National Treasures (of Japan) (国宝)

The term "national treasures" ("kokuho" in Japanese) refers to those buildings, artworks or other items, among the larger group designated tangible cultural assets (important cultural properties) by Japan's Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties (according to the second item listed under article 27 of the law), that possess great cultural worth from the viewpoint of world culture, as well as those buildings, artworks or other items, considered peerless treasures by Japan's citizens, that are designated as such by the state (specifically, by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology). Items that have been designated national treasures include buildings, paintings, sculptures, handicrafts, calligraphy work, books, ancient documents, archaeological materials, and historical materials.

From a legal standpoint, national treasures are one category of important cultural properties. For more information on the designation system and procedure for national treasures and important cultural properties, see the article on important cultural properties.

Note that the term 'living national treasures' is a nickname used for those people recognized as the holders of important artistic or technical skills and who have therefore been designated important intangible cultural assets.

The number of items that have been designated national treasures

The total number of items, up to and including those added in 2008, that have been designated national treasures is as follows:

Buildings: 214 (262 total roofs)

Works of art and/or crafts: 862 (a more detailed breakdown follows)

Paintings: 157

Sculptures: 126

Handicrafts: 252

Calligraphy work, books: 223

Ancient documents: 59

Archaeological materials: 43

Historical materials: 2

Note however that the above-mentioned totals for the number of designations refer to the total number of times the decision has been made to make something a national treasure, not the number of items involved. For example, even huge collections of items like the gold- and silver-lettered Issaikyo sutras held by Kongobuji temple in Wakayama, which number 4,296 scrolls, or the collection of Toji hyakugomonjo documents--which reaches 24,067 pages--preserved by the Kyoto Prefectural Library and Archives are each still counted simply as one national treasure.

Old' versus 'New' national treasures

The definition of the term 'national treasure' (kokuho) changed in 1950 when the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties came into force, and as such the pre- and post-1950 meanings of the term differ. Under the old laws that existed prior to enforcement of the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, there was no distinction made between 'national treasure' and 'important cultural property,' meaning that all the items (from buildings to works of art and crafts) designated by the state as tangible cultural assets were called national treasures.

In the legal world, the first time the term 'national treasure' was ever employed was in the 1897 Ancient Temples and Shrines Preservation Law. The first item to be designated a national treasure under the provisions of this law was so designated on December 28, 1897. Thereafter, in 1929 the Law for the Preservation of National Treasures took the place of the Ancient Temples and Shrines Preservation Law; this new law remained in force until it was replaced in 1950 by the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. As of 1950, the number of items and so forth designated national treasures under either the Ancient Temples and Shrines Preservation Law or the Law for the Preservation of National Treasures reached 5,824 valuable objects (art or craft works) and 1,059 buildings.
All of the designated items (the 'old' national treasures) were relabeled 'important cultural properties' on August 29, 1950, the day the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties came into effect, while within that larger group of important cultural properties, those items considered to possess great cultural worth from the viewpoint of world culture, as well as those items considered peerless treasures by Japan's citizens, were re-designated 'national treasures.'
To avoid confusion, the national treasures designated under the prior laws were labeled 'old national treasures,' while those specified under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties were named 'new national treasures.'
The first item to become one of these 'new national treasures' under the provisions of the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties was so designated on June 9, 1951.

Because the actual relationship, as described above, between the 'old' and 'new' national treasures, and 'Important Cultural Properties' is very convoluted, many have mistakenly assumed simply that 'all the items designated before the Second World War as National Treasures were downgraded to Important Cultural Properties after the war.'
However, the (old) 'national treasure' defined under the old laws (the Ancient Temples and Shrines Preservation Law and the Law for the Preservation of National Treasures) and the 'important cultural property' defined under the new law (the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties) actually both refer to the same thing, namely an item designated a tangible cultural asset by the state, and as such the change cannot be considered a 'downgrading.'
Moreover, among those items designated (new) national treasures under the provisions of the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, not a single item has ever been 'downgraded' to the status of important cultural property.

