The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization convened the 28th World Heritage Committee in Suzhou, China in early July to screen candidates for World Heritage sites, which are cultural or natural treasures meant to be preserved intact forever. The big news out of the session was that a North Korean site made it onto the list for the first time, mainly because South Korea has promised to help with the preservation efforts.
A Japanese site was selected, too. Holy grounds in the Kii Mountains straddling three prefectures and representing three different religions became the 12th World Heritage site in Japan, which, unlike North Korea, has plenty of money to spend on the required preservation. However, a remark from Mie Gov. Akihiko Noro made clear the real value of the selection. He vowed to “make use of the site to revitalize the region.”
Obviously, the governor sees the selection as an opportunity to bring in money, and though he didn’t specify how Mie and the other two prefectures would “make use of” the holy grounds, everyone assumes he’s talking about tourism. The sticking point is that part of the holy grounds are off-limits to women, who tend to spend the bulk of the tourist yen in Japan. If Gov. Noro wants to attract sightseers, he may have to unpreserve a few religious customs.
Something more complicated awaits the residents of the Shiretoko Peninsula in northern Hokkaido who have successfully added their area to next year’s list of candidates. The complication arises from the fact that Shiretoko is up for a World Natural Heritage site designation, which seems to have more strict conditions than those for a cultural site.
Shiretoko is now receiving a good deal of media coverage, and, according to the Hokkaido edition of the Asahi Shimbun, the number of visitors to the area increased noticeably after it was approved as a candidate. That, of course, is exactly what the residents want, but if and when they are selected they may find there’s a conflict between their aims and UNESCO’s.
Late last month, a UNESCO team visited Shiretoko to assess the area. World Natural Heritage sites must be preserved in a virtually pristine state, and the team was satisfied by the virgin condition of the forests. But it was concerned about the wildlife, specifically bears. While examining a waterfall, the team was approached by two brown bears. A local researcher who was accompanying the team attempted to scare the animals away with loud noises and rubber bullets, but the bears seemed unperturbed. The head of the UNESCO team said that something would have to be done to make sure that bears did not come into contact with humans.
It wasn’t the first such incident. In fact, according to an article in the Asahi Shimbun, bears on Shiretoko seem to be unintimidated by humans. On June 8, a guide and five sightseers were hiking among the peninsula’s five lakes when they encountered “E.A.,” a famous female bear who once spent an extended period of time with humans as a research subject. The guide drove E.A. away with pepper spray, but the bear returned. And when a woman in another group screamed, E.A. made a threatening movement. Shortly thereafter, the local authorities announced that they would shoot E.A., who seems to have gotten the message. She hasn’t been seen since.
In the same article, a representative of the Shiretoko Foundation, which oversees the area, said “elimination [of individual bears]” is a viable option “when bears and humans have to coexist,” a statement that implies the main concern is keeping the area safe for tourists rather than for bears. He also mentioned that bears are excellent “assets” for such an area, a strange thing to say considering that much of the lakes region has been closed to the public this summer for safety reasons due to bear sightings.
As a “resource,” Shiretoko is an object of contention. On the east side of the peninsula is Rausu, once a prosperous fishing town that has seen its catch decline by more than half since the early 1990s. Rausu has decided to consolidate with the town of Naka Shibetsu to the south. Naka Shibetsu, whose main resource is the area’s airport, has agreed because it wants Rausu’s Shiretoko “brand value.” When they do join, they will rename the resulting city either Shiretoko or Minami Shiretoko. (Interestingly, the two towns are not contiguous, but separated by another, Shibetsu, which voted not to participate in the consolidation.)
This does not sit well with the town of Shari, which is on the west side of the peninsula. Shari, already a fairly prosperous tourist town, feels it has at least half a claim on the Shiretoko name and that Rausu has no right to monopolize it.
Though Shiretoko is already famous in story and song, its brand value will rise considerably if it becomes a World Natural Heritage site. The contradictions don’t seem to worry Shiretoko, but the Hokkaido Environmental Research Center told Asahi that the foundation has it backward: becoming a nature preserve means restricting humans, not restricting wildlife.
UNESCO would require that the wildlife be totally protected if the area is selected as a World Natural Heritage site, and by wildlife they don’t mean just bears. The huge sea lions that live in the waters off the peninsula would also be protected, and they are a local delicacy, thus making them an “asset” of a different type. The logical solution would be to declare sea-lion cuisine part of the region’s cultural heritage, just as whale meat supposedly is to the rest of Japan. I hear bears are quite tasty, too.