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UNESCO move brings joy

As Iwate Prefecture struggles to recover from the March 11 earthquake and people in Tokyo's Ogasawara Islands work to preserve their unique wildlife, residents of both places expressed joy Saturday at news that World Heritage sites are almost certain to be established in their areas.

A UNESCO advisory panel has recommended that the historic Hiraizumi area in Iwate Prefecture and the remote islands be registered as World Heritage sites.

The Hiraizumi area is a major tourist spot in the Tohoku region, but the number of visitors sharply declined in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Local people said they want to invite many tourists from around the world to make their area a symbol of reconstruction in the disaster-hit region.

On the Ogasawara Islands, which boast of a variety of indigenous species that have followed unique evolutionary paths, people rejoiced, saying their efforts to protect and nurture their abundant natural gifts had gained world recognition.

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Hiraizumi 'symbol of reconstruction'

Hiraizumicho Mayor Masayoshi Sugawara smiled at a press conference Saturday morning, after being informed of the advisory panel's recommendation.

"We've climbed a big mountain. We're filled with joy," he said.

After the earthquake, the mayor added a phrase--"A glimmer of [hope for] reconstruction, from Hiraizumi"--to his business cards. He had called for making the heritage registration a symbol of the region's recovery.

Iwate Gov. Takuya Tasso also expressed delight, saying at a press conference the same day: "It's truly great. Hiraizumi was at the center of Tohoku reconstruction after an era of war. With this historic background, I had thought that the area would become a symbol of the region's reconstruction."

Tasso said he was informed of the advisory panel's recommendation by Seiichi Kondo, commissioner for cultural affairs, shortly after 4 a.m. Saturday.

Local tourism industry officials also have high hopes. Due to a somber mood after the earthquake, a series of seasonal events, including a historical pageant centered on 12th-century warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune, which normally attract more than 200,000 tourists, were canceled. During the Golden Week holidays, about 49,500 tourists had visited the town of Hiraizumicho as of Thursday, down 85 percent from last year.

Kazuhiro Suzuki, president of Hiraizumi Hotel Musashibo, the town's only hotel, could not hide his joy, saying: "Now we can see a clear path toward the first registration of a cultural heritage site in the Tohoku region. I'm really happy."

Since the March 11 quake, guests at the hotel have been mostly those who came for support activities in disaster-hit areas on the Pacific coast. Suzuki said, "By June, when the registration is formalized, we'd like to complete thorough preparations to accommodate our guests at a level of service befitting a World Heritage site."

Hosei Sasaki, a monk at Chusonji temple, known for its Konjikido golden hall, and the director of the temple's institute on Buddhist culture studies, said, "Now at the time when people are helping each other in the aftermath of the quake disaster, people beyond municipal and prefectural boundaries have high hopes for Hiraizumi."

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Ogasawara 'proud' of its nature

Ogasawaramura Mayor Kazuo Morishita said he received news of the World Heritage recommendation at home and then came to the village office Saturday morning. "I couldn't sleep well until I was informed of it. I'm proud that the rich natural environment, which is an asset of Ogasawra, has been recognized at the world level," the mayor said.

According to the Environment Ministry, the Ogasawara Islands were highly evaluated as the number of indigenous species is high despite the area being small. However, the risk of invasive foreign species being introduced may increase if the number of tourists rises following the heritage registration.

Takaya Yasui, the director of a nonprofit organization studying wild species on the islands, said, "Measures should be taken to make sure an increase in the number of tourists won't have a harmful impact on indigenous species."

The village office has projected that the number of visitors to the islands would increase by more than 5,000 from the current 21,000 per year.

Mayumi Hanazato, head of the Ogasawaramura Tourist Association's secretariat, said, "We don't want this to be a mere transient boom but would rather take the opportunity to make the islands flourish sustainably as an ecotourism destination."

(May. 8, 2011)
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