Japan’s World Heritage sites require fine balance of preservation and use

It is welcome news that rare remains, symbolizing humans’ coexistence with nature for more than 10,000 years, as well as rich ecosystems that represent Japan, are being recognized as common assets of humanity.

Archaeological sites in Hokkaido and the northern Tohoku region dating to the ancient Jomon period, including the Sannai Maruyama site in Aomori City, are set to be added to UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list.

A UNESCO advisory body has also recommended the registration of the islands of Amami-Oshima and Tokunoshima in Kagoshima Prefecture, and the northern part of Okinawa main island and Iriomotejima island in Okinawa Prefecture, to the World Heritage list of natural assets. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is expected to approve the registration at a meeting in July.

The Jomon archaeological sites are 17 remains dating from about 2,400 to 15,000 years ago in the Jomon period. They include the Odai Yamamoto site in Aomori Prefecture, where the oldest earthenware in Northeast Asia was discovered, and the Oyu Kanjo Resseki stone circles in Akita Prefecture, a site for religious rituals.

The Cultural Affairs Agency considers the Jomon sites as ancient remains that show how the Jomon people established their settlements based on gathering, fishing and hunting. The UNESCO advisory body also expressed a high opinion of them, saying that they show the characteristics of a settlement society before the development of agricultural culture, and the complex spiritual culture of the Jomon people.

It is significant that the value of Jomon culture has been recognized worldwide as prehistoric heritage. Hopefully, local officials will strengthen efforts to preserve the remains and convey their charm.

Nearly 100 endangered species, including 75 endemic species such as the Amami rabbit, Okinawa rail and Iriomote wildcat, inhabit Amami-Oshima island, the northern part of Okinawa main island and other islands, which are to be designated as World Natural Heritage sites.

The advisory body recognized them as an internationally important area in terms of biodiversity conservation.

The unique ecosystem has been nurtured by the warm and humid subtropical climate and evergreen forests. It is necessary to continue steady activities to protect the natural environment.

Those outlying isles in southwestern Japan will be the nation’s fifth World Natural Heritage site, while the Jomon archaeological sites in northern Japan are expected to become the country’s 20th World Cultural Heritage site. The purpose of the registration is to pass on World Heritage sites to future generations, and it is the responsibility of the central and local governments and other concerned parties to prevent a rapid increase in tourists from causing environmental damage and also to achieve a balance between preservation and regional development.

In recommending the registration of the Jomon archaeological sites, the UNESCO advisory body noted that there are roads and other structures around the remains. It called for their removal, and for efforts to reduce their impact on the remains.

Regarding the islands in Kagoshima and Okinawa prefectures, the advisory body also called for measures to prevent rare animal species from being hit by cars and to limit the number of tourists to Iriomotejima island.

Existing World Natural Heritage sites such as Yakushima island in Kagoshima Prefecture and the Ogasawara Islands that are a remote part of Tokyo have set up observation decks and limit the number of visitors as part of efforts to restrict tourism. It is vital to draw up rules as soon as possible with reference to such precedents.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 28, 2021.