Table Speech

Japanese Culture in the World: Significance of Mount Fuji Becoming the World Heritage Site

November 20, 2013

Mr. Seiichi Kondo
Former Commissioner for Cultural Affairs

 Let me speak today on the special significance of the registration of Mt. Fuji as a World Heritage Site that offers a chance to disseminate the excellence of Japanese culture widely across the world. “Natural Heritage” and “Cultural Heritage” constitute the World Heritage. The World Heritage Convention defines that the former includes natural sites, geological formations and ecological systems of outstanding universal value, while the latter refers to the works of man with historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological excellence.

 We had earlier attempted to register Mt. Fuji as a Natural World Heritage site, and later switched to Cultural Site. This was because Mt. Fuji lacked global uniqueness as a volcanic mountain and the illegal dumping of garbage stood in our way. As Mt. Fuji is not a man-made object, we had to go through extensive discussions and research on the selection criteria to make it eligible for a Cultural Heritage. There are 6 criteria, of which 5 are clearly targeted for works of man. The sixth criterion is more ambiguous, that reads “to be directly or tangibly associated with … artistic or literary works of outstanding universal significance.” This is how we managed to register Mt. Fuji as a Cultural Site under the title “Mt. Fuji: Object of worship, Wellspring of Art.”

 Let me emphasize that Mt. Fuji is the only Cultural Site registered as the “wellspring of art” out of the 981 sites throughout the world. This unique case demonstrates that the view of nature and aesthetics of the Japanese people have received high acclaim. Mt. Fuji has been a source of artistic inspiration for us, including the ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) painter Katsushika Hokusai, and helped nurture our unique culture. It even has a remarkable influence on artists around the world, including Vincent van Gogh who drew Mt. Fuji without actually seeing it.

 The UNESCO panel ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) first advised to “exclude Miho-no-Matsubara pine groves” because it is located quite far from Mt. Fuji. The Japanese delegation to the World Heritage Committee session in Phnom Penh lobbied strongly on the basis that “Mt. Fuji and the pine groves have an invisible connection, nurtured in the mind of the Japanese people.” We are delighted that our claim was accepted by the Committee members to make Miho-no-Matsubara, a part of the world heritage site.

 Let me elaborate on the depth and significance of the Japanese culture. I personally believe “concept of nature” and “finding value in the invisible” are the two characteristics of our culture. These elements do not fit with the modern rationalism, which has placed emphasis on quantifiable materialistic values. Under the belief that humans have control over nature, the Western countries have promoted industrialization and became the mainstream in modernization, while our thinking got somewhat marginalized.

 I quote an example that exemplifies the concept of nature and values that are handed down and internalized in our tradition and cultural assets. “Sakuteiki” is the oldest document on garden-making, written in the 11th century, which advices the essence of a good garden is to capture the natural beauties. The garden of Motsuji in Hiraizumi, one of the Cultural Heritage sites in Japan, blends harmoniously with the natural landscape. The Gardens of Versailles are in sharp contrast to Japanese gardens. The geometric gardens seek artificial beauty, based on symmetry, straight lines and circles, that reflects the principle of imposing order over nature.

 There exists no exact straight line or circle in the natural world. We, the Japanese, do not dare fabricate things that are not found in nature. This is because we regard every existence in nature, whether it be animal or object, is our companion on an equal footing. Consequently, we show respect to nature and accept diversity.

 We also find value in the invisible. For example, we are sensitive enough to get a subtle message from the blank space on ink-wash paintings or calligraphies. We are endowed with the sensibility to respect the thinking, culture and spirituality of others that are invisible.

 I believe our “concept of nature” and “finding value in the invisible” are the elements instrumental in coping with various issues confronting mankind, including resources and energy, the environment, as well as terrorism and regional conflicts. We should share our values widely with people around the world.

 I am afraid we ourselves are losing our splendid temperament of modesty, compassion and self-annihilation innate in our “concept of nature” in the past 150 years of modernization and rationalization. I sincerely hope the registration of Mt. Fuji as a World Cultural Heritage Site encourages us to rediscover and revaluate the natural style of Japanese and inspire us to regain our confidence and pride.