Japan’s Mount Fuji set to become UNESCO heritage site, but challenges await….

Japan’s most iconic landmark, Mount Fuji, is expected to be granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in June, officials say.

A spokesperson for Japan’s cultural agency revealed that the country’s tallest peak had been recommended to UNESCO for registration by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a key UN advisory council responsible for evaluating cultural properties nominated as prospective World Heritage sites.

Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain, standing at 3,776 metres. It spans 70,000 hectares across the Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures, and features predominantly in historic Japanese artwork, particularly through its depiction in ukiyo-e woodblock prints. One of Japan’s ‘Three Holy Mountains’ (along with Mount Tate and Mount Haku), it is also an active volcano, with volcanologists predicting eruptions as early as 2015, despite the perfectly conical, snow-capped structure not having erupted for 300 years.

It is understood that Mount Fuji is likely to be granted status not as a natural heritage site, but rather as a cultural heritage site, a decision which is intrinsically linked to the rubbish left  harmful man-made damage to the mountain over the centuries. Japan has been campaigning for over twenty years for Mount Fuji to become a heritage site, however, upon visiting the mountain in 1995, UNESCO representatives told Japan that nothing could be done about their request until a solution had been found to the mountain’s rubbish problem. It seems that this is an issue which remains unresolved to this day, explaining Japan’s decision to apply for cultural, rather than natural heritage status.

Mount Fuji’s new position as a UNESCO World Heritage site will undoubtedly see a dramatic increase in the number of visitors to the mountain, in addition to the hundreds of thousands who flock there each day. Indeed, Fujinomiya City mayor Hidetada Sudo said that he hopes that Mount Fuji’s new status will see many more tourists from around the world visit the site and boost the city’s development and tourism. But despite efforts by many to clean up the mountain and the garbage left behind by its many visitors, the increased tourism may exacerbate the problem. Other serious questions remain unanswered: who will be responsible for the protection and preservation of the mountain and, who will provide the required funding for this? Should climbers be charged entrance fees to provide this funding? Another contentious point has been raised over the idea of limiting the daily number of visitors to the site – which is likely to be a source of conflict between environmentalists keen to protect the mountain, and local businesses dependent upon the increased tourism.

If granted World Heritage status, Mount Fuji will join Japan’s 12 other sites registered with UNESCO, which include the shrines and temples of Nikko, Yakushima Island, the pilgrimage routes in the Kii mountain range, and the Hiroshima Genbaku Dome (the only remaining structure in central Hiroshima after the atomic bomb in 1945). The last registered World Heritage site to be added to the list was the Buddhism-linked gardens and temples of the historic Hiraizumi area in Iwate prefecture.

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