Heritage, Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 1990 Page: 14
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The Dilemma of Preserving
Intangible Cultural Resources
A Comparative History of U.S. and Japanese Policies
Michael Ann Williams
U ntil quite recently in the United States, "cultural
resources" have referred primarily to physical
manifestations of culture: cultural landscapes, sites,
structures, and other artifacts. Perhaps most preservationists still
define the term in this manner. However, others have attempted
to expand the boundaries of preservation and cultural resource
management to include intangible resources-or, as UNESCO
would put it, our "non-physical heritage"-such as traditional
customs and verbal art. Folklorists, in particular, have been active
in redefining preservation to include both tangible and intangible
items of folk culture.
Folklorists' growing involvement with the preservation
movement began in the realm of the tangible. Beginning in the late
1960s, a resurgence of interest in material culture helped redefine
the scope of American folklore scholarship. Involvement with the
developing discipline of vernacular architecture scholarship, in
particular, brought folklorists in contact with architectural
historians, cultural geographers, and preservationists. While
sometimes troubled by criteria for adequate documentation and
definitions of significance, folklorists interested in vernacular
architecture have, since the late 1970s, worked for, and with,
During the same period, folklorists in large numbers found
employment in the public sector for the first time since the New
Deal. In 1966, the first state folklorist position was created. Today
over forty states and a growing number of municipalities employ
folklorists. The first Festival of American Folklife at the
Smithsonian Institution in 1966 was followed by the
establishment of the Folk Arts Program of the National
Endowment for the Arts in 1974 and the creation of the Office of
Folklife Programs at the Smithsonian in 1977. And, most
significant to this study, the American Folklife Preservation Act,
after ten years of lobbying efforts, was signed into law in 1976.2
The Folklife Preservation Act created the American Folklife
Center at the Library of Congress. Under the leadership of its
director, Alan Jabbour, the American Folklife Center has done
much to generate and shape concern for the preservation of
intangible resources in the United States. According to Jabbour,
initial concerns for integrating the preservation of intangible
cultural resources into the total historic preservation effort emerged
during meetings of a national heritage task force organized under
the Carter administration, as well as through interdisciplinary
communication between archaeologists, preservationists, and folklorists.3
Their concerns were addressed in the National Historic
Preservation Act Amendments of 1980. A provision of the act
mandates that the Secretary of the Interior, in cooperation with
the American Folklife Center, submit a report "on preserving and
conserving the intangible elements of our cultural heritage such as
arts, skills, folklife, and folkways."
14 HERITAGE * SUMMER 1990
The final report, Cultural Conservation, was issued in 1983.
"Cultural conservation" was defined as the preservation and
encouragement of traditional cultural life.4 The report was careful
to assuage the doubts of modern folklorists who are wary of talk of
"preserving" folk culture. Folklore is not old or static or dying;
rather, it is emergent and dynamic. As one American Folklife
Center study explains, "conservation enhances the potential of a
Whatever the terminological distinctions, cultural
conservation has found an increasing acceptance among folklorists
as well as members of allied fields such as applied anthropology.
However, many issues are yet to be resolved. The concerns of
cultural conservation have not been integrated into national
historic preservation efforts and many preservationists are not
aware of the issues. Current preservation tools are often inadequate
for tangible folk cultural resources; is there any chance that they
can work to preserve intangible resources? The 1980s were not
conducive to major new initiatives, and as of yet, major
modifications of the existing system seem untenable. At best, has
cultural conservation merely given folklorists a new perspective
on, or an affirmation of, the goals public sector folklore had already
set? If so, will public sector folklorists continue to work isolated
from the mainstream preservation movement?
The preservation of non-physical heritage and the protection of
folklore have become issues of international concern.6 However,
relatively few models exist for the integration of programs which
preserve tangible and intangible resources. Perhaps the model best
known to American folklorists is Japan's system of preservation.
For the most part, however, attention has focused on a single aspect
of Japan's program, the designation of "Living National Treasures."
This paper is part of an ongoing study of Japanese cultural
conservation prcgrams undertaken with the hope that their
successes and failures will provide useful lessons for the issues we
Historic preservation movements in most -ountries emerge
during periods of rapid cultural and social change. In the past
century, Japan has felt the double impact of modernization and
westernization. As in other countries, Japan was concerned
initially with the preservation of structures and sites of historic and
cultural significance. While in the United States early
preservation efforts centered on battlefields and structures
associated with particular individuals, concern in Japan focused on
temples, shrines, and works of art. Despite very different histories
of modernization, the United States and Japan both initiated their
first governmental actions for historic preservation during the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Cultural preservation began in Japan in 1871 with the first
governmental protection of works of art. In 1897, the Law for the
Preservation of Ancient Temples and Shrines was enacted. In
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 1990, periodical, Summer 1990; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45427/m1/14/: accessed January 18, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.