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Yoroku: The fine line between preservation and presentation

Kofukuji temple and Horyuji temple, both in Nara Prefecture, stand on par with each other as temples with the most Buddha statues designated as national treasures by the Japanese government.

But during the anti-Buddhism movement of the early Meiji era, Kofukuji was on the verge of being shut down. All of its monks had secularized, and Gojunoto (five-story pagoda), now a national treasure that is representative of the ancient capital of Nara, is said to have been on the brink of being burned down.

"Someone was set to buy Gojunoto for 250 yen, but once it was learned that left over metals after the pagoda was burned down would not even be worth 200 yen, the transaction was shelved. I was planning to buy Sanjunoto (three-story pagoda) for 30 yen to use for my own entertainment, but my older brother remonstrated with me not to, so I gave up," recollected a figure in a local newspaper years later.

According to one version of the story, some had suggested that Gojunoto be preserved, since it would attract tourists. Even in the face of a national treasure that had survived numerous challenges, some could only think of ways to make money by extracting the metals used in the aging structure, or of the money tourists would spend in the area when they came to see the pagoda.

It's the same today. With the capacity to see historical artifacts as items useful only in attracting tourists, a Cabinet minister on April 16 stated in a seminar that "curators are the biggest cancer in regional revitalization." Curators are professionals who undertake the conservation and research of cultural assets. But Kozo Yamamoto, the state minister in charge of regional revitalization, declared that such professionals lacked a spirit for serving tourists, and called for them to be "wiped out."

It is true that at times there are dilemmas over methods of conserving cultural assets and displaying them for public viewing. But when an uproar ensued over Yamamoto's remark, he retracted his comment and issued an apology the following day. In other words, Yamamoto had apparently portrayed curators as an enemy of efforts to revitalize the tourism industry without knowing the true nature of the profession -- just to get a reaction from his seminar audience.

Just as Gojunoto may have been spared because of what some saw as its potential to attract tourists, there's no inherent problem with exploring creative ways of putting cultural assets on display. However, it doesn't hurt for professional curators who have a deep understanding of the value of cultural assets, and are working hard to preserve them for the next generation, to be a bit stubborn about their protectiveness. ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)

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