For most, the word “treasure” conjures images of shiny pirate booty or age-old cultural artifacts, propped on museum pedestals. But in Japan, the term evokes different associations. Since 1950, when the Japanese government established the Cultural Properties Protection Law, the moniker “Living National Treasure” has been used to describe a small group of living, breathing artists whose unparalleled skills have earned their country’s protection.
It’s an unusual approach to cultural preservation. (South Korea, the Philippines, France, and Romania are among those that have similar designations.) But in the messy aftermath of World War II, when Japan strove not only to rebuild its infrastructure, but also to safeguard its cultural legacy, the program was established as an effective tool. Over 100 artisans have earned the title to date, and today, upwards of 50 living artists—masters in
, lacquer, metalwork, woodwork, papermaking, kimono arts, and more—are deemed “Living National Treasures,” or more ceremoniously, “Bearers of Important Intangible Cultural Assets.” With it comes both an annual stipend and the duty to share the secrets of their craft with others, both younger artists and the general public alike, in Japan and beyond.
But while these artists are celebrated in their home country, their work remains rather obscure abroad. Below, we highlight five Living National Treasures who are at once honoring and reinventing time-honored ceramic techniques—pushing their medium forward while preserving their country’s cultural heritage in the process.