January 11th, 2008


What are you wearing, Living National Treasure?

Since we were in the vicinity (getting Hisae's MacBook cable fixed by the master craftsmen at the Gravis Flagship Apple Store), we decided yesterday evening to swing by Yamashina, Berlin's only Japanese bookstore. I wanted to see if it was as bad as I remembered; as damp, as understocked and overpriced.

It was; the shop was cold, the owner gruff, the books (an odd mixture of new and secondhand) absurdly expensive, and most of the magazines were a couple of years out of date. They had the current Zipper, but its styled street looks didn't interest me; instead I got engrossed in a sale-box of copies of Living National Treasure magazine. Here, instead of cheerful young women, were ancient, deeply serious octogenarians in formal costumery bespeaking a fabulous flamboyance. It reminded me of the insight I had in December (and here I flirt with one of the tail-chasing paradoxes I've been criticizing this week) that it isn't just individuals who can be "expressive" -- there can be expressive groups too.

Looking at the wonderful outfits worn by ancient potters, cutters, noh actors and bunraku puppeteers on the cover of Living National Treasure magazine (my new favourite street snaps source!) I remembered how the most bizarre and best outfit I wore in 2006 was the shakuhachi player's outfit a Kyoto flute master had me try on. It involved wearing a whole head-covering wicker basket "hat" more avant -- and yet more retro! -- than anything you're likely to see on the "radically individualistic" Paris and Milan catwalks. Outlandish!

Seeing that its national traditions were dying out, Japan passed in 1950 a Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, covering mostly buildings and objects (castles, statues, pottery). Later, in 1954, this was extended to cover people. Dubbed "Living National Treasures" (Ningen Kokuhō) by a 1955 newspaper article, these potters, woodblock printers, textile designers, actors, shakuhachi masters and swordsmen -- performing artists and craftsmen -- are more accurately described by their official name: Important Intangible Cultural Properties.

The first individual to be designed an Important Intangible Cultural Property was a woman, Yachiyo IV. Japanese craft masters often use these monarch-like titles (although Yachiyo, a dancer in the ancient Kyoto style, later reverted to her real name, Aiko Inoue). The names underscore something this essay also points out: that these people aren't important for who they really are, but for what they know. Each of them has stocked up valuable knowledge of a tradition which will die with them if they don't find a successor to pass it on to. The moment they're designated Important Intangible Cultural Properties, the search for a pupil-successor begins. It's a kind of relay race against time. The tangible objects can look after themselves in museums, but knowledge wrapped up in human flesh has to pass on its cultural DNA or die. The death of a Living National Treasure isn't just the death of an individual, it's something much more significant: the death of a tradition stretching back millennia.

Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs gives grants to the Intangibles, helping them to improve their techniques and foster successors. Seeing the success of the Japanese system, Korea and Taiwan soon followed, and UNESCO advocates spreading the system all over the world. The category of Important Intangible Folk-Cultural Properties was later added to cover people like fishermen and festival functionaries who were the bearers of endangered competencies and skills.

This isn't about auteurship -- as in most craft and folk traditions, the collective is more important than the individual. The problem here is that an individual risks becoming a bottleneck, the sole remaining repository of the wisdom, etiquette and habitus of a vanished collective. Rather than existing to boost the egos of a few old people, the Living National Treasures system is designed to route around them -- to rescue ways of knowing and doing from a too-frail individual vessel, to stripmine banks of data from a dodgy, unreliable hard disk before it fails, to take the cultural eggs out of one basket. Death, here, threatens to interrupt the continuous refinement and transition of craft skills.

As in most Trad / Anon folk and craft systems, certain values which we tend to think of as the opposite of creativity prevail: seniority, collectivity, impersonality, hierarchy, copying, rote, interpretation rather than creation. The laboratory part, the R&D part, is missing from this system, although a kind of collective problem-solving replaces it. And, just as the Living National Treasure doesn't become a vain prima donna -- she knows it's what she knows, not who she is that's being recognized -- so the Important Intangible Cultural Property dresses in ways which express collective and ancient values, not individual modern ones. Any flamboyance we may see in the old darlings' workwear and "street fashion" is accidental -- and absolute.