The types of items that can be designated national treasures

The items that can be designated national treasures as specified in the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties are any items considered tangible cultural assets; specifically, they are broken down into the following categories: buildings, paintings, sculptures, crafts, calligraphy work, books, ancient documents, archaeological materials, and historical materials (for more information, see the first part of item one under Article 2 of the abovementioned law). It follows from this that items such as kofun (keyhole tumuli), shell mounds, or habitation sites cannot become national treasures. Note however that in the case of the Takamatsu Tumulus in Nara Prefecture, although the keyhole tumulus itself was designated a 'special historical landmark' as per item two of Article 109 of the abovementioned law, the wall paintings inside the stone chamber were classified as paintings and designated a national treasure.

Moreover, based on the specifications that appear in the first part of item one under Article 2 of the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, namely, 'the designation national treasure shall include--for any items whose value, considered as a unified whole, depends in part on the land on which they were created or on any other item--any and all such land and/or items,' there have been cases where the land on which buildings that were designated national treasures were built is also considered part of the designation. Examples of such cases, where the land underneath and surrounding a structure is included in that structure's designation as a national treasure, include the Main Hall of Kiyomizu-dera Temple (in Kyoto), the Inner Shrine of Ujigami-jinja Shrine (in Kyoto), and the Main Hall of Jodo-ji Temple (in the city of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture).

It is not uncommon to see terms like 'XX Temple, a national treasure' or 'XX Castle, a national treasure,' but strictly speaking it is always individual buildings, not the entire temple or castle complex, that are designated as national treasures. Taking Himeji-jo Castle as an example, only two structures, the four-roof donjon and the connected four-roof watari-yagura (the roofed-passage turret), have been designated national treasures; the other turrets, gates, walls and so forth of the castle complex have been designated important cultural properties.

As for items that are considered tangible cultural assets yet are designated neither national treasures nor important cultural properties, items connected to the Imperial household fall into this category. Any Imperial property (that is, items privately owned by the Imperial house) or other cultural assets under the purview of the Imperial Household Agency (like those in the Imperial Household Archives, the Museum of the Imperial Collections, in their Kyoto Office, or in the Shosoin Office of the Imperial Household Agency) are excluded, under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, from consideration and cannot be designated national treasures, important cultural properties, historical landmarks, or special historical landmarks. This exclusion from consideration regarding being designated national treasures, etc. is not due to an actual clause in the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, but rather to precedent, which has been in place since before World War II. Consequently, the Shosoin Treasures, the Katsura Imperial Villa, the Shugakuin Imperial Villa and other such cases have not been designated national treasures.
There are however exceptions to this general rule, as for example the 'one-roof warehouse of the Shosoin,' one of the buildings in the Shosoin, was designated a national treasure in 1997, at the same time that World Heritage registration was underway for the 'cultural assets of Nara, Japan's ancient capital.'
This is due to the fact that, as a prerequisite for World Heritage registration, each item or site being registered is desired to be already under the protection of the laws of its origin county as a cultural asset, so the exceptional step was taken of designating the warehouse a national treasure.

Outline of national treasures by category

The summaries provided below are based on the most current data on designations available (current as of 2008).

The Buildings and Structures category

As of 2008, the total number of buildings designated national treasures is 214: of the structures so designated, 37 appear in shrines, 154 in temples, 8 in castles, 12 in public residences, 0 in private homes, and 3 are miscellaneous structures. The term 'public residences' is used to refer to the palaces in castles, to the shoin (studies) in shrines or temples, to reception halls, and so forth, whereas 'private homes' refers to merchant or farmer houses. No private homes have as yet been designated national treasures. Additionally, there is only one example of Western-style architecture, namely the Oura church in Nagasaki, that has been designated a national treasure.

Beginning in 1972, when the Kofuzo (a type of storehouse) of Horyu-ji Temple was designated a national treasure, a period of 25 years elapsed in which no new buildings were designated national treasures; but in 1997, in addition to the Shosoin warehouse, three structures in the Zuiryu-ji Temple complex in the city of Takaoka (Toyama Prefecture), namely the Buddhist temple, the lecture hall, and the temple gate, were designated national treasures.

Examples of rather more unique structures that have been made national treasures include the five-story miniature pagodas of both Ganko-ji and Kairyuo-ji Temples (both of which are in Nara Prefecture). The Ganko-ji Temple pagoda stands 5.5 meters tall, while the Kairyuo-ji Temple pagoda is truly miniature at just 4 meters; despite the fact that they are both placed indoors, it was as structures, not as craft works, that they were designated national treasures.

