Japan from the inside out

Cultural commissars

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 29, 2008

THE JAPANESE SHOULD THANK their lucky stars they’ve kept their festival traditions alive over the centuries—and that no megalomaniac dictators decided to eliminate them in the name of progress. Otherwise, like the Chinese, they might be regretting what they’ve lost, as this article in the Asia Times points out.

Here’s what happened:

China’s late leader Mao Zedong had tried to erase many traditional Chinese celebrations by ordering the destruction of religious sites and outlawing folk customs. Everything “old” – from marriages to funerals, from folk medicine to folk music – was targeted.
But as communist ideology gradually lost its influence in contemporary society, Chinese leaders after Mao have tried to fill the void with nationalistic appeals for people to take pride in the country’s 5,000-year-old history and culture.

It’s not so easy to recreate the connection once the ties to the past have been severed, however. Many Chinese find the efforts to reclaim those festivals contrived and hollow:

“Any resemblance to the elaborate imperial sacrifices to heaven and Earth of the past was lost in these caricature performances of poorly trained traveling troupes from the provinces,” columnist Zhang Min wrote of his experiences at the capital’s Temple of Earth in the Beijing News. The exquisite works of artisans that once adorned Beijing temple fair stalls – Peking Opera masks, figurines made of painted dough and modeled on legendary figures, intricate kites and embroidered clothes – have now been replaced with “ubiquitous and cheap mass-produced trinkets”, Zhang complained.

The Chinese also faced an unexpected development. Other countries are claiming Chinese festivals and customs as their own for UNESCO registration:

The country saw one of its most treasured events, the Dragon Boat Festival celebrated in June, nominated and later successfully listed as an intangible part of the cultural heritage of neighboring South Korea. The listing angered Chinese scholars and officials who accused South Korea of brazenly encroaching on China’s cultural heritage.
Since the 2005 UNESCO listing of the Dragon Boat festival, South Korea has applied to have its ritualized Confucius memorial ceremony listed as another unique cultural heritage and is reported ready with an application for the listing of “Chinese traditional medicine” as “Korean traditional medicine”.

This touched off a different kind of culture war. Countries can get just as huffy about their rituals and ceremonies as they can about their territory:

“It is not enough to talk just about territorial integrity – China needs to safeguard its cultural sovereignty too,” argues literary scholar Bai Gengsheng. “Unlike material culture which is traceable, intangible cultural heritage can be very contentious and we must design strategies to preserve China’s heritage from being lost to other countries.”

This debate is fascinating because it highlights both the historical movement of culture in the region at large and some of the tensions that currently exist within it. Regardless of UNESCO bureaucratic fiats, no one can deny that the Chinese are the progenitors of much of East Asian culture that later became localized in other areas. The Japanese, to cite one of many examples, freely acknowledge the Chinese (and Korean) origins for gagaku, or Imperial Court music.

Chinese Overreaction?

But even some Chinese realize that when cultural traditions are replanted elsewhere, they adapt to the new soil and become transformed in the process. As this China Daily article points out:

Some Koreans working in China believe that the Chinese who are upset may be overreacting. A teacher surnamed Kim pointed out that the festival has been celebrated in Korea for more than 1,000 years, since it was introduced from China. It has been integrated with Korean culture over the centuries, so that celebrations now bear little resemblance to China’s.

The same article suggests that the Chinese who object may misunderstand the UNESCO process:

For all the pride the Chinese take in such traditions, however, they do not necessarily hold any proprietary rights over them.
“Unlike natural heritage sites, which are fixed and unique, the ‘masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’ can be shared,” said Wu. “If UNESCO approves something as an intangible cultural property of one country, other countries may still apply. For example, mukamu is a typical music of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwest China, but still UNESCO has approved Iraq mukamu and Azerbaijan mukamu as those nations’ intangible cultural properties.”

Choseon Chicanery

Be that as it may, the Koreans are not entirely blameless in this affair, as this brief article points out:

The Chinese domain name for the (festival) website (, however, was first registered by a South Korean company in October last year when the two countries had already competed against each other fiercely in a struggle that aimed to include the Dragon Boat Festival as a world cultural heritage of their own country.

It cost the Chinese $30,000 to buy back the domain name.

The Koreans have been known to do this before. They were the first to register the rights for the Japanese name of the alcoholic beverage shochu in the United States, for example, and used it to sell their own version of the drink, which they call soju. The Japanese had to buy those rights back, too.

Everyone recognizes that some cultural practices which originated elsewhere have long been a part of Korean life and have taken on a Korean identity. It’s another matter, however, to register the Chinese and Japanese names with the intent of scamming some cash. And everyone also recognizes that it’s pointless to expect people on the Korean Peninsula to chastise the grifters who scavenge off of the Chinese or Japanese while poking a finger into their eyes. They’re likely to be applauded instead.

The Source of the Problem

But some questions inevitably arise after reading these accounts: Why is anyone bothering to register their cultural properties, tangible or intangible, with UNESCO? Why should anyone think any organization has the standing to render judgments on a country’s cultural heritage?

