Japan’s Mount Fuji and Kamakura, Kanagawa may not be added to the World Cultural Heritage list next year

Despite their international fame, Mt. Fuji and the ancient samurai capital of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, may not be added to the World Cultural Heritage list next year. A decision on Mt. Fuji and Kamakura will be made at a meeting of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in June. According to people concerned, however, listing the two sites may become more difficult because of stricter screening, as there are already 962 World Cultural Heritage sites.

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Mt. Fuji faces the additional problem

Mount Fuji JapanMt. Fuji faces the additional problem of the huge number of climbers who trek up the mountain every year--320,000 have already climbed it this year. In a bid to have it listed, the Shizuoka prefectural government is set to toughen restrictions on the entry of cars on the mountain to curtail this massive assault on the nation's highest peak. Kamakura has to contend with the problem that Nara and Kyoto have already been listed. It has to prove to the committee it is somehow unique to these ancient capitals if it wants to join them on the World Cultural Heritage list.

UNESCO council's inspections

In preparation for screening the application for Mt. Fuji's listing, a Canadian architect from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an advisory body to UNESCO, carried out an eight-day inspection in early September at the foot of the mountain. One site studied by the ICOMOS expert was Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Jinja, a major shrine dedicated to the sacred mountain in Fuji-Yoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture.

Yamanashi prefectural government officials said they were keen on convincing the researcher that Japan's centuries of worship of Mt. Fuji should be recognized as a "cultural heritage." For this purpose, the officials permitted the researcher to see such time-honored rites as "otakiage," in which a group of mountain priests tell good and bad omens based on the falling patterns of ash from a bonfire.

The officials said they hoped this would help the researcher determine the "cultural value" of mountain worship. Japanese traditionally are believed to stand in awe of Mt. Fuji. In Kamakura where ICOMOS research was conducted from Monday to Thursday, another researcher from the U.N. body, a Chinese architect, was given firsthand experience of "samurai culture being handed down to today" in such forms as sado, the art of tea ceremony, and Zen-related vegetarian cuisine.

The Great Buddha Daibutsu Kotokuin Temple Kamakura Japan
The Great Buddha Daibutsu Kotokuin Temple Kamakura Japan

Officials of the two candidate sites noted the researchers had difficulty grasping the culture and religious faith peculiar to Japan because they came from different cultural backgrounds. The officials said they took into account the "lessons drawn from Hiraizumi," which had to wait three years from the initial application before it joined the cultural heritage list.

The Cultural Affairs Agency promoted Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, for cultural heritage listing in 2008. The effort failed mainly due to a lack of detailed explanations to ICOMOS researchers about the cultural value of the "Pure Land Buddhism" that inspired the creation of Hiraizumi's legacy. After that, agency officials excluded some historic sites originally included in the application for the UNESCO registration as they were considered hard to explain to foreigners.

The agency subsequently applied a second time by having the English version of application documents checked by an American researcher of Buddhism. Hiraizumi was added to the World Cultural Heritage list in 2011.


Major Weak Points

Besides the difficulty in conveying cultural values abroad, Mt. Fuji and Kamakura have other weaknesses. The Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectural governments initially set the goal of winning UNESCO approval for Mt. Fuji to be listed as a World Natural Heritage site. The mountain sits on the border of the two prefectures. The government rejected this bid in its selection of candidate World Heritage sites in 2003 because of the mountain's environmental degradation.

Mitsuru Ichikawa, a Yamanashi prefectural government official in charge of seeking World Cultural Heritage status, said, "The sublime beauty of Mt. Fuji has been worshipped from ancient times and is intricately woven into the spiritual culture of the Japanese.

Local tourist agencies, understandably disturbed about the possibility that their businesses would be adversely affected, were told by prefectural officials the development of the area was important to the future of the region.

A major cause of the tourist agencies' concern is that once Mt. Fuji is listed, strict controls would be enforced to limit the number of climbers. The 320,000 climbers who have climbed the mountain this year is the second-largest figure ever, according to Environment Ministry officials. Success or failure of reducing the number of climbers will directly affect the bid to obtain World Cultural Heritage status for Mt. Fuji, the officials said.

20 years on waiting list

Kamakura was included in the government's provisional candidate list for World Heritage applications when Japan ratified the U.N. World Heritage Convention in 1992. The city has had to wait for 20 years before obtaining the government's official recommendation, however.

This is mainly because Kyoto and Nara, which are similar to Kamakura in a cultural sense, have been designated heritage sites. A Kamakura official involved in recommending the city said, "We had to spend a lot of time pointing out that Kamakura, unlike Kyoto and Nara, is the cradle of Japan's first samurai government."

Documents compiled by the municipal government go to great lengths to explain that the mountains on three sides of Kamakura played a highly important role in nurturing samurai culture. The official noted that if the city becomes a World Cultural Heritage site, Kamakura's name recognition, which is much lower than that of Kyoto and Nara, will certainly increase.

However, analysts say that unless UNESCO recognizes the uniqueness of Kamakura in comparison with Kyoto and Nara, the prospects of the city winning World Cultural Heritage status is slim. From 2014, UNESCO will adopt a policy of restricting to one per country the number of World Cultural Heritage applications, since heritage designations tend to concentrate on specific regions such as Europe and China.

On top of this, UNESCO screening of applications probably will become more rigorous since the number of World Cultural Heritage sites is approaching 1,000. This means that next year will be the last chance for Mt. Fuji and Kamakura to be listed simultaneously as World Cultural Heritage sites, according to the Cultural Affairs Agency.

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