- System Established: 1884
- Japanese: 国宝 (kokuhou)
Japan maintains several hierarchies or systems of designating objects, structures, and sites as being of cultural or historical importance. Those considered to be of the greatest importance are dubbed National Treasures. National Treasures cannot be exported, and are only loaned overseas on very rare occasions.
A select few individuals considered to be of exceptional prominence or importance in maintaining cultural traditions are named Living National Treasures.
The system was established in 1884, in the Meiji period, in conjunction with efforts to create a systematized set of "national" traditions, and a national narrative of Japan's history, comparable to those possessed by "modern" nation-states in the West. The first object to be designated a National Treasure was a 7th century wooden Buddha statue held at Kôryû-ji in Kyoto.
The Japanese government, which held Korea as a colony from 1910-1945, also compiled a list of "National Treasures of Korea." The Republic of Korea (aka South Korea) today retains that list, with numerous post-independence additions.
Up until 1932, the only buildings that could be designated National Treasures were Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. This was then modified to allow Japanese castles and other sites of historical importance to be added to the category.
Many National Treasures were sadly damaged or destroyed by Allied bombing, or otherwise, during World War II. Prior to that, there were 1,058 sites in Japan designated as National Treasures, incorporating 1,729 buildings.
New legislation in 1950 divided the category of National Treasures into National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties, a prestigious but lower-ranking category.
List of National Treasures
Castles & Residences
- Akasaka Palace
- Hikone castle - main tenshu
- Himeji castle - various buildings
- Nijô castle - Ninomaru Palace
- Documents related to the Keichô Embassy, held at Sendai City Museum.
- Documents of the Shimazu clan (Shimazu ke monjo, held at Shiryôhensanjo, University of Tokyo)
Paintings & Calligraphy
- Ban Dainagon Ekotoba (Idemitsu Museum, Tokyo)
- Chôjû-jinbutsu-giga (Kôzan-ji, Kyoto)
- Daitoku-ji, Kyoto:
- Eingakyô illustrated sutra scroll (Jôbonrendaiji, Kyoto)
- "Hikone Screens," (Hikone castle)
- Jingo-ji, Kyoto:
- Kitano Tenjin Engi Emaki (Kitano Tenmangû, Kyoto)
- Shôkoku-ji, Kyoto:
- "Colorful Realm of Living Beings," Itô Jakuchû, set of 32 hanging scrolls
- Tawaraya Sôtatsu - Fûjin/Raijin screens (Kennin-ji, Kyoto)
- Tokyo National Museum:
- Yosa Buson - Yashoku rôdai zu ("Snow Falling on Ten Thousand Homes", private collection)
- Yamagoe Amida zu (painting of Amida crossing the mountains, Zenrin-ji, Kyoto)
- Byôdô-in (Uji, Kyoto prefecture): Amida statue by Jôchô (1053), along with other sculptures and artifacts on site
- Jôruri-ji (Kyoto): Standing Kômoku-ten, wood, 12th century
- Kôfuku-ji (Nara):
- Kamakura Daibutsu (Kôtô-in, Kamakura) - constructed 1252
- Kôryû-ji (Kyoto) - 7th century Buddhist sculpture in Korean style (possibly made in Korea); wood, 92 cm tall - first object to be designated a National Treasure
- Tôdai-ji (Nara):
- Tôshôdai-ji (Nara): Ganjin, dry lacquer, 8th c.
- Itsukushima Shrine (Miyajima, Hiroshima prefecture) honden, haiden, heiden, haraedono, marôdo jinja
- Izumo Taisha (Shimane pref.) - Main Hall
- Kitano Tenmangû (Kyoto) - haiden and honden, built 1607
- Nikkô Tôshôgû (Nikkô, Tochigi prefecture) karamon
- Shimogamo Shrine (Kyoto) East and West Main Halls (honden)
- Ujigami Shrine haiden (main worship hall) - early Kamakura period, example of shinden-zukuri architecture
(See Famous Samurai Swords for a list of notable swords, including many National Treasures not listed here.)
- Zuigan-ji (Matushima, Miyagi prefecture) - Main Hall and Kuri
- Byôdô-in (Uji, Kyoto): Phoenix Hall, 1053, shinden-zukuri architecture
- Daitoku-ji (Kyoto):
- Engaku-ji (Kamakura): Shariden - the oldest example in Japan of multi-storied, three-bayed, irimoya Chinese-style architecture
- Gangô-ji (Nara): Zen-dô
- Ginkaku-ji (Kyoto): Silver Pavilion (1489) and Tôgûdô (1486)
- Hannya-ji (Nara): stone pagoda (13th c.)
