Sacred men-only island set to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status


A UNESCO advisory body has recommended adding to the World Heritage list the island of Okinoshima, an ancient religious site in Fukuoka Prefecture where women are not allowed to set foot, according to the Cultural Affairs Agency.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites, the advisory body known as ICOMOS, notified Japan of its decision late Friday night. It is likely to be endorsed at a meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Krakow, Poland, in July.

If approved as recommended, the island, which is part of the prefecture’s Munakata region, will be the 17th set of Japanese cultural assets to be granted World Heritage status. Including natural heritage items and sites, the addition will see the total number of Japanese assets on the list rise to 21.

The island was one of the assets examined this time, which also included sites on another island in the prefecture known as Oshima. Both islands lie between the Korean Peninsula and Kyushu.

Okinoshima is home to the Okitsu shrine, part of the Munakata Grand Shrine. Oshima, meanwhile, hosts the Nakatsu shrine while the Munakata region on Kyushu’s mainland is home to the Hetsu shrine. Both the Nakatsu and Hetsu shrines are also part of the grand shrine.

The Shinbaru-Nuyama tumulus complex, a burial ground of the Munakata clan that presided over religious rituals in the region, was also examined by ICOMOS but did not make the final cut.

Okinoshima was the site of numerous rituals involving prayers for the safety of oceangoing ships and successful exchanges with the people of the Korean Peninsula and China between the fourth and ninth centuries.

Some 80,000 artifacts brought as gifts from overseas have been uncovered on the island, including gold rings from the Korean Peninsula and glass cup fragments believed to have come from Persia. These items have all been designated as national treasures.

On the island, strict taboos from ancient times are still followed, including a controversial ban on women from entering it. Men setting foot on the island are first required to strip all clothes and perform a cleansing ritual.

Looking forward to 2018, Japan has recommended Christian sites in Nagasaki and Kumamoto prefectures as cultural heritage listings and islands in Kagoshima and Okinawa prefectures as natural heritage sites.

Meanwhile, UNESCO’s executive board in Paris has approved a reform plan for its Memory of the World program calling for prior talks on applications related to controversial issues, sources said.

The 58-nation board, which includes Japan, unanimously adopted a resolution welcoming an interim report on the draft reform plan by the International Advisory Committee, whose members include history experts, the sources said.

Japan called for reforms, including improved transparency, after China successfully sought to have documents related to the 1937 Nanking Massacre listed in the Memory of the World Register in October 2015.

The two Asian giants have differing views of incident’s details, including the number of Chinese killed by Imperial Japanese Army soldiers.

The committee, which advises UNESCO on the program, will craft a final report to be submitted to the board at its next meeting sometime around October, the sources said.

In South Korea, a Memory of the World Register campaign is currently underway to list documents related to so-called comfort women who were forced to work as prostitutes for Imperial Japanese Army soldiers before and during World War II.

If process is carried out under the reformed procedures, Japan will be given an opportunity to express its opinion before a UNESCO decision about that possible listing.

The draft reform plan calls for soliciting opinions from countries related to subjects on which Memory of the World applications are made.

If any objections are raised, UNESCO will allot concerned parties time for discussions.

The Memory of the World program was designed to protect documentary heritage. From Japan, five sets of historical records have been listed, including those related to the Soviet Union’s internment of Japanese in prison camps after World War II.

Following the controversial registration of the documents related to the Nanking Massacre, Tokyo halted financial contributions to UNESCO. Payments were resumed late last year after progress was made toward potential reforms.

The interim report noted the necessity of creating a framework to protect the program from any attempt to hijack it for political purposes.