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News Navigator: What is a national treasure?

Visitors admire a precious earthenware vessel from the Jomon period at the "National Treasures: Masterpieces of Japan" exhibition in Kyoto's Higashiyama Ward, on Oct. 3, 2017. (Mainichi)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers might have about national treasures.

    Question: It's been 120 years since the birth of the notion of "national treasures" but what are they exactly?

    Answer: National treasures were first selected under the Old Shrine and Temple Preservation Act in 1897, at a time when traditional cultural property was in jeopardy under the Meiji Restoration. Subsequently, after World War II, the Cultural Assets Preservation Act was established. Under this law, items regarded as historical, artistic, scientific or valuable "tangible cultural properties" that are "valuable from a global cultural standpoint, and which are rare, valuable items of the people" can be designated as national treasures. The fields that eligible items apply to are buildings, paintings, crafts and historical documents.

    Q: Are there a lot of national treasures?

    A: As of September 2017, there were 1,101 in total. The oldest is a clay pot which dates back to the Jomon period, and the most recent is the old Togu Palace (currently the State Guest House in the Akasaka district of Tokyo), which was completed in 1909. As for fine arts and crafts, there are no designated items that date back to the Meiji era. According to Kyoto National Museum, about 10 percent of national treasures were produced overseas and brought over to Japan. The majority of these items are "karamono" that originate from China -- reminding us that Chinese culture was a key part of Japanese culture. For example, six paintings by the Muromachi period Buddhist priest and painter Sesshu have been designated as national treasures, but his style was influenced by Chinese culture.

    Q: Are there any national treasure exhibitions?

    A: At Kyoto National Museum, there is currently an exhibition called "National Treasures: Masterpieces of Japan," hosted by the Mainichi Newspapers Co., which runs until Nov. 26. A total of 210 items have been divided into four periods and put on display. Exhibits include the smallest national treasure, the "King of Na gold seal," as well as the seated image of Dainichi Nyorai from Kongoji temple in Osaka, which was designated as a national treasure in 2017. It is also possible to see works by the parent and child artists Hasegawa Tohaku and Kyuzo. Furthermore, the six works of art by Sesshu can all be viewed until Oct. 22. (Answers by Sakiko Takahashi, Cultural News Department)

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