Shikoku’s temple trail faces long road to UNESCO listing

Japan Times
Kyodo
MAR 27, 2014

By failing to align their strategies, the governments of Shikoku’s four prefectures have hampered their efforts to get the island’s ancient Buddhist pilgrimage trail on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The Shikoku Pilgrimage trail, which links 88 temples associated with the monk Kukai, founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism, has been traveled for centuries by pilgrims seeking enlightenment.

Zenji Shingai, 77, head of a nonprofit organization in Tokushima promoting the UNESCO bid, is critical of the prefectures’ efforts to get historic sites on the trail designated.

Not only are the four not equally committed to the effort, he says, their approaches differ, and consequently, “given the present circumstances, the process could take forever.”

According to the Tokushima Prefectural Government, the state can’t recommend the trail for recognition as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site unless most of the targeted sites are already domestically registered for protection as a historic site or place of scenic beauty. The criterion is considered the minimum requirement for any bid to make the list.

However, of the entire 1,400-km pilgrimage trail, the only sites designated as national historic landmarks are the temples Tairyuji in Anan, Tokushima Prefecture, and Negoroji in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture. The sites, which are not connected, constitute about a 10-km stretch of the entire route.

The 88 temples themselves are collectively known as the “hachijuhakkasho.”

Meanwhile, to date, no sites in Ehime and Kochi prefectures have been designated as national historic landmarks.

“Documentation on the results of the baseline study on the situation in all four prefectures, required for submission as a tentative site, will be compiled within this year,” said Tsuyoshi Hida of Tokushima Prefecture’s office for regional vitalization.

Hida also said that preparations are going smoothly.

However, since November 2006, when local governments expressed their intention to nominate the pilgrimage sites as world heritage candidates, little progress has been made.

The prefectural governments’ immediate goal is to get the pilgrimage sites on the list of tentative UNESCO sites in fiscal 2016. The central government currently has 12 sites listed as candidates for inclusion on the list of World Heritage sites compiled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In addition, under the revised operational guidelines imposed by UNESCO, which take effect this year, each country can only put forward one candidate at a time.

The regulations have also become stricter. Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, the seat of a samurai government from the 12th to 14th centuries, was designated by the central government in a bid to get it on the UNESCO World Heritage list. But the U.N. panel rejected its request to list the city last year.

“It’s difficult for us to set aside a budget and aggressively promote the efforts,” said an official from one of the prefectural governments, casting doubt on Shikoku’s prospects for the Heritage Site bid.

“There’s a big hurdle, but if all of Shikoku’s governments work more closely and better coordinate with each other, that’ll help pass on the tradition of “henro” (pilgrims) to future generations,” Hida of the Tokushima government said.

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