- Hôryû-ji (Nara):
- Bell Tower
- Chûmon gate
- East and West Corridors
- East (higashimuro) and West Dormitory (nishimuro)
- Five-story pagoda - one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world
- Kôdo (Lecture Hall)
- Kondô - one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world
- Nandaimon gate
- Refectory (Dining Hall)
- Sutra House (kyôzô)
- Three Sutra Hall (sankyôin)
- Tôdaimon gate
- Tôin Bell Tower
- Tôin Denpôdô
- West Octagonal Hall (saiendô)
- Kiyomizu-dera (Kyoto) Main Hall
- Myôtsû-ji (Obama, Fukui prefecture) - hondô and three-story pagoda
- Kôfuku-ji (Nara):
- Three-storied pagoda
- five-storied pagoda - second tallest pagoda in Japan
- Eastern Golden Hall
- Northern Octagonal Hall
- Nanzen-ji - Large and Small hôjô
- Negoro-dera - Tahôtô
- Ninna-ji - Main Hall (kondô)
- Nishi Honganji karamon gate
- Sanjûsangendô main hall
- Tôdai-ji (Nara):
- Bell tower
- Daibutsuden - largest wooden building in the world
- Founders' Hall
- Nandaimon gate
- Shôsôin Imperial Treasure House
- Sutra House
- Tegaimon gate
- Tôfuku-ji (Kyoto) - main gate
- Tô-ji (Kyoto) pagoda - tallest wooden pagoda in Japan
- Byôdô-in (Uji, Kyoto) temple bell - one of the Three Great Bells of Japan
- Engaku-ji (Kamakura) temple bell
- Kanzeon-ji (Dazaifu, Fukuoka prefecture) temple bell - one of the oldest in the country
- Kenchô-ji (Kamakura) temple bell - cast 1255
Textiles & Garments
- Numerous Noh masks and robes, held by various institutions.
- Ryukyu investiture crown, Naha City Museum of History
- Eisei Bunko (Tokyo):
- Engaku-ji (Kamakura) - Buddhist relics
- Fukuoka City Museum (Fukuoka):
- Hachinohe City Museum:
- Naha City Museum of History:
- "Ryukyu King Sho Family Relevant Documents" (Ryûkyû kokuô Shô-ke kankei shiryô) - includes numerous bingata, kasuri, and other garments, as well as works of Ryukyuan lacquerware, pottery, and metalwork, along with three swords (incl. Chiyoganemaru) and the Ryukyuan investiture crown, all objects previously owned by the Ryukyuan royal family.
- Tokyo National Museum:
- Zenrin-ji - gilt bronze lotus-shaped gong, Tang Dynasty
Destroyed Former National Treasures
- Sensôji - Main Hall (hondô aka Kannon-dô) and pagoda named National Treasures in 1907; destroyed 1945.
- Engaku-ji - named a National Treasure in 1933; destroyed in 1945. Rebuilt gates and bridge named Important Cultural Property in 1975.
- Naminoue Shrine temple bell - cast 956, named National Treasure 1907; destroyed 1945.
- Oki Shrine - named a National Treasure in 1935; destroyed 1945.
- Shureimon at Shuri castle - named a National Treasure in 1933; destroyed 1945.
- Shuri castle - named a National Treasure c. 1925; destroyed 1945.
- Sôgen-ji - named a National Treasure in 1933; destroyed 1945.
- Gallery labels and explanatory plaques at various sites.
- This sculpture has traditionally been identified as a depiction of Maitreya (J: Miroku), but today many scholars suggest that the identity of the figure is unclear. Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 29.
- Loo, Tze M. “Shuri Castle’s Other History: Architecture and Empire in Okinawa.” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 41 (12 Oct 2009).
- Suzuki Kakichi, Miyamoto Chôjirô and Ushikawa Yoshiyuki. "Ryûkyûan Architecture: Its History and Features." in Okinawa bijutsu zenshû 沖縄美術全集. vol. 5. Okinawa Times, 1989.
- Designated in 2009. Kokuhô no bi 50, Asahi Shinbun shuppan (2010), 22-23.
- Designated in 2001. Kokuhô no bi 50, Asahi Shinbun shuppan (2010), 14-21.
- 所蔵資料紹介：貴重書, Historiographical Institute, University of Tokyo.
- Exhibition checklist, "Chinese Paintings from Japanese Collections," LACMA, May 10 2014.
- Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, Second Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 57.
- Despite the name, this grouping of National Treasures does not include written or published documents, but rather objects of decorative arts and practical use. You can see all the objects on the museum's Digital Museum page.