Devise ways to use Japan Heritage to revitalize local communities

The initial goal of Japan Heritage — to revitalize local communities and promote tourism — does not appear to have been achieved. Both the central and local governments must devise measures so the initiative does not end up as empty words.

In 2015, the Cultural Affairs Agency established Japan Heritage, a project to make effective use of cultural properties scattered across various regions of the country. The system designates groups of cultural properties — such as historical buildings, places of scenic beauty and festivals — based on applications from local governments.

Unlike national treasures and important cultural assets that are individually designated, the project aims to tell stories about the appeal of various regions through a set of properties, even if the value of each single component may not be conspicuous. A total of 104 groups have been recognized by the project so far.

For instance, “Islands Linking Japan and Asia” comprises four municipalities in Nagasaki Prefecture and features islands that served as bridges to the continent. “Henro — A Spiritual Journey through Shikoku” covers 57 municipalities in Shikoku and focuses on a pilgrimage.

The initial plan was to limit the number of designations to about 100, with the aim of enhancing the brand power of Japan Heritage, but the hoped-for effect has yet to be seen.

Taking this into consideration, the agency last year introduced a system to review activities related to Japan Heritage groups and revoke designations if those efforts were deemed to be insufficient. It also set up rules for adding other components to designations, contingent on local governments’ efforts.

The agency warned of possible revocation for four sites out of the 18 that were designated in the first fiscal year of the project, if no improvement is seen after three years, citing a lack of cooperation between related local governments and the private sector.

The agency may have become increasingly alarmed that the significance of the project could be questioned if it fails to raise the overall level of the Japan Heritage sites.

In a survey conducted by the agency in January 2020, only slightly over 10% of the respondents said they knew about sites designated by Japan Heritage and understood how the system works. About 30% said they had never heard the name Japan Heritage.

If the project is not widely recognized, it is difficult to achieve results simply by changing it. Cooperation with the Japan Tourism Agency and other organizations should be strengthened to make Japan Heritage more widely known.

Designated sites can receive government support for a certain period of time, but after that they are required to implement relevant projects with their own funds, making it difficult for some local governments to keep such projects going. A steady approach is necessary, such as dispatching more experts to advise local governments.

Local governments should not consider acquiring a Japan Heritage designation as an end goal. The question is how to attract visitors afterward.

Measures should be devised to encourage visitors to return, such as by improving transportation networks to enable people to efficiently visit heritage sites and securing accommodation facilities.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 21, 2022.