And who is this all for, anyway? Neither the Chinese nor the Koreans need UNESCO’s “approval” for cultural validation, particularly for a festival that dates back a millennium in Korea and 2,500 years in China. The Koreans haven’t needed it to keep their festival alive, and the Chinese still have their cultural memory despite the social devastation Mao wrought.

A look at the UNESCO website for the project provides some hints.

Other than country-specific lists with brief explanations, the site is short on reports of what it has achieved with actual, on-the-ground projects. Yet it is packed with organizational trivia, rules of procedure, and vapid platitudes. Just the sort of thing to keep people busy without doing any real work. Here are some statements from their convention, which presents the reasons and objectives for their activities:

Considering the importance of the intangible cultural heritage as a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development…

When did intangible cultural heritage become a guarantee of sustainable development? It’s a toss-up which is worse: cutting and pasting political banalities to create a pleasant-sounding but meaningless mush of linguistic oatmeal, or inserting that phrase as self-justification into their convention as if it were an absolute scriptural truth.

An intangible cultural heritage guarantees nothing, least of all sustainable development.

And it’s no surprise that UNESCO should be so concerned about protecting—or enforcing—yet another mushy platitude: cultural diversity. It’s as if UNESCO were encouraging people to have sex. Cultural diversity is what happens when people are left to their own devices to interact naturally. Especially when the NGOs aren’t looking.

Recognizing that the processes of globalization and social transformation, alongside the conditions they create for renewed dialogue among communities, also give rise, as does the phenomenon of intolerance, to grave threats of deterioration, disappearance and destruction of the intangible cultural heritage, in particular owing to a lack of resources for safeguarding such heritage…

We have a winner in the contest for non-native English speakers to see who can write the longest sentence with as many clichés as possible.

The proposition that globalization threatens diversity is untenable. Globalization enhances cultural diversity, and examples abound. To cite one: trends in popular music over the last century on every continent except Antarctica.

“Deterioration, disappearance, and destruction” result from isolation and the rejection of outside influences. Nature loves a wide gene pool. So does culture.

Considering the invaluable role of the intangible cultural heritage as a factor in bringing human beings closer together and ensuring exchange and understanding among them…

If this is referring to specific local areas, they’ve got it backwards. A cultural heritage results from the pre-existing exchange and common understanding between people. And while multinational cultural exchange sometimes does result in bringing people together, it doesn’t ensure it. Exhibit A: the Dragon Festival registration story.

UNESCO also attempts to define what they’re talking about. Here’s one definition:

(d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;

Perhaps the Chinese should register feng shui before the Koreans beat them to it!

Give UNESCO credit for trying to cover every conceivable base, however:

Close to half of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world are doomed or likely to disappear in the foreseeable future. The disappearance of any language is an irreparable loss for the heritage of all humankind.

bamyan 1

The disappearance of any language is no more an irreparable loss for our heritage than was that of the pterodactyl. It just means that the language no longer has a practical use. If there were any benefits to be gained from its use, a language wouldn’t have to be protected.

After looking over this website, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the enterprise seems less about recognizing and preserving culture than it is about providing the transnational NGO jet set with a marvelous opportunity for self-congratulation and a chance to dress up and meet people from around the world on someone else’s tab.

If the plug were pulled on UNESCO tomorrow, Koreans would still celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival, Nigerians would still play juju music, the Balinese would still dance, and the Japanese living cultural treasures would still make ceramics and perform kabuki—not to mention holding more traditional festivals than the public sector can count.

bamyan destruction

Bam Goes Bamian

Yet when a cultural heritage really was threatened, UNESCO turned out to have been all bumper sticker and no horsepower. When the Taliban used the 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamian for bazooka practice, as the third photo shows, the largest Buddhist statues in the world–a UNESCO World Heritage site–were turned into rubble.

Here’s what former Afghanistan leader Mullah Mohammad Omar allegedly said to a Pakistani reporter:

“I did not want to destroy the Bamian Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamian Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings — the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddhas’ destruction.”

The Mullah is obviously a lunatic, but there’s a point lurking in that nonsense. If multinational organizations think it’s important to save threatened cultural heritages, a good place to start would be to help the culture save itself. Their money would be a lot better spent ensuring that people had safe drinking water than by creating an artificial cocoon for a language or dance form that long ago lost its meaning for living people.

But laying water pipe has very little cachet. At a catered multinational cocktail party, it’s a lot more impressive to be able to boast that one helped save indigenous weaving and dying techniques, and doesn’t that blanket look lovely on the wall of the apartment?

The problem here is not the end, but the means. The ostensible aims of this scheme may be admirable, and I’d elbow my way to the front of the line to see some of the registered activities, but UNESCO is just as likely to get in the way of people devising their own cultural preferences instead of helping them. Like the pterodactyl, cultural practices become extinct for a reason.

The best solution lies where it always has—at the local level. Even the Marxist government of Cuba has kept its local musical culture alive while allowing it to evolve by incorporating outside influences. Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs has a robust program for preserving and utilizing cultural properties, as you can see here. Even Japanese villagers need little encouragement to continue holding festivals that are hundreds of years old and that only a handful of people see.

And they don’t touch off arguments about who has dibs on what is supposed to be the shared heritage of humanity.

