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Editorial: UNESCO registration should be reminder to protect, preserve heritage sites

With the recent addition of "Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region" to the UNESCO cultural World Heritage list, the unique cultural traditions of those who continued to protect their faith in secret during the Edo period Shogunate's ban on religion have been recognized as having a universal value shared by humanity.

This latest registration in Nagasaki Prefecture means the number of such sites across Japan including natural World Heritage sites has risen for the sixth consecutive year to a total of 22.

With sites that include remote islands preserving scenery of times gone by, the villages and remains of settlements in the prefecture tell the tale of a history of hardship of a people that did not buckle under the pressure of censorship, and embody the story of their faith.

But the road to recognition was not an easy one. Two years ago, a UNESCO World Heritage advisory body shot down Japan's original proposal for registration. The Japanese government then tried once again, limiting the items up for consideration to only those from the period of religious prohibition.

There are now over 1,000 registered UNESCO World Heritage sites, and the system itself is approaching a turning point. Monuments around the world that inspired wonder and admiration in everyone were broadly registered. The success of the registration of the Nagasaki sites this year is no doubt thanks to the tenacity of those involved in the recommendation process.

Now with a stamp of approval from the international community, there are expectations that registration will breathe new life into Nagasaki and the surrounding regions that are home to the sites. At the same time, the effect of an influx of visitors is also a cause for worry. Among the sites are villages struggling with aging and depopulation. Careful consideration of the living environment, the places of worship and the simple scenery of these locations is also required.

On July 19, the Japanese government's Council for Cultural Affairs presented a series of archeological sites from the Japanese prehistoric Jomon period in Hokkaido and the northern Tohoku region as the newest candidates for recognition as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The local governments involved are aiming for registration of the areas by 2020.

The registration of such places tends to immediately invoke plans for their use as tourist resources. However, the true purpose of World Heritage sites is to preserve and protect things like historical structures and natural environments as the heritage of humanity as a whole.

Perhaps the most representative of this ideal is the system to create a "World Heritage in Danger" list. These are cultural and natural properties that are in danger of losing the very characteristics that make them valuable, due to "armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanization and unchecked tourist development," among other threats. This system acts as a warning toward development, and opens up the possibility of support for restoration from the international community.

At the meetings of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee each year, sites are also considered for their addition to the World Heritage in Danger list. This year, the natural heritage site "Lake Turkana National Parks" in Kenya was newly registered out of concern over environmental damage due to the development of a dam in the area.

Currently, there are 54 properties on the list of World Heritage in Danger. Of them, 22 items -- making up 41 percent of the registrations -- are concentrated in the Middle East. All six of Syria's registered cultural properties, which include the "Ancient City of Aleppo," are on the danger list due to the continuing civil war.

The threat of the destruction of culture and the natural environment also threatens the safety of the people who live in those places. Let this be an opportunity to for us all to turn our attention to the various problems faced by people all over the world.

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