Remote Ogasawara isles win World Heritage recognition
Minamijima island, in the foreground, and the Chichijima islands (Eiji Hori)Noritsugu Miyagawa serves as guide to Ogasawara's forests. (Gen Hashimoto)
For visitors, Japan's newest World Heritage Site is about as far off the beaten path as possible--a 25-hour journey by ship is the only way to reach it.
UNESCO's World Heritage Committee added Tokyo's Ogasawara islands to its list of World Natural Heritage sites at its meeting in Paris on June 24.
The committee assessed a variety of indigenous animal and plant species that have followed a unique evolutionary path on the islands, none of which are connected to any landmass.
The Ogasawara islands, located 1,000 kilometers south of central Tokyo, consists of about 30 islands with a subtropical climate.
The registered areas cover 6,360 hectares of land, including part of the Chichijima islands and part of the Hahajima islands, and 1,580 hectares of the surrounding sea.
The Ogasawara islands are the fourth Japanese natural site registered as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, following Yakushima island in Kagoshima Prefecture and the Shirakami Sanchi mountains in Aomori and Akita prefectures, both of which won designation in 1993, and the Shiretoko region in Hokkaido, which was listed in 2005.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the advisory body to the World Heritage Committee, conducted a field survey of the Ogasawara islands last July.
The team noted the many species of indigenous fauna and flora including more than 30 percent of trees and ferns and more than 90 percent of snails had undergone unique evolution processes on the islands.
The IUCN proposed in May that the Ogasawara islands would be recommended for inscription as a World Heritage Site.
Local nature conservation group members are happy about the news.
"Ogasawara's nature was recognized around the world," said Noritsugu Miyagawa, who heads the Ogasawara branch of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan, a group of nature guides in Ogasawara islands.
The group started guided nature tours in the 1980s after the Tokyo metropolitan government announced a plan to construct an airport on the islands.
"To be connected with Tokyo by air is not the only way for us to be happy," Miyagawa said.
The group also came up with the idea of whale watching and swimming with dolphins.
"Nature, a common feature in the Ogasawara islands, has been recognized as a World Heritage," Miyagawa said. "It would be wonderful if it would motivate the villagers to feel proud of their islands."
The Ogasawara islands have a population of 2,500, including residents both in Hahajima and Chichijima.
In contrast, about 15,000 people visit the islands every year.
Although it is a 25-hour trip by ship from the Honshu mainland, the number of tourists is expected to increase after its registration as a World Heritage site.
The expansion of tourism may mean not only an increase in people, but also an increase in commodities from outside the islands that could threaten its unique ecosystem.
Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, the first registered World Natural Heritage Site, found its population sharply rising as the number of tourists increased, causing the islands to be at one time inscribed on the list of endangered World Heritage sites.
In its recommendation to the World Heritage Committee submitted in May, the IUCN urged Japan to take action against nonnative species being introduced to the Ogasawara islands.
The central and Tokyo metropolitan governments plan to tighten control to prevent foreign species entering the islands.
When the registration was notified at 10:50 p.m. Japan time at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Kazuhiko Ishida, deputy mayor of Ogasawara village, was congratulated by the people around him.
"Ogasawara was praised for good conservation of nature," he said. "We want to conserve the nature as we have always done."
Ogasawara village released a public relations newsletter on June 25. At noon, a gun salute was fired and village Mayor Kazuo Morishita sent a message over the community loudspeaker system.
The Ogasawara islands were once under U.S. occupation, but were returned to Japan in 1968.
To the delight of villagers, June 25 was also the anniversary date of the islands' return to Japanese possession.