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Japan gov't dropped ball on natural World Heritage status application for islands

The northern part of the main island of Okinawa is pictured in this photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun aircraft on April 19, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has recommended further review of Japan's application for natural World Heritage status for islands in Kagoshima and Okinawa prefectures, an outcome attributable to Tokyo's failure to respond to questions raised by the panel.

"We didn't desire this outcome, but we'd like to consider how to respond to the situation instead of being disappointed," said Naohisa Okuda, head of the Environment Ministry's Biodiversity Policy Division.

The proposed natural heritage sites comprise Amami-Oshima and Tokunoshima islands in Kagoshima Prefecture, the northern part of Okinawa's main island, and Iriomote Island, also in Okinawa Prefecture.

A letter of recommendation that Japan submitted to UNESCO states that the islands meet the standards for registration as natural heritage sites in that they can be a good sample of ecosystem evolution. Moreover, it states that these sites are habitats for various species, including endangered ones, and important for maintaining biodiversity.

The Environment Ministry and other government bodies believed that the IUCN would recommend that the sites be registered on the World Heritage List if the union recognized at least one of these conditions. However, the IUCN judged that the islands do not meet World Heritage standards under current circumstances.

The recommended sites consist of 24 areas scattered on four islands. When IUCN inspectors visited the sites in October last year, they raised concerns about many of the areas being separated by roads and other facilities. The union also pointed out that the divided areas lacked buffer zones, raising serious ecological sustainability questions.

Furthermore, the government has not yet completed procedures to designate the former U.S. Marine Northern Training Area as a national park. The IUCN considers the area straddling the villages of Kunigami and Higashi, Okinawa Prefecture, as especially important, and designation as a national park is a prerequisite for a World Heritage site recommendation.

In contrast, the IUCN unconditionally recommended Shirakami Sanchi in the Tohoku region and Shiretoko in Hokkaido be designated as natural World Heritage sites.

If the UNESCO World Heritage Committee makes the same judgment on the Okinawa and Amami sites as the IUCN during a meeting set for late June, the government will be forced to resubmit its letter of recommendation. In that case, it will take at least two years before the sites are re-evaluated.

An official involved in the registrations of four World Heritage List sites in Japan said, "If Japan can provide a convincing explanation at the World Heritage Committee meeting starting in June, there's still hope (that the sites will be registered)."

On the other hand, Masato Yoshida, a professor at the University of Tsukuba well versed in World Heritage site evaluations, said Japan should improve the content of its recommendation and resubmit it.

"The latest recommendation (by the IUCN) highlighted various challenges for the sites. Japan should take the IUCN conclusion as a message encouraging Japan to submit a better application," he said.

(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Igarashi, Science & Environment News Department, and In Tanaka, Kagoshima Bureau)

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