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The day after Japan was struck by an earthquake of unprecedented force on 11 March, newspapers were reporting 20 deaths. Two weeks later that total was looking closer to 20,000. In the uncertain, unsettling weeks that have followed Japan’s natural and now nuclear crisis, people have been looking for signs of reassurance and continuity. One group that embodies those qualities of stability and longevity are the country’s Living National Treasures, a group of 114 men and women who have dedicated their lives to the perfection of a single craft or performing art.

The range of their fields are broad – from kabuki actors and musicians to potters, lacquer artists and embroiderers. The title, which in Japanese is the more formal “Holder of Important Intangible Cultural Heritage”, can be awarded to individuals or groups. While many are playing a vital role in preserving unique techniques and performance styles that might be hundreds of years old, these are not the stuffy standard bearers of traditional culture. It would be hard to meet a more spirited, open-minded collection of people. When interviews with a few of these “national treasures” took place – mostly in the days after the earthquake – the artists all reflected calmly on the situation and retained a sense of optimism that, in the long run, things would work out. Their immense collective knowledge should not be underestimated. They’ve seen it all: war and post-war hardship, economic boom and bust, and now the worst natural disaster in Japan’s recorded history. And all the while they’ve been diligently pursuing their crafts.

Most were born into their professions, taking over from their fathers and their grandfathers before them. The performers were in training from an early age on the assumption that they would take over their fathers’ roles and – when they came of age – their fathers’ names. Mansaku Nomura, the celebrated star of the comical theatre of kyogen, first performed at the age of three. Now in his 80th year, he has spent his whole life on the stage. So too the distinguished noh performer Yusetsu Katayama, who made his debut at four and was already playing lead roles at nine. Shoin Yamase VI, the spry octogenarian koto player, was born into a family that was historically associated with the 13-stringed instrument. “I started when I turned six on 6 June. It was considered an auspicious start,” she says. “My future was already mapped out – this was my destiny.”

Did they ever feel they were missing out? “I didn’t really think about it – it was just the way things were,” says Tojuro Sakata, the Osaka kabuki actor whose father and grandfather were both celebrated actors. He went through various inherited name changes – from Senjaku Nakamura to Ganjiro Nakamura II and then III until in 2005, in his seventies, he decided to carve his own path and choose a new name for himself. Noh actor Katayama admits he had doubts during adolescence (“It’s a hard age for a performer, no longer a small child but not yet a developed adult”), but soon knuckled down to his inevitable path. He also inherited the heavy mantle of his family name, Kuroemon Katayama (he was Kuroemon IX) and has already handed it on to his son who is now Kuroemon X.

Some had ideas of other professions, but economics or the war got in the way. Kiju Fukuda, the great kimono embroiderer wanted to become a photographer, but when he saw his father struggling financially after the war, he set aside his own ambitions.

Far more rare are those who weren’t born into their jobs. One of six children in a family without a father, Hoseki Okuyama found himself, aged 15 and a week after finishing high school, going to Tokyo to look for work. He heard of an opening at a metal hammering workshop behind Kanda Myojin temple and studied there, making plates and tea sets for the US forces then occupying the country. “When I started I had no idea what the job involved,” he says. “It was so hard I wanted to quit, but I didn’t know anyone in Tokyo and I couldn’t go home.” He stuck it out for 12 years as an apprentice before branching out on his own and quietly using his hard-earned skills to start making pieces of his own design.

The transition from craftsman to artist marks an important shift, as a younger generation sought to break free of the artisanal rules. “When I got to 40, I wanted more,” says Fukuda, the embroiderer. “My father was an outstanding craftsman and I still think his technique was better than mine. But I got to a point where I thought ‘if I don’t become an artist, then what am I doing here?’”