The Paintings category

Many different types of paintings have been made national treasures, including Buddhist paintings, picture scrolls, portraits, monochrome ink paintings, and wall paintings. As of 2008, the only kofun (keyhole tumulus) wall painting designated a national treasure remains that of the Takamatsuzuka Tumulus. Sections of certain buildings that have been designated national treasures occasionally feature paintings that have also been made national treasures, like for example the wall and door paintings in Byodoin Temple's Phoenix Hall, the wall paintings in the five-storey pagoda of Daigo-ji Temple, and the wall paintings adorning Muro-ji Temple's Golden Hall. Paintings designated national treasures are not limited to those paintings made in Japan; many (Song- and Yuan-era) Chinese paintings that have been handed down since ancient times within Japanese families have also been designated national treasures. Of the painters who have created one or more paintings designated national treasures, Japanese painters include Sesshu, Masanobu KANO, Eitoku KANO, Tohaku HASEGAWA, Sotatsu TAWARAYA, Korin OGATA, Okyo MARUYAMA, IKE no Taiga, Buson YOSA, Kazan WATANABE, and Gyokudo URAGAMI, while Chinese painters include LIANG Kai, DI Li, and Emperor Huizong. As of 2008, not a single ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock print) has been designated a national treasure.

The collection of Heike Nokyo (sutras donated by the Taira clan) owned by Itsukushima-jinja Shrine was designated a national treasure in the category of painting, not in the calligraphy or book category. There are several other examples of similar situations in which sutras (that is, Buddhist scriptures) were despite their written nature designated national treasures as paintings, like for example 'the Senmen Hokekyo Sasshi' (Booklet of the Lotus Sutra Inscribed on a Fan, owned by Shitenno-ji Temple and held by the Tokyo National Museum) and 'the Hakubyo eryoshi Konkomyo kyo' (Sutra on Paper Decorated with Line Drawings, in the Kyoto National Museum). This choice of categories is due to the fact that it is the painting below the inscribed sutra, not the sutra itself, that is considered to have the greater material and aesthetic value.

The Sculptures category

All of the sculptures designated national treasures are connected to Buddhism or Shinto, and nearly all are specifically Buddhist or Shinto statues; the oldest sculptures to be made national treasures date back as far as the Kamakura period. An example of a more unconventional sculpture that was made a national treasure is the sculpture of the reed hood adorning the head of Amitabha Tathagata (Amida Nyorai in Japanese), the principal image in Phoenix Hall of Byodoin Temple, which separate from the sculpture of Amitabha was made a national treasure by itself.

Most of the aforementioned sculptures designated national treasures are concentrated in the Kinki (Kansai) region, but there are some sculptures located outside the Kinki region, including the bronze seated statue of Amitabha Tathagata in Kotokuin Temple in Kanagawa (the Big Buddha of Kamakura), the wooden statue of Samantabhadra (Fugen Bosatsu in Japanese) riding an elephant in the Okura Shukokan Museum of Fine Arts in Tokyo (it is not known at which temple this statue originally resided), the statues and the canopy in the Golden Hall of Chuson-ji Temple in Iwate, the three wooden statues that comprise the Yakushi Triad housed in Shojo-ji Temple in Fukushima, and the Usuki Magaibutsu (the stone-cliff Buddha) owned by the city of Usuki in Oita.

Almost all sculptures designated national treasures are owned by temples or shrines, though some exceptions do exist, including the seated statue of Bhaisajyaguru (Yakushi Nyorai, the Healing Buddha) under the care of the Nara National Museum in Nara (formerly in the possession of the Nyakuoji-sha Shrine in Kyoto), the wooden statue of Samantabhadra (Fugen Bosatsu in Japanese) riding an elephant owned by the Okura Shukokan Museum of Fine Arts (of the Okura Culture Foundation; the original owner is unknown), and the Usuki Magaibutsu (the stone-cliff Buddha) owned by the city of Usuki in Oita.

