Chiba University graduate school researchers are making 3D images of Buddhist statues and other cultural assets in the prefecture as a safeguard against their theft or deterioration.
The project is also benefiting local communities, with one temple, for example, selling miniature 3D models of its statuary as charms and an artist who engraves metal using the data to produce accessories.
Professor Akira Ueda of the graduate school of engineering proposed the project in 2013 to people involved with temples and shrines.
Researchers used a portable scanner at 10 temples, shrines and the Kamogawa-shi Kyodo Shiryokan history museum in the town of Kamogawa to record 3D images of about 40 objects, including woodcarvings.
Doctoral student Hironobu Aoki, 25, plays a leading role. "The data could be useful for preservation, repairs and restoration of cultural assets," he says. "I hope more people become aware that we're doing this so we can collect more data."
Initiatives to use the 3D data have already begun. At Komatsuji Temple in Minamiboso, 1,300 years old, 2.5-centimetre-tall reproductions of its Kisshoten and Bishamonten statues dating to the later Heian Period (794 to the late 12th century) are being produced from the data with a 3D printer.
The statuettes are sold as charms on special occasions, in bags made of cotton from nearby Kimitsu.
Artist Hiroshi Deguchi, 50, who works with metal at his studio Tomigin in Tateyama, has been producing silver jewellery on a trial basis from the 3D data of a woodcarving of a lion at Konrenin Temple in that town.
The carving, known as "A", was made by Goto Yoshimitsu, one of two prominent sculptors in the Awa region - now part of Chiba Prefecture - who specialised in shrine and temple decorations during the Early Modern Period.
The original carving is 31cm tall, 48cm wide and 31cm thick. Deguchi used a 3D printer to create a replica that's 3cm wide and then used that to make a casting mould. He pours molten silver into the mould to produce miniatures for bracelets, pendants and rings.
Using 3D data for commercial purposes while creating a system that's beneficial to cultural assets is a challenge for Chiba University and others, but it does bring rewards.
Deguchi is upbeat. "In the future I'd like to increase the variety of products and sell them as commercial goods."
The history museum in Kamogawa recently hosted an exhibition featuring carved works from the Awa region. Works by Goto and Takeshi Ihachiro Nobuyoshi, the other prominent sculptor of their day, were shown alongside 3D replicas. Deguchi's products were also displayed.