One quality these artists all share is a commitment to hard work. Without exception, they all said that effort was the most important ingredient in their success, along with good teaching. Certainly more important than talent. When other children were playing football, the kabuki, kyogen and noh treasures of today were learning how to dance, enunciate and sing. “To be a good actor you have to train hard and master the basics,” says Tojuro Sakata. “Talent has to be drawn out by hard work.”

While the Living National Treasures are guardians of Japan’s extraordinarily rich cultural heritage, they are aware that their precious crafts – of which they are fiercely proud – will wither and die if they don’t remain relevant. Indeed many of the recipients of the Living National Treasure title were specifically honoured for the innovation they had brought to their traditional art. “It’s important to preserve tradition for future generations, but we don’t want to be stuck in a certain time,” says Mansaku Nomura. “The essence is the same but what we are doing is different from what they were doing in the Meiji era. We don’t want change forced on us like a tsunami. It’s better if we change things in our own way.” The potter Osamu Suzuki agrees, “Tradition is considered to be conservative,” he says. “But to me tradition is something that started as innovation.”

There are never more than 116 Living National Treasures at any one time, roughly split between performing arts and crafts. At the moment there are 114, meaning there are two vacancies when the committee of examiners – a mix of civil servants and scholars – meets in July. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology hands out the awards in September.

The Treasures are given an annual stipend but they are also expected to pass on their skills, which the artists are keenly aware of. The future survival of the traditional arts cannot be taken for granted. Audiences tend to be older, patrons and craftsmen are dwindling and the education of the young shies away from classical texts that inform so many traditional arts. Successors can be hard to find and few young people have the patience to study under someone for a decade. The performers seem to have no trouble rearing sons to keep their tradition alive. Katayama, Nomura and Sakata have all seen their sons and grandsons appear on stage. They are also working to connect with young audiences and communities beyond the big metropolises where the high arts don’t always reach.

As a group they exude the contentment of people who do one thing well. Part-time work and mid-life career changes are concepts unheard of in the National Treasure world. Metal hammerer Okuyama has a simple but important motto: one job, one life. “I want young people to understand the importance of doing one thing – once you start, don’t give up. It seems children today aren’t learning life’s basic rules and if I don’t teach them, nobody else will.”

“There’s no retirement in kabuki,” laughs Tojuro Sakata, now 80. Indeed it’s not uncommon for 90-year-olds to appear. “It’s in the Japanese awareness of art that it doesn’t have to be perfect – it’s the wabi-sabi quality,” says Shoin Yamase. “What we have lost in age we can make up for in other areas and the audience appreciates that.” Having spent so many years mastering their crafts, it would be hard for youngsters to compete.

There was one piece of good news after the devastating events of 11 March. In Sendai, close to the epicentre of the earthquake, is the home of Yoshio Koda, who specialises in a local dyeing and weaving known as seigo sendaihira. A Living National Treasure – like his father before him – both he and his workshop survived the earthquake intact.

The great strength of character evident in all the National Treasures is no coincidence. They have followed a single profession with a focus and discipline that few starting out now would entertain. As Tojuro Sakata puts it: “This is not just a job – it’s our life.”

Tojuro Sakata

Kabuki actor, born 1931
Living National Treasure since 1994
Although in his 80th year, Tojuro Sakata has the unlined skin and energy of a man half his age. A clue to his profession lies in his graceful hands and elegant movements. Sakata is one of the greats of kabuki, Japan’s most exuberant theatre where all the parts are played by men.

His father and grandfather were both famous kabuki stars before him, but Sakata has carved out his own reputation, celebrated for his male and female roles. His most famous character is Ohatsu, a female role he pioneered in the 1950s.

“Every time I play Ohatsu it’s different,” he says. “Her life begins when the curtains open and ends when they close – it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.” He continues to perform and his children and grandchildren have followed in his footsteps; one brave grandson has tackled his grandfather’s signature role.

