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Top>Opinion>The Cultural Artifacts of the Shosoin


Takehiro Iwashita

Takehiro Iwashita [profile]

The Cultural Artifacts of the Shosoin

Takehiro Iwashita
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of specialization: Japanese literature

Read in Japanese

1. The Shosoin Exhibition

The Shosoin Exhibition is held every autumn at the Nara National Museum for about three-week period around Culture Day, a holiday in November. Right after the war in 1946, before the dust of war had settled, a special exhibition was held. Over the more than 60 years that have passed since then, the exhibition has gone on to attract a bigger turnout each year. In recent years, lines have started to form at the same-day ticket window as the final day draws near. I attend the exhibition almost every year, as it includes items closely related to my field, and I am always surprised at the diversity of ages, genders, and nationalities represented by the visitors there.

The media seems to have influenced this growth. The exhibition is co-sponsored by Yomiuri Shimbun and was once featured on the NHK show "Sunday Art Museum" (Nichiyo Bijutsukan), an event which brought out crowds of visitors from the next day onward. These days, however, most people already know about the exhibition, and the turnout seems to remain constant throughout the exhibition period.

What is it, then, that draws so many people to the exhibition?

2. The appeal of the Shosoin Exhibition

The first and most important factor is the diverse appeal of the artifacts on display. Many of them are art and craft works, but there is also a truly diverse range of items, from scrolls and documents to articles for daily use. This variety must attract the interest of many different kinds of people.

The second factor is the value of each artifact in the exhibition. There are three sources of value that make the items appealing.

The first is the fact that these art and craft works are the products of the most sophisticated technology of that time. From a technical standpoint, they are, without question, first-class works of art. One need only consider the famous works found in textbooks, such as the Five-Stringed Rosewood Biwa Lute with Mother-of-Pearl Inlay and Standing Beauties Decorated with Birds' Feathers, to understand this value.

The second source of value is the long and distinguished history of the artifacts. Many of them were favorite possessions of Emperor Shomu that were donated to the Todaiji Temple by Empress Komyo after his death, so it is reasonable to assume that they were among the finest articles of the time.

Finally, these items have a history that extends beyond the Japanese archipelago to places all over the world. They came not only from China, but as far west as Europe via the Silk Road. The extensive and profound reach of these articles and their influence are known due to their designs and patterns.

Needless to say, these three sources of value, derived from the artifacts themselves, are a big part of the appeal of the Shosoin Exhibition.

And what makes the artifacts even more valuable is the fact that they are 1,300 years old.

3. Eternal beauty

Today, in our rapidly changing society, it is getting harder and harder to pass down even one object or thing to future generations.

The artifacts in the Shosoin have been handed down for 1,300 years. And they have been preserved in excellent condition. For example, there are unused sheets of Japanese paper preserved so well that they could still be used as writing paper today. Of course, some artifacts are damaged or have faded or deteriorated, but many of them are preserved in such pristine condition that it is hard to believe they are 1,300 years old.

This is due to the way the artifacts have been preserved. They have been sealed away for a long time as imperial treasures, kept away from the open air, and stored at a constant temperature and level of humidity in the Shosoin, with its special azekura construction made from cypress timber and built with a raised floor.

Thus, the preservation method itself was ingeniously devised with the intent to store the artifacts for a long period of time.

4. The value created through preservation

The cultural artifacts of the Shosoin include items that have acquired a value unimaginable when they were first donated, thanks to their preservation over a long period of time. These are a collection of documents called the Shosoin documents.

The core body of these documents consists of the Shakyojo documents, which were created at the Shakyojo (Office of Sutra Transcription) of the Todaiji Temple over a roughly fifty-year period (727-776) during the 8th century. The documents are valuable historical records in their own right. They vividly describe the daily lives of lower-ranking government officials working at the Shakyojo, making them irreplaceable primary source materials from that time period.

The Shakyojo documents also include many reused documents-documents written on the reverse sides of older documents, such as family registers, tax records and financial reports that had been submitted by various kuni (provinces).

Most of the documents produced by government offices and the reports submitted by kuni under the Ritsuryo legal system were discarded after a short period of time. But a portion of the discarded documents were reused as paper for account books at the Shakyojo of the Todaiji Temple and later donated by chance to the Shosoin, where they have been preserved down to the present day, becoming valuable historical records of the Nara period. The oldest surviving document is a family register from the year 702.

5. Preserving things for future generations

The Shosoin artifacts received influential protection due to the fact that they were heirlooms of the Imperial family and housed in the Todaiji Temple, which was the head of all the provincial temples in Japan at its founding and the headquarters of the Kegon sect, one of the Six Buddhist Sects of Nanto (Nara). Despite these advantages, however, it is remarkable how well the artifacts have been preserved through all the wars and disasters that have occurred since then.

In our hectic modern world, we place the greatest value on efficiently gathering the information we need, analyzing it as quickly as possible, and efficiently drawing accurate conclusions. We only use what we need as long as we need it, then throw it away. It could be said that this "disposable" mindset is the diametric opposite of the one represented by the Shosoin.

If the people back then had only cared about preserving the things they needed, setting aside the imperial treasures, most of the Shosoin documents would not have been preserved. At any rate, their single-minded devotion to preserving what they had and passing it down to future generations has created unparalleled value. The kind of mentality it takes to go as far as preserving scrap paper demands a sincere, humble approach to making judgments that assumes one's own value judgments are not absolute. Indeed, there may be a thin line between this mindset and the worship of power.

It appears, however, that the Shosoin delivers value that cannot be produced through the pursuit of efficiency and short-term profit alone.

Takehiro Iwashita
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of specialization: Japanese literature
Professor Iwashita was born in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan in 1946. He graduated from the Department of Japanese Language and Literature, Faculty of Letters, University of Tokyo in 1971 and received a master's degree from the Graduate School of Humanities, University of Tokyo in 1974. He worked as an assistant at the National Institute of Japanese Literature in 1974, and went on to teach as a full-time lecturer on the Faculty of Economics, Nagoya Gakuin University and then as a full-time lecturer, assistant professor and professor on the School of Humanities and Sciences, Tokyo Woman's Christian University. He became a professor on the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University in April 1995.