• Kyodo

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Residents of an island chain near Okinawa have been left frustrated after the assessment process for the area’s bid to make the UNESCO World Heritage List was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

A World Heritage Committee session was originally set to be held in Fuzhou, China, from June 29 through July 9 but the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said last month that consultations are underway to determine reschedule the session.

The natural heritage candidate site covers some 43,000 hectares across Amami-Oshima and Tokunoshima islands in Kagoshima Prefecture, as well as the northern part of Okinawa and Iriomote Island in Okinawa Prefecture.

The area boasts extensive subtropical forests that are home to rare species such as the Amami rabbit, the Iriomote cat and birds such as the Okinawa rail.

“The number of tourists had fallen significantly and we hoped the world heritage registration would boost tourism, so it’s disappointing,” said Hisahiro Torikai, president of Amami Ornithologists’ Club.

A UNESCO advisory panel surveyed the site last October and was to release its evaluation by the middle of this month. But with the delay in the committee session, the panel’s recommendation is also expected to be pushed back.

The government had marked the area as a candidate for the natural heritage list in February 2017 but dropped it in June 2018 after a UNESCO panel sought the addition of a forest within a former U.S. military site in northern Okinawa.

In line with the panel’s opinion, Japan inserted the forest, which is rich in rare plants and animals, in a new proposal submitted in February 2019. The U.S. military site had been returned to Japan in December 2016.

“As someone who is waiting, there’s a sense of fatigue with two postponements. But this (coronavirus) is a global issue and can’t be helped,” said Torikai. “We’ll continue to promote the attractions of Amami.”

A Kagoshima Prefectural Government official in charge of promoting the bid site played down the impact of the postponement.

“It’s just a postponement, we’ll not make any fuss about it and carry on with what we’ve been doing,” the official said.

A senior Okinawa official agreed the delay was inevitable, given the global coronavirus pandemic.

“Now is a time to wait. I hope the session will be held when (the virus outbreak) winds down so our site will be properly examined,” the official said.

The session in China was also scheduled to evaluate the state of preservation for 23 sites in Japan registered as having cultural heritage value by UNESCO in 2015. The locations represent Japan’s industrialization during the Meiji Era from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries.

The 2021 World Heritage Committee session will examine Jomon Era archaeological sites in northern Japan, which Tokyo recommended as a cultural heritage in January this year.

The 17 prehistoric sites in Hokkaido, Aomori, Iwate and Akita prefectures represent a culture that prevailed in Japan for more than 10,000 years.

Japan currently has four UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites, including the Shiretoko Peninsula of Hokkaido and the Ogasawara Islands in the Pacific, about 1,000 km south of Tokyo.

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