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Japan culture agency head's watercolors key to World Heritage registration: interview

Agency for Cultural Affairs head Ryohei Miyata answers questions with his paintings in hand during an interview in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on July 13, 2017. (Mainichi)

Watercolor paintings played an instrumental role in lobbying for the registration of a sacred island and related sites in Fukuoka Prefecture as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the head of the Agency for Cultural Affairs told the Mainichi Shimbun.

Agency head Ryohei Miyata, who has served as president of Tokyo University of the Arts and is a metalworking artist himself, created watercolor paintings of the eight locations making up the "Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region" at the end of June to lobby for their registration, even though four of the sites had been rejected by a UNESCO preliminary review panel.

He made the paintings in late June, right before his departure for Poland, where the final meeting to decide the registrations was held. When Miyata had spoken to UNESCO ambassadors from around the world on visits to Japan, he felt that words alone were not enough to convey the connection between the sites and the island of Kyushu, nor the sacred meaning behind the island itself. "In art, no words are needed," he says, which prompted him to express the meaning of the sites through paintings instead.

While Miyata had supplies to paint in his home, he had no paper. When he finished with work, he rushed to a convenience store with 10 yen coins in hand. He pressed the copy button on the copy machine in the store to get blank A3 sheets of paper, and spent three nights with paintbrushes in hand to complete the works.

The painting showed the sacred island of Okinoshima and the closer island of Oshima as seen from the Kyushu mainland. Miyata added the fine details of blue for the Sea of Genkai and greens for the trees and forests. For rough seas, he used black to express the need for ancient sea-going vessels to pray for safe passage through the tumultuous waters.

On the day of the World Heritage Committee meeting, Miyata showed off his work at the venue entrance, and personally handed color copies with the name of the heritage site carefully penned in the alphabet to the committee ambassadors from each country. He felt an enthusiastic response from those who had come to cheer on his lobbying efforts. However, resistance to registering all of the sites at once was brought up in the debate, and opinions from each country fluctuated between positive and negative. Miyata remembers his happiness when he heard the sound of the gavel signifying that all of the locations would be registered as a heritage site.

But how can Okinoshima, where in principle only Shinto priests can visit, be promoted to tourists?

"For example, if a perfect replica of Okinoshima was placed on Oshima or in Kyushu, it could gather even more interest than the real island itself," suggests Miyata. Currently there are roughly 80,000 cultural treasures open to the public at Hetsu-miya within Munakata Taisha shrine on the main island of Kyushu. "It's precisely because Okinoshima is a testament to Japan's connection with the Asian continent that I would like to share it with the rest of the world," says Miyata.

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