‘Sacred’ men-only Japanese island to make UNESCO bid, but locals fear tourism

by Ryo Hashimoto

Kyodo

Japan is set to nominate Okinoshima, a remote Fukuoka Prefecture island some consider to be sacred, for 2017 UNESCO World Cultural Heritage listing. Also included in the bid will be a cluster of related sites in the area.

The island is seldom visited, not least because the Shinto shrine that controls it refuses access to women. There are varying explanations for the ban, but some say it is because menstruation would defile the site.

Local residents have mixed feelings about the bid. UNESCO recognition would increase global awareness of the areas’ historical significance — threatening their existence as isolated sanctuaries.

The bid comprises five sites of cultural heritage in the cities of Munakata and Fukutsu. They include Okinoshima, a lonely island 0.7 sq. kilometers in size off the northwest coast of Kyushu, the Shinto shrines of Munakata Taisha in Munakata, and an ancient burial ground in Fukutsu.

In the fourth to ninth centuries, people would visit Okinoshima to pray for successful exchanges with the Asian mainland and for safe voyages between there and Kyushu.

Some 80,000 articles from the Korean Peninsula, unearthed on the island, are designated as national treasures by the Japanese government.

Okinoshima is therefore known as the “Shoso-in of the sea,” a reference to the Shoso-in Imperial treasure house in Nara.

“Local fishermen have treasured Okinoshima since ancient times and have been protected by it,” said Tadahiko Nakamura, 64, head of the Munakata Fisheries Cooperative, referring to the tradition of praying at the island shrine for safety and for bumper catches.

“We will feel honored” if it is added to the UNESCO heritage list, he said.

Following news of the impending application for the UNESCO listing, the Munakata city office is among institutions that have been flooded with inquiries from travel agencies planning tours to the island, and from would-be tourists asking about boat trips and so on.

Okinoshima is owned by the Munakata Taisha Shrine, which in principle allows only its priests to land on the island. However, an exception is made during an annual festival in May, when about 200 men are given permission to land.

Local people deeply respect the sacredness of Okinoshima, which they know as “an island where gods reside.”

“We don’t want people to approach the gods without due reflection,” Nakamura said.

The chief priest at Munakata Taisha, Takayuki Ashizu, is one of those who oppose seeing Okinoshima become a mere tourist destination.

“We wouldn’t open Okinoshima to the public even if it is inscribed on the UNESCO cultural heritage list because people shouldn’t visit out of curiosity,” Ashizu said.

Women have never been allowed to set foot on the island. While there are few historical records explaining the ban, experts believe it is due to menstruation — Shinto treats blood as an impurity.

As Okinoshima lies about 60 km off Munakata, people who sailed to the island in the remote past tended to stay there for a prolonged period. Hideo Hattori, honorary professor of Japanese medieval history at Kyushu University, said that made it difficult for women to visit due to the teachings of Shinto.

But Munakata Taisha has a different explanation for the ban. As voyages to Okinoshima were very dangerous, women were prohibited from sailing there to protect them as they are the bearer of offspring.

Whatever the truth, a priest said the shrine will continue to prohibit women from visiting Okinoshima.

Access for men at this point is no more certain.

As it is difficult legally to restrict tourists from approaching Okinoshima, a Fukuoka prefectural official voiced hope that people will respect the sacredness of the island as “common sense.”

The prefectural government is considering establishing a facility where tourists can learn more about the island without actually visiting it. This would reduce footfall if it wins UNESCO registration.

Applying for inscription on the UNESCO list is aimed at preserving the cultural heritage of the site, said Tadashi Nishitani, honorary professor of archaeology at Kyushu University.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee will decide whether to add the sites to its World Cultural Heritage list based on findings by on-the-spot studies to be conducted possibly next autumn. It will decide on a listing in mid-2017.