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What is Japan Heritage?

700 years of the Sagara clan, spawning a uniquely conservative yet progressive culture

Hitoyoshi Kuma: Japan’s Most Vibrant Hidden Village

A system was established by the Agency of Cultural Affairs in 2015 to designate special Japan Heritage Stories – stories that illustrate aspects of Japanese culture and tradition by examining the historical appeal and unique characteristics of a selected region. Hitoyoshi Kuma was the first region selected in Kumamoto Prefecture, and is one of 18 regions selected throughout the nation for this distinction. The tangible and Life & Culture of each region are described in these charming heritage stories, which in turn help revitalize the local community.

Hitoyoshi Kuma’s Japan Heritage Story revolves around the Sagara clan, whose rule of the region spanned 700 years up until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Examples of a single family governing the same region for so long are few and far between – besides the Sagaras of Hitoyoshi Kuma, there are only three other cases of such a lengthy reign in all of Japanese history. The tangible relics and intangible cultural impact that remain in the region today are valuable cultural assets for understanding Japanese history as a whole. What makes the cultural heritage of Hitoyoshi Kuma all the more special, however, is how these cultural assets have been passed down and remain part of the lives of its people, and how they have become natural, inextricable elements of the daily scenery of the region itself.
In his famous collection of essays Kaido wo Yuku (On the Highways), historical novelist Shiba Ryotaro describes the Hitoyoshi Kuma region as “Japan’s most vibrant hidden village.” Let us take a look at some of the stories from the 700 years of the Sagaras – a family that was loved by their people and protected their local culture while still enthusiastically bringing in advances from the outside.

Photo:Shorenji Amidado Temple: Taragi