At long last, Japan received a bit of bright news May 7, when it was announced that two sites in Japan, the historic Hiraizumi area in Iwate Prefecture and the Ogasawara Islands some 1,000 km south of Tokyo, were almost certain to be designated as World Heritage Sites at meetings next month of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Paris.

The Hiraizumi area, seat of the Oshu Fujiwara family in the 11th and 12th centuries and the site of the Buddhist temple Chusonji — famous for its Golden Hall (Konjikido) — would be Japan’s 12th cultural heritage site, while the Ogasawara Islands, often called the “Galapagos of the East” for the many unique species found there, would be the nation’s fourth natural heritage site. Local authorities particularly hope that the designation of Hiraizumi, the first cultural heritage site in the Tohoku region, can serve as an impetus for recovery from the March 11 quake and tsunami.

Even though the Hiraizumi area, located inland, suffered little direct damage in the disaster, visitors to the area are down sharply — Golden Week tourists to Hiraizumicho totaled 49,500, a drop of 85 percent from the previous year.

Meanwhile, efforts have started to rescue cultural treasures directly affected by the quake and tsunami.

On April 28 the Cultural Affairs Agency, working with Miyagi Prefecture, started rescuing items from the Ishinomaki Bunka Center, sending many art works to the prefectural art museum in Sendai for restoration. Hundreds of paintings and other works on the first floor were deluged in mud and debris during the tsunami, and a valuable collection of Ainu accessories and other folk items is at risk for mold.

The first such rescue operations by the Cultural Affairs Agency were conducted after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 at 16 institutions and private residences, saving a large number of documents, craft works, and art works from the rubble. This time the wide physical area affected has hampered the preliminary survey and assessment of exactly what is at risk where.

At least those struggling to save Japan’s treasures have now received some encouragement from the outside world’s recognition of Japan’s rich cultural and natural heritage in the form of selection as World Heritage Sites.

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