The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the UNESCO’s advisory body, will officially recommend that Japan’s southwestern islands comprising of Amami Oshima and Tokunoshima Islands in Kagoshima Prefecture, and the northern part of Okinawa Island and Iriomote Island in Okinawa Prefecture should be registered on the list of the UNESCO’s World Natural Heritage Sites, according to the Japanese Ministry of the Environment’s announcement on May 10. The registration of these islands on the list of the World Natural Heritage Sites will be determined by the online meeting of the World Natural Heritage committee which will be held in late July this year. The current number of Japan’s World Natural Heritage sites is four and that of Japan’s World Cultural Heritage sites is 19. Accordingly, if the southwestern islands mentioned above are added to the list, the islands will become the fifth site of the World Natural Heritage, and Japan’s total number of the registered sites of the World Heritage will reach 24.
The main features of these islands include a number of endangered and endemic species such as Amami rabbits and Iriomote wild cats, and biodiversity, which means that unique species of plants and animals evolve and spread in these areas.
The Japanese government initially submitted its proposal for the registration of the above-mentioned islands on the list of the World Natural Heritage Sites in February 2017, aiming to gain approval of the UNESCO in the summer of 2018. However, in May 2018, the IUCN recommended the UNESCO that the Japanese government should postpone its proposal for the reason that the targeted areas of the southwestern islands could not be designated comprehensively. In February 2019, the government submitted a revised proposal to the UNESCO, but this time the meeting of the committee of the UNESCO’s World Natural Heritage scheduled to be held in summer in 2019 was cancelled due to the coronavirus infections, and thus, I, serving as the Minister of the Environment at that time, had to announce the postponement of all the preparatory work for the registration. I explained the circumstances to the people in Kagoshima and Okinawa Prefectures who were involved in this process, and did not forget to add, “We will definitely get our islands registered next time.”
Mr. Okiharu Yasuoka, a politician from Kagoshima Prefecture and former member of the House of Representatives, was very active in promoting the campaign for having the said islands registered on the list of the World Natural Heritage Sites. I promised him that we would definitely have those islands registered next time. To our regret, he passed away in April 2019. (Note: the official name of the IUCN is International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources).