art and artists instead of drowning ourselves in the quagmire of days past. The writer states, in his own words, “we must first quell the misinformation surrounding the Living National Treasure system, not only for bettering one’s understanding of the Japanese art world, but for the betterment of the Japanese art world itself.”

The term is 重要無形文化財保持者, jūyō mukei bunkazai hojisha

The article tries to operate from a vacuum. The country is Japan, the folks who initiate the policy are Japanese. Doesn`t it follow that the implementation should be, should have a Japanese flavor? It, the slant of the article, reeks of legal literalism to me. The article states the criteria aren`t fair, unclear, the process is unfair. The smaller kilns are underrepresented. What is hinted at is a kind of quota system. Give the smaller kilns an LNT representative.

It seems to me that Mr. Aoyama has come home and run into a wall. It is odd the article is in English.  Isn`t your audience the Japanese, the elite of the Bunkacho, the cultural ministry,  and academics? Why not write it in Japanese? Maybe it would seem a little odd to a Japanese audience for a contemporary art dealer to attack a system that isn`t set up to promote them in the first place. In fact I would say they would see through the veil faster than I. You have a lot more to be worried about as far as offending powerful members of the traditional ceramic world than I do. I am a guest in this country. You are a member of the elite and as such offending power, even if you don’t care about them as you state, has a much longer half life than if I were to. The LNT is set up to protect and further the traditional arts and traditions. The fact that you haven’t presented this to the proper audience is something I would like to know the reason for. I don’t think the Japanese ceramic audience would reply with agreement, especially coming from someone in your position. I look forward to seeing you present articles in Japanese that clearly state why you think a system set up to protect traditions should promote new artists and creativity.

I guess this article should be looked at as a self critique of Japanese by a Japanese, a kind of public  flogging, self inflicted. There is much made of the “we should…, we relish…, we must stop…, made all the more curious since it is delivered in English, but for whom? There is a call for objective, quantifiable decisions in an area that is anything but quantifiable or completely metric based. It seems somewhat of a split argument that never really takes off. The time and conditions of Japan when LNT was formulated seem ripe, in hindsight, for a feeling to emerge  to protect the traditional arts. A defeated nation that was in the last years of an occupation, its first and only. The LNT was created to protect a series of  traditions. I would argue the tradition is the unquantifiable Japanesess-ness that the Japanese feel only they can understand embodied in Wabi/Sabi. It was not originally intended to, nor do I think it should, promote artistic creativity or modern  art. This is not to say I agree with the notion the Japanese are inscrutable. They are in many ways far from it. They are as normal a people as one could hope to find.  In almost all instances friendly and very honest.

All roads lead to the tea ceremony. That is one of the first things I realized upon coming to Japan and having got involved in the art world. The tea ceremony seems to embody the heart and spirit of the constructed Japanese mind. That is to say the way the Japanese view themselves and ultimately want themselves to be viewed by the outside world. I think this construct is paramount to understanding where the selections come from and why, when four LNT from Bizen are selected, this might make sense within this construct, even if the final reason might be to protect the “wa”. Without an analysis of this dynamic it is very easy to paint the whole process as an old boys network. Again, this is not to say I agree with the construct or the premises behind a lot of decisions.

The intention to  protect  wabi/sabi tenants as they are viewed by the cultural elite goes to the heart of the matter to me. It seems the Bunkacho is mainly looking out to protect that which it views is inherently Japanese, the intangible qualities that make up the Japanese soul. That I may think those qualities are real or not is irrelevant. My opinion is that  they are not to be dismissed lightly but to give them too much credence is also folly.  That the gallery owners, media types and people interested in ceramics deify the recipients of the LNT awards on their own accord is something that won`t be changed by the changing of the guard on the selections committee or the  even more extreme remedy of  doing away with the title. The changing of the guard as Mr. Aoyama suggests will only get more people selected that he agrees with if he gets his people in place. He says it himself. “We relish the mystique behind the idea” Therein lies the kernel of the problem to me. The idea isn’t the problem. The tendency to elevate the person up on to a pedestal is. But don’t they in most cases deserve it. Most if not all of the LNT have worked their whole life in their craft and mastered it. Again, I don’t hold any quarter for the system or any particular LNT but I do have tremendous respect for anyone who sticks with their craft through the ups and downs that is life and I hold no grudge that they are so successful. It would be similar to complaining that the film that wins the Palme d’Or at Cannes always becomes famous or that the Nobel Laureate always gets more attention than the person whom one supports does.

The argument he presents basically has the point that the LNT isn’t supposed to glorify the person, but is supposed to protect the tradition. He further argues that the person has been made central, a personality cult has developed. I say welcome to the real world, welcome to Japan. The LNT is supposed to protect the tradition, separate from the person. Therefore it has to name someone as the holder of the skills of that tradition, give agency in the form of recognition and a stipend to facilitate the  passing along of the knowledge that will allow the tradition to continue. How can there be an argument that there isn’t accomodation given for a person in this scheme. The law may not state that there is no such thing as a Living National Treasure embodied in a person but then to state the obvious isn’t necessary, is it? This extends into the realm of understanding Japanese culture and ultimately the tea ceremony, the pinnacle of expression of the idea of that which is enough. The ideal that the thing left unsaid is the most important. The name of the award explicitly  states that the hojisha is the person holding the technique, the tradition. To insist otherwise is to show a too literal reading of the document. Where would we be if we should want to protect a tradition empty of a person. It isn’t the fault of the initial provision if people look to the ware that person produces as good investments. So there is a provision that states the tradition should be protected and preserved for future generations. It is like sucking air, a common activity behind closed doors,  and hoping to get nourishment to say there isn’t room for a person in that formulation. To blame the mechanism for something that happens in every country and culture is a little disingenuous. He further argues that we should look beyond the system for new art and artists. That is not the function of the LNT. That is the function of galleries like his.

He argues for non governmental organizations to give out rewards, but that is exactly what Japan has in Dento Togei, Nitten and numerous other organizations. That these two organizations don’t live up to his standards, that they  don’t support his preferred artists seems to be their failure.

Lets look at the assertion that the LNT has led to the glorification of the person and not the art. It should follow that such an ardent opponent of glorifying an individual would do the same in his own writing. Just a random sampling from his own website.. From Yasuko Sakurai, 櫻井靖子 1969-, review, “Technically, her works are -rather deceptively- a feat of genius. ”  or from some writing on  NAGAE Shigekazu, 長江重和 1953- , ” Casting is commonly associated with the
mass production of porcelain, yet Nagae valiantly transcends this stereotype, ultimately elevating this technique to the avant-garde. ” Edging toward the rim?

Mr. Aoyama writes that designating a person a living embodiment of a national treasure leads one to believe the designate is equivalent to the aforementioned intangible quality. The road that leads one to acquire the technique to qualify as a living national treasure is a human one. Filled with many potholes and hills. Should the holder be a humble person that has never caused controversy so as to embody the soul of Japanese tradition?

I find a curious omission in not going into the responsibilities and stipends made available for LNT. As I understand it the LNT gets a stipend of several million yen a year that is supposed to be directed towards training younger ceramicists, in the case of the ceramic based LNT.

There is an explicit admission that politics play a major part in the selection of the LNT. It is something I saw even from my Barcalounger position a couple of years after coming to Japan. I have to agree on that point. But don’t shoot the messenger for the message. The politicizing of the process will happen anywhere for any thing. Name a country where the process of selection is completely neutral. The argument is that prominent voices in the Japanese ceramic community are grumbling about the unfairness of the selections. I wonder if the voices are proprietors of contemporary galleries like Mr. Aoyama.

I feel odd defending something that is so tangential to me as to be irrelevant. Not only is it irrelevant but it falls so far beyond my ken as to be laughable that I should be in a position to defend LNT. Mr. Aoyama has taken the curious tactic to present not one word to the Japanese audience who are his real target.  When I initially  read the article I enjoyed it but smelled something fishy.

I would like to state clearly I don’t have a horse in this race. Far from it. I am a foreign potter in a country that doesn’t readily accept outsiders making “Japanese art”. I think the general feeling is stated quite clearly on  Mr. Aoyama’s own website. To wit, “We do not demarcate or divide the lines between fine art and craft art, as such is a Western notion. Japanese art encompasses all things beautiful and made by Japanese hands” I might argue some of these statements but that isn’t my point here.

I don’t know Mr. Aoyama personally and do find him pleasant enough in our email exchanges. I just disagree with his argument, and some of that disagreement comes from  what I see as a major conflict of interest.


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