Divergent heritages? UNESCO and the cultural heritage of landscapes in the UK and Japan

Ama-no-hashidate (天橋立) The Bridge to Heaven. Photo by Andrew Hutcheson
Ama-no-hashidate (天橋立) The Bridge to Heaven. Photo by Andrew Hutcheson

In February 2019 I travelled to Japan in part to attend a conference about the potential inscription onto the World Heritage List of Amanohashidate, a landscape with a beautiful sand bar separating two bays, Miyazu and Ine, on the Sea of Japan. The relationship between the sandbar and its surrounding cultural heritage, and with the works of art that portray it, create a continuum of meaning. It is a site of worship, reverence and of contemplation. It is also a classic landscape in that it privileges the view(s) of a special place. As with many places, including for instance Fuji, in Japan the landscape is sacred in both Shintō and Buddhist belief. There are many examples in the anthropological literature of the religious and ritual nature of people’s relationship with their environment, going right back to the beginnings of the subject, with terms like animism being used to describe human relationships with the rest of the environment. For me, this visit helped crystallise some disparate ideas about cultural landscapes and people’s moulding of them and being themselves moulded by them.

With climate change, many cultural landscapes will be lost or permanently altered. One approach to managing this is through international designation, via UNESCO, and the focus that this provides. National designations such as National Park status also offer a potential set of strategies for managing and adapting. The differences in approach to cultural landscape designations in Japan and the UK with a focus on the UNESCO World Heritage List is the subject of a recently published paper (see below). It is suggested that the UK’s dualistic governmental structures for landscapes disproportionately prioritise some attributes over others. This is examined through the recent inscription of the Lake District as a World Heritage Property and counterpointed through looking at the recent Landscape Review also known as the Glover Report. Both countries’ relationship with international designation is discussed. In that recent paper I examined methodologies and theoretical approaches practiced in both places, with the conclusion that cultural landscape change and loss is dealt with in Japan differently and arguably more effectively.

Amanohashidate shrine

The UK and Japan have two distinct philosophical approaches to cultural heritage and local perceptions of landscape, defined culturally and politically, resulting in very different concepts of heritage. In the UK approaches to cultural landscapes are fragmented through an institutionally and governmentally led dualistic view of places as either culture or nature. Arguably the distinction between what is cultural and what is natural is not defined in the same way in Japan. Why is this important? With climate change we are looking at the loss and significant alteration of many cultural landscapes. UNESCO designation is one strategy for trying to deal with this and ascribes a yardstick of value that can in some circumstances be compelling for galvanising action by local people, regional and national government. The Japanese Government Agencies take the UNESCO approach to value seriously and have spent much time, effort and resource on influencing international approaches to heritage. The UK Government, or perhaps more accurately the legislative framework for England, is now clearly less interested in an international approach to heritage than it was.  The assertion here is that Japan is culturally much more able to deal with the concept of loss than is the UK, which seems to be poorly prepared for what now seems inevitable. Both nations have, at various moments in the history of UNESCO, played a pivotal role in its formulation of approaches. Both are densely populated island nations with disproportionally large impacts on their own and other’s environments. Both are also struggling with re-defining their national identities and their relationships with their nearest neighbours. UNESCO provides a flawed but useful framework for agreeing internationally that heritage needs to be cared for. International standards are more than ever keenly important with the changes that climate change will bring.

UNESCO’s role can be viewed as a hangover of modernism and indeed late colonial thinking. As Meskell points out, UNESCO’s appeal to one-worldism and universality were attractive in the aftermath of the second world war, but such concepts of common goals and the possibility of progress perhaps can now seem somewhat naïve and are being hampered by the resurgent biases of nation states. It is important to understand its history and its admirable ability to adapt to new conditions, which is perhaps its most enduring legacy, but without heritage being closely connected to communities, it is difficult to see how it can remain relevant.1

My visit to Amanohashidate was in part about looking for other ways of considering the process of designating cultural landscapes but also of conceptualising heritage. Loss is inherent within the concept of heritage and perhaps loss, or the transitory nature of heritage, needs to be at the forefront of further work towards World Heritage inscriptions.

I am very grateful to Professor Akihiro KINDA for welcoming me to the Amanohashidate Conference and for discussions on Japanese cultural landscapes; and to the cultural heritage division of Kyoto Prefecture for their generous hospitality during my visit.

Full article can be accessed at:  

1.       Meskell, L. A future in ruins: UNESCO, world heritage, and the dream of peace Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Andrew Hutcheson
Research Fellow, Centre for Archaeology & Heritage, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures

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