Saturday, May 20, 2006

Japan: Seventh Century Kitora's white tiger


Japan: Seventh Century Kitora's white tiger






A seventh-century wall painting of a white tiger, removed from the Kitora Tomb in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, is on public display at the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Nara until May 28. The ancient mural vividly depicts a white tiger with its mouth open, showing a red tongue and sharp fangs. The tiger has bulging eyes, which are painted with a hint of humor. In contrast, the whiskers on the animal's face are sharply detailed.


The image called "Byakko," or white tiger, was found on the west wall of the tomb in 1983. Seeing this realistic image of one of the four guardian deities from up close is a powerfully moving experience. One feels as if this image from 1,300 years ago has some important message that transcends the times. This is the first time one of the Kitora paintings--which are as historically important as the famous murals found in the nearby Takamatsuzuka Tomb--has been opened to public. Each day, about 3,000 people throng the Asuka Historical Museum of the research institute to see the tiger.


This exhibition reflects bitter lessons learned from the preservation debacle of the Takamatsuzuka Tomb. Those murals, located just 1 kilometer north of the Kitora site, were discovered in 1972. The Cultural Affairs Agency decided to preserve the priceless works inside the tomb without putting them on public exhibition. Even though its priority was on preserving the murals, the paintings deteriorated badly. In the ensuing years, experts discovered mold was "eating" the colors. Other damage was also discovered, provoking strong criticism about the agency's "secretive" approach to the task.


The murals in the Kitora Tomb contain "Suzaku," a red bird denoting south. It is one of the four Taoist deities that was not included in the Takamatsuzuka paintings. Since mold was eating the plaster on which the Kitora images were painted, it was decided to remove these national cultural treasures. Of the four paintings representing deities, "Byakko," "Seiryu" (blue dragon denoting east) and "Genbu" (black tortoise and snake denoting north) have also been removed. Suzaku is next. Every effort has been made to avoid a replay of the disaster at the Takamatsuzuka Tomb.


The Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties says cultural assets should be opened to public viewing as much as possible. Exhibiting the white tiger, even while the preservation project is still going on, is clearly in line with the law's spirit. The government plans to preserve the Kitora paintings in the village of Asuka. We support this idea. A cultural asset should be kept close to where it was found so it can offer important insights into the past as well as inspiration for the future.


The tomb dates to around 700. The paintings were clearly influenced by styles of the Korean state of Kokuryo and China's Tang dynasty. The murals are believed to be the works of foreign painters who had settled in Japan. Only decades before the construction of the tomb, Japan fought and lost against a coalition of Tang China and Silla, another Korean kingdom, in what became known here as the Battle of Hakusukinoe in 663. "Nihonshoki," the Chronicles of Japan, the oldest official history of Japan, says Japanese leaders started exchanging frequent envoys with Silla soon afterward and resumed sending envoys to Tang in 702. Masaaki Ueda, a historian and professor emeritus at Kyoto University, says: "Japan's defeat in the battle put it on the brink of extinction. What saved Japan from the crisis was skillful diplomacy. In fact, it was far more skillful than that of today's government."


Cultural assets exist for us to learn from history so we can apply those lessons to present-day circumstances. The mural of the white tiger gives us a glimpse of ancient Japan as a member of East Asia. The surge of public interest can only serve to push the agency to concentrate on preserving the treasures.


--The Asahi Shimbun, May 19(IHT/Asahi: May 20,2006)

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