Important Arts (重要美術品)

An important art object is a tangible cultural property so accredited by the Japanese government (the Minister of Education) under the former "Law relating to the reservation of important fine arts" with the main purpose of preventing outflow of antiques to outside Japan, prior to the enactment of the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties.

Particulars about how the important art object accreditation started

In 1921, Kibinootodo Nitto Emaki, one of the most important emakimono (illustrated scroll) of Japan, flowed out overseas (which is currently held at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). This incidence triggered an upsurge in voices calling for the preparation of a legal framework to prevent Japanese antiques from flowing out to foreign countries. In those days it was prohibited to take abroad an article designated as a national treasure (a 'national treasure' then is equivalent to an 'important cultural property' under the current Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties), but there were no legal grounds to forbid the taking abroad of any cultural property not being so designated. Then "the Law relating to the reservation of important fine arts" was enacted in 1933. It was provided in this Law that exporting to foreign countries of the properties which are historically and artistically important would be subject to approval of the Minister of Education, and that the Minister would accredit the subject properties and notify the public of such properties through the official gazettes. The properties thus accredited and made public through the official gazettes are called 'juyo bijutsuhin nintei bukken' : properties accredited as an important art object) or simply 'juyo bijutsuhin', and in abbreviation they are called 'jubi'. Incidentally, the term 'nintei' (accreditation), instead of 'shitei' (designation), has consistently been used in relation to important art objects.

Brief details on the properties accredited as an important art object

The properties accredited as an important art object include many items such as paintings, Buddha statues, craft products, sutra scrolls, classical books, archaeological materials and buildings, and they have a few outstanding characteristics compared to the articles designated as a national treasure (which are equivalent to the 'important cultural property' under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties) of those days. First, while the majority of the articles designated as a national treasure is owned by temples or shrines, the properties accredited as an important art object are predominantly in private possession. Another distinctive feature of the properties accredited as an important art object is that the accreditation of the properties in several particular fields markedly stands out in number, namely swords, ukiyo-e pictures, ancient Japanese writing (mainly the calligraphy of the Heian and Kamakura periods) and Imperial letters (the calligraphy of emperors). One of the reasons for such concentration of accreditation in some specific fields was that the accreditation work had been promptly conducted with the primary importance being given to the prevention of overseas outflow of art objects.

Art objects not reaching 50 years since their production were not subject to the accreditation, and none of the calligraphy of the Emperor Meiji, for example, was accredited. Also, the folkcraft articles whose value was not recognized in those days including Enku-butsu (Buddha statues carved by the Buddhist monk Enku) and Mokujiki-butsu (Buddha statues carved by the Buddhist monk Mokujiki Gogyo Myoman) were not subject to the accreditation. Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that the properties accredited as an important art object do include some European paintings which were not subject to the designation under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties after World War II. For example, six European paintings in the collection of Ohara Museum of Art including "Annunciation" of El Greco and the works of Jean-Francois Millet, Gustave Moreau, Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes (2 pieces) and Camille Pissarro were accredited as the important art objects in 1934.

The important art object accreditation was given for the first time to 504 articles on July 25, 1933. Following that, while the social conditions taking on a wartime look, the accreditation was carried out in an unconcerned manner and more than 200 articles were accredited as an important art object on August 4, 1945 - immediately before the end of World War II. The last announcement of the important art object accreditation was made on May 28, 1949, covering again more than 200 articles.

There were about 8,200 items remaining valid as an accredited important art object when the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties was enforced in 1950. Incidentally, the number of accredited important art objects slightly varies with records and the precise figure is unknown. In terms of the number of accredited important art objects as of 1950, every record agrees that there were 299 accredited buildings, but the number of art and craft objects does vary from record to record as follows.

"Bunkazai Hogo no Ayumi" (Development of Cultural Properties Protection) (Commission for Protection of Cultural Properties, 1960) - 7,938
"Annual Report of Commission for Protection of Cultural Properties, 1963 edition and 1964 edition" - 7,937
Annual Report of Commission for Protection of Cultural Properties, 1965 edition" - 7,898
"Bunkazai Hogo no Jitsumu" (Practical Work of Cultural Properties Protection) written by Tokusaburo KONDO (published by Kashiwa Shobo in 1979) - 7,983 (page 62)
"Wagakuni no Bunka to Bunka Gyosei" (Culture and Cultural Administration of Our Country) edited by the Agency for Cultural Affairs (published by Gyosei in 1988) - 7,983
"A Handbook of Cultural Properties Protection Administration - Part: Fine Arts and Crafts" compiled under the supervision of Fine Arts Division, Cultural Properties Protection Department, the Agency for Cultural Affairs (published by Gyosei in 1998) - 7,898

Upgrading' of important art objects to important cultural properties

The former "the Law relating to the reservation of important fine arts" was abolished by the enactment of the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties in 1950. However, the important art objects so accredited under "the Law relating to the reservation of important fine arts" were to retain such qualification for the time being after the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties was enacted, based on its supplementary provision. An important art object was to lose its accreditation only in two cases; (1) when it was upgraded by designation to an important cultural property or (2) when its export to a foreign country was permitted.

There are two kinds of important cultural properties designated after 1950 pursuant to the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties; those cultural properties which, having received no national accreditation or designation in the past, were newly designated, and those important art objects which were promotedly designated as important cultural properties. As the announcements on official gazettes concerning the designation of important cultural properties clearly indicate these two kinds, it is possible to know precisely which properties used to be important art objects.

In addition, 25 important art objects lost their accreditation between 1950 and 2008 on the ground that their export to foreign countries was permitted. It is estimated that six thousand and several hundred properties retained their accreditation under the former "Law relating to the reservation of important fine arts" as of 2008. Their precise number, however, is unknown as relevant official inventories or pictorial records have not been issued by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

Many of the objects which had been accredited as an important art object were lost in the post-World War II chaos, for which no details such as photographs have been saved.

Important art objects which became a national treasure

After World War II, some of the important art objects were upgraded to an important cultural property and then designated as a national treasure. Genji monogatari emaki (the Illustrated Handscroll of the Tale of Genji), a national treasure in the collection of the Gotoh Museum, which used to be possessed by Takashi MASUDA, a businessman (known under the name Donnou), was accredited as an important art object on May 20, 1935, and was designated as an important cultural property and as a national treasure at the same time on March 29, 1952 (announced on an official gazette on October 16 of the same year). Juichimen Kannon-zo (the statue of Eleven-faced Kannon) painted in color on a silk canvas in the collection of Nara National Museum, which is a leading Buddhist painting of the Heian period, used to be owned by Kaoru INOUE and then by Takashi MASUDA and was accredited as an important art object on May 20, 1935. It passed into another person's possession after World War II and had been an important art object for a long time, but was designated as an important cultural property in 1992 and then as a national treasure in 1994.