Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Observations on the Commotion over the World Heritage Registration
NISHIKAWA Megumi / Journalist

September 22, 2008
I find all this fuss in Japan about the World Heritage registration a bit strange. When the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decided not to register the historical Hiraizumi area of Iwate prefecture in northern Japan as a World Heritage site in July this year, the decision caused great disappointment and even resentment in Japan. People said that the decision showed that UNESCO did not understand the historical importance of Hiraizumi. On the other hand, when the remains of the Iwami Ginzan silver mine in Shimane prefecture in western Japan, whose registration was considered likely to be postponed, did make the list last year, the overjoyed citizens held a lantern parade to celebrate the event.

I can understand the local people working very hard to have their own cultural properties recognized by the world. The World Heritage brand promotes tourism and gives a boost to the local economy. Visitors to the Iwami Ginzan silver mine is said to have increased more than tenfold since the listing. What I find strange, however, is the Japanese tendency to consider the World Heritage registration as having an unconditional absolute value. Having a World Heritage site in one's region has become a goal in and of itself. If the site is not recognized, people feel that the importance of the cultural property has been denied and resolve to do everything they can to get it on the list next time. That is what I cannot empathize with.

I think we must look at the World Heritage list as more relative in value. The World Heritage is a relative standard or evaluation, based on UNESCO's cultural strategy. The UNESCO policy is to register natural and cultural heritage sites, which are common properties of all the peoples of the world, taking into consideration their diversity and regional balance, and encourage their protection and preservation. The UNESCO selection does not necessarily correspond with the heritage’s academic importance or its significance for the region.

Sites with overwhelming presence such as the Great Wall of China or the pyramids of Egypt will be registered without question. But there are countless cultural properties with academic or historical importance for the country where they are located but lacking in international appeal. In his recent book, World Heritage, the UNESCO Secretary-General Koichiro Matsuura says that UNESCO is considering placing a limit on the number of sites so they do not continue to multiply endlessly. Japan already has fourteen sites listed, so it will be difficult to have a new site listed unless it has great impact. If something in the class of Hiraizumi were located in one of the small island states in the South Pacific, however, it would probably have been registered. Of the 183 signatories to the World Heritage Convention, 44 countries do not have a single site on the list. Eleven of these are small island states in the South Pacific, an area where UNESCO is eager to register a site, from the point of regional balance.

Another reason for looking at the World Heritage in relative terms is that political and economic factors are involved in the registration. In the case of the remains of the Iwami Ginzan silver mine, Japanese diplomatic initiative was successful in overturning the decision not to register the site. The Japanese delegation's lobbying effort worked. In an opposite move, in 2007, the Oman government was granted its request to delist the Arabian oryx sanctuary listed in 1994, apparently for oil development in the area. As soon as there is economic profit involved, some countries are quick to request delisting. That is the reality of the World Heritage.

There is no doubt that the World Heritage has helped to increase the people's interest in cultural properties and played an important role in promoting the awareness of the need for their preservation. But we must also keep in mind that the World Heritage listing does not necessarily reflect the significance of a cultural property for the country where it is located.

The writer is a Senior Staff Writer at the Mainichi Shimbun.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

西川 恵  / ジャーナリスト

2008年 9月 22日






(筆者は毎日新聞 専門編集委員)
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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Observations on the Commotion over the World Heritage Registration