Saturday, 7 January 2012

'National Living Treasure' - Knowledge retention the 1950s Japanese way

Modern recut copy of The Great Wave off Kanaga...
Image via Wikipedia


Ōsaka Hiromichi, a master Japanese woodworker, honed his skills by creating replicas of historic objects from the Shōsō-in treasure house in Nara. He spent 5 years just researching the tools and materials he needed. His first object, a rosewood box, took seven years to complete.

I came across Hiromichi through the wonderful Grayson Perry exhibition 'Tomb of the Unknown Artist' at the British Museum yesterday. Amongst the beautiful objects that Perry has assembled was a lovely metal-inlaid wooden box. I was intrigued by the fact that it was created by an artist designated by the Japanese government as a 'Living National Treasure', under the 1950 law of 'Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties'.

What a wonderful concept; that an individual recognised as having special or unique skills should be paid to "keep and pass on ancient skills and knowledge and make them relevant to the present". Even more remarkable that this is intangible knowledge, the experience built-up over many years that can't simply be documented. The Japanese government recognised the importance of social capital right back in 1871, when the first preservation of antiquities statute was passed. Since then subsequent administrations have strengthened and widened these laws to include important intangible knowledge, and pay a healthy stipend to the holders of that knowledge - those designated 'Living National Treasures'.

I think the most far-sighted part of the law is that the designate must 'make the knowledge relevant to the present'. How many organisations in 2012 understand the value of their social capital as well as the Japanese government did in 1950?


If you would like take a look at Ōsaka Hiromichi's remarkable work, you can see photos here.

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