Shoin Yamase VI

Koto player, born 1932
Living National Treasure since 2001
Tokyo born and bred – and the seventh of seven sisters – koto player Shoin Yamase continues to live in the house where she grew up. She started young, learning dance, singing and the shamisen as well as the koto, the 13-stringed instrument for which her mother’s family was known. Her slight frame is dwarfed by the large instrument but she can still sit comfortably straight-backed on her knees in the seiza position for hours at a time.

She lived and performed with her older sister, the fifth shoin, for many years and when she passed away, the younger sister inherited the family’s illustrious stage name. She still practises for four hours a day. “I can only stop when I reach perfection,” she says. “And that will never happen.” Young students are in short supply, but she has high hopes for her adopted daughter.

Hoseki Okuyama

Metal hammerer, born 1937
Living National Treasure since 1995
Born in 1937, Okuyama came to Tokyo from his native Yamagata in order to find work at the age of 15. That he found a job in a hammering workshop was more chance than vocation. He worked there for 12 years and was so talented that, when he decided to set up on his own at the age of 27, his employers begged him not to leave.

At first he got by making golf trophies, but gradually more creative pieces were accepted by the Japan Arts & Crafts Association. Today he works in his house in Tokyo in an immaculate workshop lined with tools. It’s hard to believe his smooth pots are wrought by hand, something he credits to the 60 years he has spent perfecting his craft. His living room is lined with awards, although you could hardly meet a more humble man.

Kiju Fukuda

Embroiderer, born 1932
Living National Treasure since 1997
Kiju Fukuda has large hands and forearms of concrete – unexpected but valuable assets in his delicate profession since Fukuda is one of Japan’s greatest kimono embroiderers. Born in Kyoto, the son of an embroiderer, Fukuda has transformed this venerable craft into an art form.

His silk kimonos are decorated with motifs drawn from nature and realised with such skill and vitality as to appear three-dimensional. Only a lucky few – a group that includes the Empress of Japan – can own a kimono designed and sewn by Fukuda himself. Fukuda works out of a small studio in his house in Kyoto, surrounded by thousands of silk threads. Each custom order kimono takes months to complete, from dying the slender 12m length of silk using soft handmade brushes, to drawing the design and completing sewing which can take 10 hours a day for 100 days.

Nobuko Akiyama

Doll maker, born 1928
Living National Treasure since 1996
Nobuko Akiyama, who was born in downtown Osaka 83 years ago, started making dolls as a hobby while recuperating from a childhood illness. As her interest grew, she sought out a teacher and studied under her in Kyoto. Behind Akiyama’s charmingly unassuming demeanour lies a highly-skilled craftswoman. She carves her dolls by hand from pauwlonia wood and applies multiple coats of gofun (a white powder made from shells) mixed with nikawa, an old-fashioned glue. She uses a variety of techniques such as washibari (layering of washi paper) and kanshitsu (dry lacquer) to bring her dolls to life.

She favours historical subjects and groups from the borders of China, Tibet and Vietnam. Each doll takes three months to make. The most important skill for a doll maker? “Heart,” she says. “Technique is important, but it is superficial – it has to come from the inside.”

Mansaku Nomura

Kyogen performer, born 1931
Living National Treasure since 2007
Nomura hails from a distinguished line of performers that stretches back 300 years. The family art (his father was also a Living National Treasure) is kyogen, a comical theatre that is usually performed between noh plays. Nomura first appeared on stage as a monkey, aged three, and has been performing ever since. He has taken kyogen around the world, performing everywhere from India and China to France and Australia. Known for his lyrical style and bold performances, the ease with which he performs belies years of hard work spent honing his art. His repertoire features the classics but he has also introduced fresh ideas, including a kyogen interpretation of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Nearly 80, Nomura’s upright posture and clear delivery remain. “Kyogen doesn’t rely on physical strength,” he laughs. “Young people can’t outdo me!”

