Japan's Artisans: The Way It Was ... And Still Is

In a country obsessed with perfection, very few artisans can claim to have truly mastered their craft. Those who have are known as Living National Treasures.

Hellen van Meene
OF 7

After World War II, recognizing the threat of Westernization and modernization, and determined to prevent the disappearance of its cultural heritage, Japan became the first country to enact a system accrediting “preservers of important intangible cultural properties.” These would be men (we never said the system was modern) who possessed indispensable skills in performing arts or kogei—crafts such as lacquerware, papermaking, and ceramics. Initially, 18 kogei practitioners received accreditation. Today, there are 58. The number is fixed, in line with government budget constraints; a new preserver is chosen (if someone qualifies) upon the death of an existing one. Each Living National Treasure—the more popular term—is allotted 2 million yen (about $20,000) each year for the rest of his life, to further hone his skills. Even with their work in museums and the homes of collectors, or preserved as examples of traditional culture, it’s not an easy life. And the gravest threat to kogei remains what Japan set out to protect against: social changes and modern lifestyles.