Photo/IllutrationA mural of the "Genbu," or the Black Tortoise of the North, found at Kitora Tomb in Asuka, Nara Prefecture (Provided by Agency for Cultural Affairs)

With the fabled ancient wall paintings at the Kitora Tomb set to be declared a national treasure, a new model should be established to preserve priceless historical heritages without denying the public opportunities to see them.

The approach should be to protect the immeasurable value of such national cultural assets while allowing as many people as possible to experience firsthand their value so that they can share it with future generations.

The richly colored murals in Kitora Tomb, a special historic site in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, were opened to the public on May 18 for one month of public viewing at a special preservation and management facility near the site. Since the facility was completed three years ago, the murals have been made available to the public four times a year, once in each season, although the periods and the numbers of people allowed to see them have been restricted.

In March, the government's Council for Cultural Affairs recommended that the murals be designated as a national treasure. The first round of public viewing since the recommendation is likely to generate a fresh wave of interest in the historical gems.

The gorgeously colored murals found inside the ancient burial mound depict four mythical guardian spirits, or divine beasts, guarding from their respective cardinal directions: on the east wall is "Seiryu," dubbed the Azure Dragon of the East; on the west is "Byakko," or the White Tiger of the West; then there is "Genbu," or the Black Tortoise of the North; and finally "Suzaku," the Red Bird of the South. Another important feature of the wall paintings is a star chart on the ceiling of the chamber, believed to be the oldest existing star map in East Asia.

These paintings, dating to the Asuka Period some 1,300 years ago, echo the influences of cultures in China and the Korean Peninsula.

They are also a valuable cultural heritage that tells us about exchanges between Japan and the continent in ancient times.

Thirty-six years have passed since the murals emerged from their centuries-long oblivion in 1983, when the “Genbu” painting was discovered in a search using a fiberscope. Despite the obviously enormous value of the discovery, the screening process for the designation as a national treasure took so long because it was necessary for the preservation authorities to tackle the unprecedented challenge of removing the murals from the plaster walls for special preservation treatments.

As the paintings were in danger of being ruined owing to plaster layers beneath them separating from the walls and riddled with cracks, the Agency for Cultural Affairs decided in 2004 to remove the paintings from the crumbling, mold-ridden plaster walls and repair them through special treatments to strengthen the plaster and eliminate mold.

Experts were divided over the wisdom of this approach, but in hindsight it was the only viable option for handing them down to future generations.

Using newly developed techniques, the damaged murals were carefully peeled off the chamber walls in 1,143 fragments about 3 to 7 millimeters thick over six years until 2010. The repair work was completed in 2016.

While the work to preserve the murals continued, the agency opened them to the public and organized exhibits.

Special exhibits of the paintings were held at the Asuka Historical Museum of the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties and the Tokyo National Museum, allowing many local residents and archeology buffs to take a firsthand look at them.

One factor behind the agency’s decision to open the paintings to the public was a costly preservation fiasco concerning the Takamatsuzuka Tomb, located about 1 kilometer to the north of the Kitora Tomb.

To preserve the murals at the Takamatsuzuka Tomb, which were discovered in 1972 in the tomb’s stone burial chamber and were later designated as a national treasure, the agency decided to seal off the chamber and make it airtight.

This approach, which kept the wall paintings closed to the public to put the priority on preservation, backfired, causing mold to spread. As the murals deteriorated, the agency was roundly criticized for the misguided preservation strategy.

Consequently, the stone burial chamber had to be dismantled, and the work to repair the paintings has continued for more than a dozen years to this day.

The cultural properties protection law says its objective is to “preserve cultural properties and promote their good use.”

To secure broad public support for the tax-financed efforts to preserve cultural assets, it is important to allow people to see them as much as possible.

The Kitora Tomb murals should be made available for public viewing in appropriate ways even after they are designated as a national treasure.

Japanese people deserve to have opportunities to come face to face with these amazing expressions of ancient Japanese aesthetics in the climate and nature of Asuka and imagine how their ancestors lived.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 18