How to Promote Incentives for Cultural Heritage Practitioners

Junzo Kawada
Professor of Cultural Anthropology
Faculty of International Studies, Hiroshima City University

The globalization of communication, accelerating through the rapid flow of human beings and goods as well as information, seems to contribute to the growth of world cultural uniformity. But in fact, the uniformity occurs mainly in technology and in some aspects of lifestyle, that is to say, at the surface levels of culture. In the deeper levels of cultural identity, globalization may create a countercurrent of particular cultural values. This is especially true among minority groups who protest political or economic discrimination by proclaiming their cultural identity. Among majorities too, nostalgic attachment to cultural heritage may arise in response to globalization. In both cases, the cultural heritage tends to be idealized and reinvented. The culture is no longer something to be lived unself-consciously, but has become something to be consciously spoken of and revalued.

In spite of this general tendency towards an awareness of the value of cultural heritage, many of its practices are in danger of disappearing because they are no longer profitable and consequently attract no successors to the present generation. Generally speaking, the real problems are not in globalization per se, but in present-day socio-economic factors that discourage the practitioners of cultural heritage.

The 1989 Recommendation stresses “traditional culture and folklore” as important components of cultural heritage. First, the adjective “traditional” implies the aspect of oral and/or bodily transmission of cultural heritage, and the term “folklore” presupposes the common people to be bearers of this heritage, which is rooted in a community and not in particular individuals of elevated social standing. Traditional culture and folklore are intangible cultural heritage in the strict sense -- performing arts as well as the physical skills and technical knowledge needed to produce tangible objects like handicrafts. By using both terms, the 1989 Recommendation stresses the collective nature of both the practice and the transmission of cultural heritage.

We should know: first, what kinds of cultural heritage are in danger of disappearing and why; and second, why should they be judged worthy of being preserved and even disseminated.

Among the kinds of intangible cultural heritage, we must distinguish between performing arts done for commercial purposes and those that are non-profit by nature. Japanese examples of the first kind of endangered traditions are the puppet theater Bunraku, street performers, strolling players, and the blessing arts done at ceremonial occasions. Bunraku was prosperous until the sixties, and the street performing arts were viable until the Second World War. But nowadays they are in danger of disappearing, and some of them have already disappeared. This is because of changes in their social context, as well as in their inner social organization, particularly the master-apprentice relationship. An intangible cultural heritage of a non-profit nature that is also disappearing is the telling of folk tales. Very common all over Japan until the sixties and with important local varieties, folktale-telling declined in the era of high economic growth and subsequent radical changes in everyday life common to industrialized countries. For the conservation of Bunraku, there is a national training school for young players, while for storytelling, many local communities and voluntary associations try to promote performances by aged qualified tellers, and at the same time to train aspirants.

The most delicate sphere is that of remunerated performing arts practiced by individuals. In my personal knowledge, there is an excellent strolling biwa lute player and singer, the last one in Kumamoto Prefecture in Japan. This kind of music was traditionally reserved to blind persons. Since strolling performance had become no longer possible, this blind old man lived alone in penury in a remote village. Several researchers of traditional popular music including me recorded his performance, wrote about him in magazines, and organized a concert at which he performed in a small music hall in Tokyo. But he died at a very old age without a successor. Such a popular performing artist and many other strolling players do not qualify for recognition and support as “living national treasures.”

I think we can find two kinds of solutions, even if insufficient, to conserve intangible cultural heritage according to its nature. First, for the performing arts like Bunraku that are highly stylized and have fixed content based on written texts, the performing style as a whole must be conserved and transmitted. In such a case, long-term systematic training of novice players is necessary, and consequently a large-scale and financially solid institution is needed. This was the case with the ancient Hue court music of Vietnam. Owing to the efforts of UNESCO and financial support from the Japan Foundation, the National University of Hue began training successors in the tradition of court music.

Second, in traditions like folktale-telling, what is essential is performance as intimate oral communication between tellers and listeners. In such a case, it is the form and the spirit of the traditional culture that is to be inherited. According to the tradition, even the classic stories are to be told without a fixed text, through the vivid oral composition of each teller. To this end, many Japanese regional, transregional, and library-based associations of storytellers work actively to teach novices the folk tales and their telling and to organize storytelling gatherings for adults and children. Such activities prosper in many countries, especially in Germany and in the United States.

In the case of institutionalized training for classic performing arts like Bunraku and Kabuki, many problems that arise in the modern context were not part of traditional training in the older social context. These theatrical performing arts require team play with roles allotted to each member. But some roles have the spotlight while others labor in obscurity, and there is little possibility to interchange the roles. In the old system established in the feudalistic, status-oriented Tokugawa society and based on the master-apprentice training system, each player would accomplish his own assigned task without overt discontent. But today, young applicants do not want to endure this inequality. Because of this and the decline in performance income due to the decreasing popularity of Bunraku, applicants are fewer in number.

In handicrafts, young people find it difficult to endure a childhood of exacting training in a family or in a master-apprentice relationship if it does not bring sufficient economic compensation. But the case of the traditional fabrication of akeni in Kyoto clearly shows that with a sufficient demand and an assured income, even such a highly specialized handicraft can find a young successor. Akeni is a trunk for sumo wrestlers, made with thinly sliced and beautifully lacquered bamboo, and it is an important object for sumo wrestlers during seasonal tournaments. For many years only one craftsman, now sixty-four, has made this kind of trunk, and he is fortunate to be succeeded by his thirty-five-year-old son.

Many handicrafts are in crisis, because their use of time and labor makes them unprofitable. In India, I visited handweavers in training centers and in their villages and realized their critical situation. A power loom weaves cloth faster, more cheaply, with better quality than that made by an ordinary handweaver. Specially made high-quality handwoven cloths are destined for their devotees in Western countries. Another problem in the conservation of handicrafts arises from the difficulty in obtaining necessary supporting tools or instruments of good quality, which are themselves made by handicraft, like the special curved nails used by the traditional Japanese shipbuilders. This is similar to the problem in performing arts done by a team, which may be weakened by insufficiently remunerated supporting parts.

In every domain of cultural heritage, it is now necessary to provide incentives for practitioners and their successors in coming generations. Educational activities by UNESCO or by other organizations must be intensified, but at the same time, we have to evaluate properly the role of tourism, a more and more significant and profitable component of globalization. Recently, the character of tourism itself has changed, and many anthropological studies describe its positive effects in the revitalization of cultural heritage and the mutual understanding of cultural diversity. Today, culture is something not only to be spoken about, but also to be presented to other cultures in its own self-image. In this process, we must remain aware that every traditional culture is created and transformed in response to historical contexts. Open-air performances done in Plaza Djamaa al-Fana of Marrakech are not authentic, in the sense that this plaza was originally for the practice of Sufism, but they are authentic in the sense that the performances are self-sustaining and provide a certain satisfaction to both the performers and the spectators, many of whom are tourists. To develop a self-consciousness about traditional cultural heritage is fundamental to human development, a prerequisite for technological and economic development that is based on the revaluation of cultural identity and the recognition of human cultural diversity.