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Under the Cultural Properties Protection Act of 1950, the Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs designates the nation's most important cultural assets as kokuhĂ´, or "National Treasures." There are three main types of national treasure: masterpieces of fine or applied arts, buildings or other monuments, and individual persons who have mastered some traditional Japanese applied or performing art to such an extent that they are deemed ningen kokuhĂ´, or "Living National Treasures."

National treasure art objects include everything from pottery to wall hangings to dolls to samurai swords. National treasure buildings are usually castles, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines, but can also include whole villages. As of December 1, 2003, there were 853 national treasure art objects, and 211 national treasure buildings.

The living national treasures run the gamut of traditional Japanese arts. A total of 115 individuals have been named national treasures since 1950, although only 52 are currently alive. In the performing arts a total of 57 individuals have been honored in 34 different skills, while in the applied arts a total of 58 individuals have been named for mastering 43 specific crafts. Usually, there is only one currently alive national treasure for any given craft or performing art, i.e. one living treasure for swordsmithing, one for a certain aspect of bunraku, etc. There are also 13 performance art groups recognized, as well as 11 craft collectives (usually famous workshops).

The major categories for living national treasures, with the number of skills recognized in each in parentheses, are: in the performing arts, gagaku (1 skill), noh (8), bunraku (4), kabuki (6), kumiodori (1), music (22), dance (2), vaudeville (1); and in the applied arts, pottery (16 skills), textiles (22), laquer (6), metalwork (6), woodwork (1), bamboo (1), dollmaking (1), ivory (1), and papermaking (1).

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