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Locals disappointed over advice to drop part of Japan's World Heritage proposal

Worshippers offer prayers in front of Munakata Taisha's Okitsu-Miya Shrine on Okinoshima Island in Munakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Sept. 30, 2016. (Mainichi)

MUNAKATA, Fukuoka -- Local residents are disappointed at the recommendation by a UNESCO preliminary review panel that four of eight sites related to the island of Okinoshima be dropped from Japan's proposal for inclusion in the world cultural heritage list.

The review panel recommended a group of four ancient monuments -- Okinoshima in Munakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, which is home to Okitsu-Miya Shrine, and three reefs nearby -- be inscribed on the world cultural heritage list. However, it urged that four other sites, including Nakatsu-Miya Shrine on Oshima Island and Hetsu-Miya Shrine on mainland Kyushu, be excluded from Japan's proposal. The three shrines comprise the Munakata Taisha Shrine.

"It's regrettable that the panel issued a recommendation that only Okinoshima be registered as a world cultural heritage site. We'd like to convince city and prefectural officials that the three shrines make up Munakata Taisha and convey that to the Agency for Cultural Affairs," Munakata Taisha priest Naotoyo Kurokami said.

He touched on the fact that the Miho no Matsubara seashore in Shizuoka Prefecture was added to the World Heritage list as part of the Mount Fuji cultural site at the strong urging of Tokyo even though the preliminary review panel recommended the seashore be dropped from the proposal.

"We're not pessimistic. I think we can convince the panel. We must consider how to persuade them into accepting our request," he said.

Tadami Nishikawa, 78, who operates a tailor's shop in Munakata, said Nakatsu-Miya and Hetsu-Miya should be registered as world cultural heritage sites along with Okitsu-Miya.

"I hope that all four sites will be recognized by the World Heritage Committee. Munakata Taisha has a solemn atmosphere and I want as many people as possible to know the site," Nishikawa said.

Masahide Yano, 39, a local traditional craft dealer, showed mixed feelings about the recommendation by the preliminary review panel.

"Munakata Taisha is made up of the three shrines. It's regrettable only part of it was recognized," he said. "I hope the excitement of having the site registered on the world cultural heritage list will spread to the downtown area, although it remains to seen how far it will vitalize the city."

Yoshihisa Ikeda, 67, who belongs to a local association of volunteer tour guides, said the group has already received some 300 requests for guided tours this year, 100 more than all of last year.

Ikeda said the association is trying to increase the number of guides in response to the increase in the number of visitors, adding that many people come to Munakata from Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.

"I hope UNESCO will approve of the registration of all eight sites," he said.

Members of the general public are allowed to enter Okinoshima only during its annual festival on May 27, but women have traditionally been prohibited from visiting. Meanwhile, Munakata Shrine priests take turns staying on Okinoshima throughout the year.

A Munakata Taisha official said, "Our stance will remain unchanged even if it's registered in the World Heritage list."

The annual festival is held to comfort the spirits of Japanese and Russian servicemen who died during the Naval Battle of the Sea of Japan near Okinoshima in 1905. About 200 men selected in a drawing are allowed to attend the memorial service.

Landings on the island, which is a subject of worship, particularly by women, have traditionally been regarded as taboo.

"The World Heritage aim is to pass down culture and tradition to future generations. We'll continue to strictly regulate visits to the island," a shrine official said.

"The mystique of the island has been maintained because its tradition has been observed for many years," said an official of the Munakata Municipal Government.

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