Osamu Suzuki

Ceramic artist, born 1934
Living National Treasure since 1994
Ceramicist Osamu Suzuki was born in Toki, a town in Gifu famous for its pottery. His father was a Kyoto-trained glazing craftsman, but young Osamu was reluctant to follow in his artisanal footsteps. “My father wanted me to work in pottery but I wasn’t interested at all,” he says. “In those days there was no such word as togei sakka [ceramic artist].” Luckily, his father was adamant and trained his son well.

Suzuki was one of the first potters to work with a gas kiln – something his peers thought of as inferior to the traditional wood-fired one – and set up on his own in 1968. He has gone on to become one of the great exponents of shino ware, a style dating back to the 16th century known for its textured white glaze and red iron oxide brushwork. Suzuki lives and works in a wooden house and adjacent studio in Tajimi with his wife and three sons.

Kazumi Murose

Urushi artist, born 1950
Living National Treasure since 2008
Murose says he was surprised to be made a Living National Treasure – but anyone who has seen his exquisite maki-e lacquer boxes would disagree. Born in Tokyo, Murose learnt his techniques from his craftsman father. He says it took five years just to learn the basics and then 10 years before he could make anything decent. Japanese urushi is different from the way lacquer is perceived in the west. Urushi comes from a tree and hardens in humid rather than dry conditions.

Most of Murose’s pieces start life as a simple hinoki (cypress) box and require layers of lacquer and sumi ink to be applied and re-applied before Murose starts on his decorative work using gold, shells and mother of pearl. Murose does every part of the process himself. This is an art for the patient – it can take a year just for the piece to dry and harden.

Hozan Yamamoto

Shakuhachi player, born 1937
Living National Treasure since 2002
A shakuhachi player from Otsu near Kyoto, Yamamoto started learning as a young boy and was a master of the bamboo flute by the age of 16. He was born into a family with four generations of koto players and grew up playing many instruments. Although he attended a traditional music school, he never planned to become a professional musician. Yamamoto is also a composer and innovator. He caused a stir in the 60s when he recorded with jazz clarinettist Tony Scott and singer Helen Merrill. Now 74, he still performs regularly. “It gets harder with age but I don’t like to play half-heartedly,” he says. “The reaction from the audience keeps me young.” Although retired from his post at the Tokyo University of Arts, he hopes that his enthusiasm will keep the art alive. “The shakuhachi is part of my body,” he says. “I’ve lived with it even longer than I lived with my late wife.”

Kiyotsugu Nakagawa

Wood artist, born 1942
Living National Treasure since 2001
Kyoto-born Nakagawa learnt his peerless woodworking skills from his father who learnt his from a fourth generation carpenter. Nakagawa has worked from the same studio for the last 40 years. Although he has moved on from the wooden bowls, barrels and cups he was trained to make, he continues to use the same tools – over 100 years old – and techniques he inherited through his father.

Nakagawa has become best known for his own innovative style, known as masa-awase, which uses small pieces of unvarnished wood to create geometric designs. His favoured material is ancient jindai sugi, 2,000-year-old cedar which lies preserved in the ground under Mount Chokai in Tohoku. Nakagawa found a piece by chance at a Kyoto market and was drawn by its clear grain and subdued colour. Rather than applying chemical varnish, he polishes each piece by hand with tokusa leaves.

Yusetsu Katayama

Noh performer, born 1930
Living National Treasure since 2001
Longevity is in the genes for Yusetsu Katayama. His mother – a kyomai dancer and also a Living National Treasure – was still on stage at 96 and his grandmother at 100. In Kyoto, the name Katayama is synonymous with the esoteric art of noh, a theatrical form renowned for its exquisite costumes, otherworldly music and beautifully archaic language.

It takes years to perfect the ethereal, floating walk and subtle movements of a noh actor. A spritely 81-year-old, Katayama made his debut at four and is still performing with passion and vigour in a range of roles, both male and female. Asked what makes a great noh actor, he says talent helps, but good teaching and hard work are even more important – and he continues to practise daily. “The best stage,” he says “is one where the audience can hear the performers breathing”.

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