Imperial Ingenuity

Japan holds secret to many treasures and among the best are those found in Shosoin Repository at Todaiji Temple

Akihiko Nishikawa, Director of the Office of the Shosoin Treasure-house, Imperial Household Agency
Akihiko Nishikawa, Director of the Office of the Shosoin Treasure-house, Imperial Household Agency

Rhonita Patnaik

Published: Thu 17 Feb 2022, 5:06 PM

The Shosoin Repository is situated to the back or north-west of the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall) of Todaiji Temple in Nara Prefecture. Originally a storehouse, the first artifacts found their place at the repository after the demise of Emperor Shōmu somewhere around the eighth century. His wife, the Empress Kōmyō, donated his belongings to the Todaiji Temple. Ever since, the repository has preserved such treasures around 9,000 in total, that include royal items, everyday items and even treasures brought from overseas.

The Shosoin Repository had been maintained by the Todaiji temple under supervision of the Imperial court over a thousand years. However, at the beginning of the Meiji period, the jurisdiction over the repository and treasures was transferred to the government, considering their significance as a heritage. Since 1884, the Imperial Household Ministry (currently Imperial Household Agency) has been responsible for their care and long-term preservation.

Special characteristics

One can point to the perfect condition of the treasury that reflect their good condition, international characteristics, rich content, wide variety of materials and intrinsic artistry.

With a total of 9,000 artifacts in the repository and revealed to the public in the autumn annually. However, not all artifacts make it to the showcase every year. According to Akihiko Nishikawa, Director of the Office of the Shosoin Treasure-house, Imperial Household Agency, the treasures are 'stressed' due to external factors, which is why only a number of artefacts are showcased every year. The Repository is strictly guarded, storing of the treasures in raised chests of Japanese cedar and Japanese cyprus provide superlative air tightness and humidity control.

Nishikawa adds: We use analog method for preserving the artifacts at the repository. Since most of the items are organic in nature such as wood, glass, lacquer and silk, they are stored carefully and not exposed to the environment except in autumn when yearly exhibitions happen. We also visually check each items regularly. Only with these, we have been able to preserve the 9,000 items until now. This, we believe, is an amazing feat and reflects the intention of the human beings to preserve the culture. This must transcend to the future generation."

Treasures via the Silk Road

In the eighth century, Japan sent envoys to China who were exposed to the Tang culture and brought back artifacts. The items from the Middle East via West Asia are fewer in number, but important nevertheless. Some of them include screen panel with wax resist design of a ram under a tree; twelve-lobed oblong green glass cup; Persian style lacquerware with birds, beasts and flowers; octagonal offering box decorated with tortoise shell and mother-of-pearl; blue glass cup accompanying metal brace; and six lobed gilt silver tray with reposing deer and flower motif. "Design-wise, we have lot of designs from West Asia and Persia, which was brought via China, Korean Peninsula and India to the Far East," he adds.

But what makes the artifacts unique, per se, is that though they were brought from abroad, a variety of techniques were used to create a new heirloom on its way to Japan. Such as the Persian style lacquerware with birds, beasts and flowers. This antiquity of Persian design found its way to the island nation during Tang dynasty China. It is a combination of designs and materials from Persia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. And these artifacts are today found only in Shosoin Repository.

Explaining what makes the treasures so exceptional to human civilisation is that unlike every other historical find, which have been excavated to provide a history to the civilisation, all the treasures at Shosoin were gifted or acquired and have been preserved in the Repository for 1,200 years. Because they have not been underground, fragile artifacts like musical instruments, wood work, lacquer and paper remain in viable condition.

Replicating the genius

It is important for Japan that the treasure is not lost due to man-made causes such as overexposure to the air or an untoward accident. Keeping this is mind, the Shosoin Treasury has begun replicating the items for showcase in the museums. According to Nishikawa, this will ensure lesser stress to the treasures, while giving the public a full knowledge into the history of the artifacts. The knowledge of the preservation of craft is of vital importance as well. The repository is now employing present generation craftsmen to engage in recreating the treasures with the same materials and the same techniques for the same form. "This will take the art to the next level."

Open to the world

The Imperial treasures are unique but they are also unknown. For 75 years, the Shosoin Repository has been holding exhibitions in Japan and the unique items cannot be found anywhere in the world. But little is known about them to the outside world. Nishikawa reveals that the next step would be to connect the repository to the world virtually. "As the world goes digital, we also want to take advantage of the technology and make the repository more accessible to the interested all across the globe via VR."

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