UNESCO has decided to register a group of Jomon period prehistoric sites in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido and the northern Tohoku region on the World Cultural Heritage list. The listing recognizes the universal value of a culture there where society lived in harmony with nature over long periods -- a rare specimen in the annals of world history.
The archaeological sites consist of 17 historic remains in four prefectures, including the Sannai Maruyama Site in Aomori Prefecture, known as one of the largest Jomon period settlement ruins, and the Oyu Stone Circles in Akita Prefecture.
The Jomon period is said to have spanned more than 10,000 years, from around 15,000 years ago up until around 2,400 years ago. People in those days lived in fixed dwellings, hunted, fished and gathered while adapting themselves to the natural environment to form a highly sustainable society.
People then led a different way of life from that of their counterparts across the Eurasian continent, where agriculture and livestock farming came in tandem with a settled lifestyle.
Another feature of the Jomon period is its highly spiritual culture, as seen in the stone circles believed to have been used in ancient rituals and "dogu" clay figures in which people apparently entrusted their prayers.
To date, World Cultural Heritage listings have tended to lean to historical structures like pyramids and churches. Only a miniscule number of prehistoric sites have ever been inscribed on the heritage list, and the latest addition marks the first of its kind for Japan.
In recent years, contemporary people in Japan seem to have been gripped by a kind of Jomon culture hype, especially young women. The figurative beauty of excavated articles including a dogu called "Venus of Jomon," a national treasure, and flame-shaped pottery are highly appreciated both at home and abroad, transcending the realm of archaeology.
Meanwhile, not much attention has been paid to Jomon period ruins. Those northern Jomon sites making it onto the World Heritage list provides a chance for people to ponder the time when Jomon people used clay pottery and other wares, as well as the society and environment they lived in.
It is also essential to ensure thorough measures to preserve the historic sites. There is a prefectural road running between the two Oyu Stone Circles. That thoroughfare should be moved also from the viewpoint of landscape conservation.
More than 90,000 Jomon period sites are said to exist across Japan. The central Japan highlands centering around the Yatsugatake mountains straddling Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures are home to many remains such as obsidian mines, and they have joined the Japan Heritage sites.
Endeavors to widely disseminate the appeal of the Jomon culture and lifestyle should be made not only in Hokkaido and northern Tohoku, but in conjunction with other locales. That would offer an opportunity for people to take an interest in local Jomon sites and consider the history of their own communities. Such activities will surely lead to conservation of cultural properties across the country.