The Crafts category

This category includes a wide variety of craftworks including those made of metal, lacquer, works of dyeing and weaving, ceramics, swords, and armor; swords account for roughly half the total number of crafts considered national treasures. In the works of metal sub-category, many of them are temple bells, altar fittings and other Buddhist-related items. Among the lacquerworks are inkstone cases, small boxes for personal items, and the like; among these, pieces featuring both gold-and-silver and mother-of-pearl inlay work--a distinctive feature of Japanese lacquerwork--are numerous. Among the works featuring dyeing or weaving, in addition to the varieties of kesa (Buddhist stole) designated national treasures, many of the other works are also connected to Buddhism in some way, like the Shishu Shakyanyorai seppo-zu (embroidery illustrating Sakyamuni Preaching) held by the Nara National Museum and the Tsuzureori Taima Mandala-zu (a type of embroidered mandala) of Taima-dera Temple. With regards to ceramic and porcelain ware, perhaps because so many such artworks were mass-produced and bear considerable resemblance to each other, the number designated national treasures remains relatively low. And among this small pool of designated items, the fact that most, including for example the Yohen Tenmoku tea bowls (held by the Seikado Bunko Art Museum among others), are of Chinese manufacture is noteworthy. In the sub-category of swords, in many cases, only the blade of the tachi (long sword), tanto (dagger) or other swords are made a national treasure, while in the case of kazari-tachi (decorative swords), most often it is the exterior bodywork (the hilt, etc.), not the blade, that is named a national treasure. In addition to the above-mentioned works, certain miscellaneous items exist--namely 'the Koshinhorui' (Sacred Treasures) held by Kumano Hayatama-taisha Grand Shrine, Itsukushima-jinja Shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine, and so forth--that do not fall into any single category. Such sacred treasures are bundles of various clothing and furnishings offered to the god of the shrine in question, and so each such bundle includes items of multiple categories such as dyeing and weaving, lacquerwork, sword fittings and so forth.

The Calligraphy Work and Books category

Calligraphy work' refers to Imperial letters, examples of handwriting by well-known calligraphers of Japan and China, ancient writings, ink calligraphy, calligraphy copybooks, and any other written works (in Japan) of historical significance by deceased calligraphers. Books' refers to various written works like sutras, monogatari (tales), waka poetry anthologies, and history books; among all these books, some works, like for example the Koyagire-bon (copied manuscript) of the "Kokin wakashu" (A Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry), are by past calligraphy masters and are considered historically valuable as calligraphy pieces but are still included in the Books sub-category, yet most of the items designated national treasures as books are more highly regarded for their value as ko denpon (ancient books transcribed and still extant) texts of literature or history rather than for their value as calligraphy works. As is the case with paintings made national treasures, many books so designated were actually imported from China; these importations are not limited only to handwritten manuscripts but also include many printed copies dating from the Song period.

The Ancient Documents category

The term meaning "ancient documents" is given the irregular pronunciation 'komonjo' in Japanese. At one time the category 'Ancient Documents' was included as a subcategory of 'Calligraphy and Books,' but beginning in 1985, 'Calligraphy and Books' and 'Ancient Documents' were separated into two distinct categories; this new distinction was then retroactively applied to all the items formerly designated national treasures, putting each into either the 'Calligraphy and Books' or the 'Ancient Documents' category. The items classified as Ancient Documents are not strictly speaking limited to 'letter documents' (which notably are those documents written to have both a sender and an addressee, and with some kind of specific goal or purpose in mind), but also include diaries and other kinds of documents of record. Among the items previously made national treasures in this category, there are many of the letter variety, as well as some general archives like the Todai-ji Temple Archives, the To-ji Temple 100-document Archive, the Shimazu House Archives, and the Uesugi House Archives, and other types of documents including notebooks of historical materials of temples and shrines, diaries, prayer documents, wills, and genealogies. The letters of such men as Kukai, Saicho, and FUJIWARA no Sukemasa are highly valued both for their value as ancient historical documents and as important documents in the history of calligraphy.

Unique works designated national treasures in this category include the personal letter from the vice-King of Portugal, held by Myoho-in Temple in Kyoto, and the Nasu no Kuni no Miyatsuko no Hi (an ancient stone monument) of Kasai-jinja Shrine in Tochigi.

The Archaeological Materials category

In addition to the artifacts from a variety of ancient eras including the Jomon, Yayoi, and Kofun (Tumulus) periods, the most numerous are kyozuka (sutra mound) relics, epitaphs, and other items dating from after the beginning of written history. The item dated closest to modern times is the Sekido (stone structure) of Fusai-ji Temple in Tokyo, which dates from Japan's period of Northern and Southern Courts.

The Historical Materials category

The timeline for items in this category being named national treasures is still quite short; the first such designation was the collection (owned by the Sendai City Museum) of 'materials related to the Keicho-era mission to Europe' (it was so designated during the December 2000 designations of national treasures).

