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  • Writer's pictureAkiko Murakami

An American who protected Cultural Properties in Nara, Japan vol. 1

Today, the ancient capital of Nara is a city overflowing with world-recognized history and culture.

But about 150 years ago, during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the city was in danger of losing its more than 1,000 years of traditional value due to modernization. It is hard to believe now, but the movement to abolish Buddhism, which was triggered by the Shinto/Buddhist Separation Order of 1868, led to the destruction of many Buddhist statues and the sale of historical buildings to the private sector on the market. (This included the five-story pagoda of Nara's landmark Kofukuji Temple and the beautiful Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture.)

At the time, Japan was pursuing an aggressive policy of Westernization as a means of escaping colonization.

Japan was actively pursuing a policy of Westernization as a means of avoiding colonization, and there was a strong tendency to downplay the value of Japan's ancient cultural assets. Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (February 18, 1853 – September 21, 1908), who studied at Harvard University, was only 25 years old when he came to Japan. He came to Japan at the request of the Japanese government as a lecturer at what is now the University of Tokyo. He was a philosopher and political scientist, but he also had a deep knowledge of art and spent much of his time visiting ancient temples and shrines and antique dealers in Kyoto and Nara.

He found beauty in Nara's cultural assets that could be likened to that of Greek and Roman art in the West.

 One of his students was Tenshin Okakura, who later played an active role in the establishment of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. He always accompanied Fenollosa as an interpreter.

 In any case, Fenollosa's role in Japanese art research, art education, promotion of traditional art, and administration for the protection of cultural properties was so significant. Surprisingly, the concept of "national treasures" was originated by him.

 I remember learning about Tenshin and Fenollosa in my history class, but it was only recently that I learned more about the relationship between Nara.


Fenollosa later served as Director of the Oriental Department of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and was dedicated to introducing Japanese art, and died at the British Museum in London in 1908. According to his will, his remains were divided and buried at the Houmeiin Temple of Mitsui Temple in Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture, where Fenollosa had received his precepts.

In the next blog, I will write about the deep relationship between Fenollosa and Nara.



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