Teachers in a box: Two months a year, they inspect the Imperial Collection. Now you can, too
Ikuko Kitagawa / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Imagine artifacts more than 1,200 years old being brought out from the dark confines of their repository in Nara to be displayed before thousands of people in Tokyo.
To Kazuki Sugimoto, director of the Office of Shoso-in Treasure House, Imperial Household Agency, these nearly 9,000 treasures, which have been housed since the Nara period (710-794), are wise old sages, fragile and filled with tremendous wisdom.
“According to one estimate, the life span of natural objects is 800 years. That means these items have survived past their more durable years,” Sugimoto tells The Daily Yomiuri.
Twenty-two Shoso-in treasures are on display at Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, Tokyo, among the 78 other items associated with the Imperial Household as part of the monthlong Treasures of the Imperial Collections: Splendor of Japanese Art. It is the first time in almost a decade that Shoso-in items have made their way to Tokyo.
Several factors behind the preservation methods explain the weight of the 1,250-year history of the Shoso-in treasures.
First: They have an origin judged to be authentic. They were presented to the Great Buddha at Todaiji temple during the Nara Period and were entered into the official record before being housed in the Shoso-in Repository, which sits 300 meters away from the colossal hall of the Buddha.
It is known that the repository was presented with treasures on five different occasions. One such occasion was a donation by Empress Komyo (701-760) that included the Red Lacquered Zelkova Burl Dedicatory Chest, which dates back to the seventh century, and had been used since the days of Emperor Tenmu, the great-grandfather of Emperor Shomu, Empress Komyo’s husband. That means that the chest had been in use for more than 100 years prior to its induction into the repository 1,000 years ago.
“Shoso-in items are the only artifacts in the world that are so well preserved and have such detailed records about their background and history,” Sugimoto says.
Second: The treasures are kept above ground.
“There are many antiques in the world, but most of them had been kept underground or buried within a pyramid, for example. But, to my knowledge, Shoso-in artifacts are the only ones kept above ground.
“Normally such old items are kept out of reach. However, being kept in a repository means that the treasures have been managed and passed down from generation to generation,” Sugimoto says.
Those treasures had long been kept in the azekura log-cabin-style building made of Japanese cypress. In 1964, an earthquake-resistant and fireproof ferroconcrete building was erected, and all the treasures were relocated there.
“Treasures kept above ground must be carefully preserved from generation to generation, and must be protected from theft and natural disasters, such as fire or lightning.
“The fact that such old items still exist is testament to the ceaseless and painstaking efforts by people to protect the treasures. It’s amazing,” Sugimoto says.
Third: Despite Japan’s hot and humid summers, the temperature in the Shoso-in building and the cedar storage chests is kept stable.
“Due to the moisture-absorbing quality of the the woods we use, we are able to maintain the same relative temperature throughout the building. Keeping them in the wooden boxes helps to further protect the items,” he said.
One silk textile on display is still vividly colored and in good condition, despite the extreme difficulty associated with the preservation of silk. Also on show are an impressive set of hand scrolls, on which the kanji characters and signatures of great literary figures are crisp and easily read.
Fourth and last: The annual inspections and manual airing out of the items help to ensure the treasures stay in good condition and avoid becoming aged.
The inspection every year is undertaken by 13 staff members for two months–October and November, when the building is opened–creating the simultaneous opportunity for public exhibitions. Any other time of year and the Emperor’s permission is required to open the building.
“We know how each of the items likes to be treated. It’s just like treating the elderly with reverence,” Sugimoto says. “I don’t let new staff touch them. Instead, they watch us for about a year, learning how to handle the items.”
Each inspector examines–or “interviews the elderly,” as he says–each item from the viewpoint of their own specialty.
“Our scientific method has developed over the years, meaning researchers are always making new findings. But I wonder if that’s because we have developed or because the items have a wealth of information they are only willing to share with those who ask the right questions,” Sugimoto says.
“Our research is like communicating with someone who has a very good memory. These items have spent a huge amount of time meeting major historical figures, such as Oda Nobunaga or Tokugawa Ieyasu. They don’t tell us what kind of people they were, but they tell us that they met them. The better you are at interviewing, the more they will tell you,” he said.
“Having said that, there are no items whose condition will get better as they get older, and they may grow tired of our conversations. So we have to wait for technological developments that help us learn more without making the treasures too tired.”
Treasures of the Imperial Collections: Splendor of Japanese Art–Part 2: Shoso-in Treasures and Masterworks of the Calligraphy and Handscroll Genres
Until Nov. 29, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (8 p.m. on Friday)
Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, Tokyo, a short walk from Ueno Station.
Admission: 1,300 yen for adults, 1,000 yen for college students and 700 yen for high school students or younger.
For more information, call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.bihana.jp.
(Nov. 13, 2009 Daily Yomiuri)