Intangible Heritage

Most readers will know something about the UNESCO world heritage. In Japan, tourism packages to world heritage sites gather many visitors; and many people are keen to get official approval as "World Heritage Master."

Nevertheless, intangible heritage, even that recognized by UNESCO, is not yet widely known. While the World Heritage Convention was adopted in the UNESCO general meeting in 1972, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was not adopted until 2003. In a sense, the tangible world heritage is four times older than intangible heritage.

Intangible heritage of Japan includes Kabuki theatre, traditional Ainu dance, and other folk performing arts. This reflects the Japanese system of cultural properties protection, where many performing arts are already registered as cultural assets. In fact, UNESCO referred to the Japanese system as a model to establish the intangible-heritage regime. However, the Japanese idea got modified when applied to diverse local contexts. Modern notions of intangible heritage have become flexible enough to surprise those who are familiar to the original notion of cultural assets: no Japanese ever imagined their cuisine could or should be registered as an official national treasure, but the Japanese government has recently started moving to register "the traditional dietary cultures" as a UNESCO intangible heritage.

The only intangible heritage of Madagascar, Zafimaniry woodcrafting knowledge, might be as difficult to understand as the example above: it is not the woodwork that is registered but the knowledge. This registration relates to “knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe,” one of the five categories of intangible heritage. The remaining four are: (a) oral traditions and expressions, including language; (b) performing arts; (c) social practices, rituals and festive events; and (d) traditional craftsmanship.

The Zafimaniry case seems at a glance to correspond to “traditional craftsmanship,” but nobody knows how old, and how “traditional”, the knowledge is. Instead, it can be appreciated as a human heritage in that it reflects a broad heritage of close relationships with natural environment and knowledge of myth, oral history, and social life.

This is why we, the organizers of the exhibition in 2013, try to show not only woodwork, but also the everyday life of craftsmen and others, and their relationships with the surrounding environment.