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Intangible Cultural Heritage in Japan: Bingata a traditional dyed textile from Okinawa

Sarashima, Sumiko; (2013) Intangible Cultural Heritage in Japan: Bingata a traditional dyed textile from Okinawa. Doctoral thesis (Ph.D), UCL (University College London). Green open access

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My thesis is an ethnographic investigation of the social impact of Japan’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) policy, a government scheme that supports practitioners of traditional crafts and performing arts and defines their skills accordingly. This concept of heritage was developed in Japan immediately following the Second World War, when the country, then under the USA’s control, was attempting to establish a social value of ‘tradition’ while also pursuing the economic and social development that has facilitated the nation’s Americanisation. People in contemporary Japan continue to engage in many traditional practices despite drastic social and cultural changes over the last century. Highly skilled artists and craftsmen, recognised as custodians of traditional cultural expressions, are known as ‘Living National Treasures’ and enjoy widespread respect. The Japanese concept of heritage differs significantly from that found in Euro-North American academic discussion, which has been developed chiefly through the orientation to seek the ‘sense of origin’ by preserving tangible heritage such as historic sites and monuments. Since the United Nations Educational, Science, and Cultural Organi[s]ation (UNESCO) established the Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2004, the idea of ICH has been incorporated into Western heritage studies. In this context, however, ICH has focused mainly sociopolitical impacts on post-colonial countries. Little attempt has been made to understand how people experience ICH in their daily lives and why ‘tradition’ is needed in contemporary society. Japanese ICH comprises established social institutions in the context of a large, highly developed society where Western influence has led to homogenised ways of living. This thesis aims to question the generally held assumptions about ICH being a social norm through which people respect ‘tradition’ and expect it to be safeguarded for its own sake as a counter value of modernity, westernisation and globalisation. To challenge this monolithic assumption towards ICH, an anthropological analysis is essential to considering ICH as a cultural form of living human activity in an ever-changing society, which has come to be shared by people as a result of modernity. To observe a cultural form inventoried as ‘tradition’, the focus is placed on several entities such as the practitioner, the work, the production techniques, the consumer, and the space where the form originates, including the people who inhabit this space and their relationship with others. A key question is ‘what has happened to the relationship between these entities since the inception of the ICH policy in 1950’? To demonstrate the complexity and sophistication of a cultural form identified as ‘tradition’, I provide an example of a traditional textile-dyeing technique, known as Bingata, practised in Okinawa Prefecture. This study explores the transformative social meaning of Bingata through the process of its ‘traditionalisation’ and its impact to contemporary society. My ethnographic research provides examples of the practitioners’ and local people’s past and present relationship with Bingata, and the culture of consumption surrounding the use of Bingata material. Based on the personal narratives, my observations of people’s bodily actions through the Bingata material acquired during my field research, conducted at Bingata workshops, museums and tourist sites in Okinawa, and a kimono market in Tokyo, I will reveal the metamorphic character of Bingata ‘tradition’, realised through the transformation and innovation of technique, materials and form as a result of craftspeople’s experience of social dynamics and feedback from consumers. Through people’s physical and emotional engagement on the material in several different locations, I analysis the social capacity of production and consumption of Bingata as ‘tradition’. From the anthropological analysis of Bingata practice, I present a constructive approach to ICH, viewing it is a social milieu in which people and their actions and emotions are actively related, by establishing the value of ‘tradition’ in a cultural form. I emphasise how the conservation activities implied by the concept of ICH are better understood as an effort to establish a social institution of ‘tradition’, in which people recognise the value of a cultural form by producing and consuming it.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Qualification: Ph.D
Title: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Japan: Bingata a traditional dyed textile from Okinawa
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Additional information: Some third party copyright material has been removed from this e-thesis.
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Dept of Anthropology
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1388906
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