A list of all the items named national treasures since 2001

The greatest concentration of national treasures were so named in the decade immediately after the promulgation of the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, from 1950 to 1960; subsequent to 1960, designations have been limited to a few each year. As a reference, here follows a list of all those items designated national treasures so far in the twenty-first century (beginning in 2001).

Items designated national treasures in 2001:
The Golden Light of the Most Victorious Kings Sutra, Golden-Lettered Treasure-Pagoda mandala, in ink of various colors on navy blue paper (owned by Daichoju-in Hall of Chuson-ji Temple in Iwate)
The Uesugi House Archives (Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum in Yamagata)
Materials related to the Keicho-era mission to Europe (Sendai City Museum in Miyagi)
Items designated national treasures in 2002:
The wooden seated statue of Amitabha Tathagata (Amida Nyorai in Japanese) and the wooden seated statues of his two attendants flanking him on either side (Sanzenin Temple in Kyoto)
The Shimazu House Archives (Historiographical Institute at the University of Tokyo)
The San-mon Gate of Chion-in Temple (Chion-in Temple in Kyoto)
The Hondo (main hall) of Chion-in Temple (Chion-in Temple in Kyoto)
Items designated national treasures in 2003:
The Shuiguso (Gleanings of Worthless Weeds, owned by the Shigure-tei Bunko library of the Reizei family, in Kyoto)
Items designated national treasures in 2004:
The painting of Huike Offering his Severed Arm to Bodhidharma, in ink, by Sesshu (Sainen-ji Temple in Aichi)
Paintings of the Five Guardian Scrolls, colors on silk (Kiburi-ji Temple, Gifu)
The statues and the canopy in the Golden Hall (Konjiki-in Hall of Chuson-ji Temple in Iwate)
The artifacts of the Fujinoki Tumulus in Nara Prefecture (under the purview of the Agency for Cultural Affairs)
The Hondo (main hall) of Hase-dera Temple (Hase-dera Temple in Nara)
Items designated national treasures in 2005:
The wooden seated statue of the god of Kumano Hayatama, the wooden seated statue of the god of Fusumi, the wooden seated statue of the god of Ketsumiko, and the wooden seated statue of Kunitokotachi-no-mikoto (owned by Kumano Hayatama-taisha Grand Shrine in Wakayama)
Nigatsu-do Hall of Todai-ji Temple (Todai-ji Temple in Nara)
Items designated national treasures in 2006:
The general collection of artifacts taken from the Hirabaru hokei shukobo (a burial mound surrounded by a square moat) in Fukuoka Prefecture (in the collection of the Agency for Cultural Affairs and under the care of the Itokoku Historical Museum in the city of Maebara)
1,251 items among the materials related to the Daini shoshi (the second royal family) of the Ryukyu Kingdom (Naha City Historical Museum in Okinawa)
Items designated national treasures in 2007:
The earthen clay figurines excavated from the Chobonaino ruins (owned by the city of Hakodate in Hokkaido)
Items designated national treasures in 2008:
The main hall, corridors, votive offering hall, worship hall, and the two-storey gate of Aoi Aso-jinja Shrine (in Kumamoto)
The excavated bronze bells of Kamo Iwakura Ruins in Shimane Prefecture (under the care of the Agency for Cultural Affairs)

Prefectures that have no national treasures

As of 2008, there are three prefectures in which no national treasures exist: Gunma, Tokushima, and Miyazaki. Until recently, three other prefectures (Okinawa, Hokkaido, and Kumamoto) also did not have any national treasures, but each got one in the last few years; regarding Okinawa, in 2006 the materials related to the Daini shoshi (the second royal family) of the Ryukyu Kingdom were named a national treasure, while Hokkaido's clay figurines were named a national treasure in 2007, and the main hall and so forth of Aoi Aso-jinja Shrine in Kumamoto were designated national treasures in 2008.

Note however that the Haniwa (terra-cotta figurine) standing statue of an armed male currently owned by Tokyo National Museum was excavated from a site in the city of Ota in Gunma Prefecture, while the items excavated from the Higo Eta Funayama Tumulus, also owned by Tokyo National Museum, were excavated from a site in Tamana-gun in Kumamoto Prefecture, and finally the gilt bronze harness excavated from the Hyuga Province Saitobaru Tumulus, now owned by the Gotoh Art Museum, was excavated from Saito City in Miyazaki Prefecture.