Postscript: Here is the UNESCO page for registered Japanese cultural properties. The Japanese seem to be paying a lot of the bills for other countries, while noh, kabuki, and joruri don’t need UNESCO registration to survive. The Japanese government is also playing a leading role in restoring the Buddhas of Bamian.

10 Responses to “Cultural commissars”

  1. […] has a very elaborated post on debate and discussion about the registration of intangible cultural heritage at UNESCO among China, Japan and South Korea. Share […]

  2. UNESCO is also promoting conflict between countries by their winner-take-all registrations. I also dislike the tortured sentences in UN documents. They take words and render them meaningless.

  3. Overthinker said

    “I also dislike the tortured sentences in UN documents.”

    I seem to remember that the preamble to their charter is in fact one sentence a page long….

  4. bender said

    Regardless of UNESCO bureaucratic fiats, no one can deny that the Chinese are the progenitors of much of East Asian culture that later became localized in other areas.

    I think the Koreans are trying to to just that. I see more problem with Korean nationalism than the Chinese lacking tolerance. I sympathize with the Chinese on this one.

  5. Aceface said

    “The Japanese seem to be paying a lot of the bills for other countries, while noh, kabuki, and joruri don’t need UNESCO registration to survive. The Japanese government is also playing a leading role in restoring the Buddhas of Bamian.”

    You’re missing the fact that Japanese have high regard on UNESCO.
    It’s charter of uniting human race with cultural exchange was exactly what the early post-war Japan had in mind.(Being economic power didn’t become nationwide orthodoxy before the late 70’s.Mostly because of leftist mindset.)
    That’s why there used to be a theme park in Tokorozawa,Saitama called “UNESCO village” and Japan never left UNESCO even in the dark days of the 70’s when the U.S and UK had left the organization because of Soviet leaning policies at the time and remained as the largest contributor.The current director of UNESCO is a Japanese and former ambassador to France,Matsuura Koichiro.

    Back in the 70’s and 80’s UNESCO was ruled by secrteary-general from hell,Senegalese Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow.Heritage Foundation summed up the reign of M’bow in the early 80’s when the U.S pulled out.
    M’Bow was also accused of having just too many Senegalese in the high place of organization he’s in charge.He usually used the race card to counter the criticism.

    I just laughed when Debito proudly presented Doudou-Diene of Senegal as the special rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in press conference as some reliable international figure and expert to make some judgement on racism in Japan.

    From Mr.Diene’s biography:
    “Having joined the UNESCO Secretariat in 1977, in 1980 he was appointed Director of the Liaison Office with the United Nations, Permanent Missions and United Nations departments in New York. Prior to this he had served as deputy representative of Senegal to UNESCO (1972–77) and, in that capacity, as Vice-President and Secretary of the African Group and Group of 77.”

    Considering Matsuura purged numbers of M’Bow days employee to have the U.S delegation back to UNESCO,I wouldn’t surprise Diene has some grudge toward the rising sun.

  6. ampontan said

    You’re missing the fact that Japanese have high regard on UNESCO.

    I wasn’t missing it, I was just including some Japanese content in a postscript. I know how favorably Japan views these international bodies. In contrast, I think you could retain a few organizations such as WHO and shut down the rest, the UN included, and the world wouldn’t miss them at all.

  7. Bruce Smith said

    The UN etc. are unelected organizations which do not represent the ordinary man/woman of anywhere. They should be ignored as much as possible and opposed whenever necessary.

  8. khakiandbeige said


    Are you aware that China registered Korean Goguryeo historical sites in current chinese territory as chinese cultural heritage site in unesco?

    What they did was exactly “stealing” of Korean history which prvoked fury from Korea.

    On the other hand, Koreans registered Korean intangible heritage which has more Korean chracteristic than chinese has nothing to do with korean nationalism.

    Didn’t you read the policy of unesco which approves nations registeration when they show unique cultural heritage?

    Is your opinion sided because you don’t know truth about Korean culture & history or you’re pro-chinese?

  9. Ken said

    “THE JAPANESE SHOULD THANK their lucky stars they’ve kept their festival traditions alive over the centuries—and that no megalomaniac dictators decided to eliminate them in the name of progress.”

    I do not think it just a fortune and I ascribe it fairly to Japanese generocity derived from the polytheism.
    It would have been also lucky that Japanese people were not poisened by Confucianism which is likely to rank to anything from respect toward social standing, unlike China.
    Prof. Huntington wisely classified Japan independently from Chinese culture but could not have defined the core culture.

  10. tomojiro said

    Confucianism had a deep inpact on Japanese culture and society. Even after the Meiji restoration. The ironicaly,the “modernising” Meiji state used lots of confucian ideology to make the modern emperorship and the modern Japanese nation (教育勅語、軍人勅諭).

    It has just a limited influence during the Edo-era as a political ideology, but even that is recently contested, and some scholars suggest that the influence of confucianism was underestimated.

    I don’t like the idea of “civilization” and I don’t think that classication of civiliations has some valid points, but if someone wants to classify east asian civilization, then Japan belongs to it which center was China.

    And the Chinese and Koreans are also polytheistic…

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