Industrial sites in Japan move closer to World Heritage

The Hashima coal mine, also known as Gunkanjima, off Nagasaki

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a UNESCO advisory body, has recommended that UNESCO register "Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution (Kyushu, Yamaguchi and related area)" in eight prefectures, including Fukuoka Prefecture, as World Cultural Heritage sites, the Cabinet Secretariat has announced.

It is highly likely that UNESCO's World Heritage (See below) Committee will formally decide to register them as World Cultural Heritage sites during its meeting to be held in Bonn, Germany, from June 28 through July 8.

The sites include the Hashima coal mine in Nagasaki, which is also known as Gunkanjima, meaning "battleship island," because of its resemblance to a battleship. If approved, they will be the 15th Japanese cultural site or set of sites to be given World Heritage status, following the Tomioka Silk Mill and related industrial heritage sites in Gunma Prefecture that were added to the World Heritage list last year.

The Industrial Revolution sites, which can trace the development of Japan's heavy industries, include sites built just before the 1868-1912 Meiji era, in the closing days of the Tokugawa shogunate. These include a former shipyard and reverberatory furnaces constructed in what were then the Satsuma, Choshu and Saga domains, among other places.

The 23 assets also include a former dockyard and other facilities of the state-run Yawata Steel Works, the Miike coal mines and Mitsubishi Nagasaki Shipyard, as well as the shipyard firm's large crane, which is still in operation. It would be the first time for an operating facility to be included among the heritage sites of Japan.

The government emphasised the values of the sites, associating them with three important industries - shipbuilding, iron and steel making, and coal mining. The nation achieved rapid industrialization with a great deal of trial and error by integrating the technology that Japan learned from the West and its traditional culture.

ICOMOS said in the recommendation that the series of Industrial Revolution illustrates the first time industrialization from the West successfully spread in a non-Western country.

There are four stages in the ICOMOS recommendation system, with "registration" as the highest. The World Heritage Committee makes a decision on proposed sites by using the same wording for stages adopted by ICOMOS.

In recent years, the sites recommended by ICOMOS at the "registration" stage, the committee basically approves the registration.

South Korea, for its part, has expressed opposition to the listing as it says some of the sites are related to the use of "forced labour" during World War II. A heated discussion is expected in deliberations at the meeting as South Korea is one of the members of the committee.

World Heritage

To preserve the world heritage of mankind as a whole, UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1972. Japan ratified the convention in 1992. Currently, a total of 1,007 sites - 779 cultural, 197 natural and 31 mixed - have been added to the list.