Japan's newest Unesco World Heritage Site could draw tourists back to Tohoku region, devastated by 2011 quake and tsunami

Remains of a large stone circle at the Oyu Kanjo Resseki site, part of the Jomon monument.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

This summer, while the world was engrossed in the battle for the top of the medals table at the spectator-less Tokyo Olympics, Japan quietly received a different kind of award.

On July 27, Unesco announced that the Jomon archaeological sites in northern Japan had been added to its august list of World Heritage Sites. They became Japan’s 20th Unesco “property” (as sites or groups of sites are known) but the first prehistoric one.

The Jomon property comprises 17 Neolithic sites scattered across the prefectures of Aomori, Iwate and Akita, in the Tohoku area of Honshu and on the northern island of Hokkaido. They provide insight into the lives of a hunter-gatherer society that flourished in Japan for more than 10,000 years, following the last Ice Age, from around 14,500 BCE to 300 BCE.

News of the Unesco listing was welcomed by the people of the Tohoku region. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the area and Tohoku had been counting on the Tokyo Olympics to bring a large number of visitors to help revive the local economy. The coronavirus pandemic prevented that, but Unesco’s decision has raised hopes that, someday soon, the influx of tourists may still arrive.

“It’s a result that we had been waiting a long time for,” says Masahiko Hananoki, director of a museum dedicated to the Oyu Kanjo Resseki site, a pair of large stone circles in Akita. “I hope that helps to revitalise our region.”

“Being listed by Unesco is not our end goal,” says Fumitaka Sato, a member of an NGO dedicated to raising public interest in the Sannai Maruyama site, the ruins of a settlement near Aomori City. “We want to cooperate with the other regions about these ancient remains, to share the Jomon era’s appeal.”

The name Jomon means “cord-patterned”, a term coined by archaeologist Edward Morse in 1877 to describe the decorations found on pottery from that period. The decorations were made by imprinting a rope or other objects into the clay. Jomon people made some of the world’s first pottery, as early as 14,400 BCE, much of it displaying astonishing artistic sensitivity.

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Jomon people also stand out because, although they were hunter-fisher-gatherers, they lived in permanent dwellings near their food sources – particularly on coasts, river banks and forest edges. Most other Neolithic peoples were nomadic.

The Jomon represent a significant point in human evolution: the start of the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles to sustainable village existences. As a Unesco declaration states, Jomon culture “testifies to the rare and very early development of pre-agricultural sedentism from emergence to maturity”.

There is also evidence of trade between isolated Jomon communities, rudimentary horticulture and even forest management.

Of the 17 sites, the 95-acre Sannai Maruyama village is one of the largest. It thrived for 1,500 years, from 3500 BCE to 2000 BCE. At its height, hundreds of people are thought to have dwelt here.

Its excavation, which began in 1992, unearthed sunken pit dwellings, pillar-supported buildings, stone tools, pottery, lacquered pots and objects made from bone and antlers. It was registered in Japan as a National Historical Site (1997) and a Special National Historical Site (2000), with 1,958 artefacts (the largest number in the country) declared Important Cultural Properties.

Sannai Maruyama lies in green rolling hills on a 20-metre-high terrace overlooking the Okidate River. Visitors can stroll around a reconstructed Jomon village complete with pit houses, a 32-metre long house, shell mounds, burial sites, and a tower made of six massive chestnut pillars, three storeys high and nearly 15 metres tall; it’s not known whether the original was a watchtower, lighthouse or some form of shrine.

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The Sanmaru Museum houses some 1,700 artefacts from the site, as well as life-size dolls depicting daily Jomon life. Visitors can try their hand at making Jomon-style pottery and have their picture taken wearing a Jomon costume.

Artefacts such as female fertility figures, jade beads used in shamanistic rituals and the mysterious bulging-eyed dogu figurines hint at a complex spiritual belief system while, just 20 minutes away by car, at the Komakino site, is a large Jomon stone circle.

When inscribing the Jomon property, Unesco declared that it “possesses outstanding universal value as a testimony of a unique cultural tradition representing the way in which human beings coexisted with nature over an immense period of time”.

Tohoku’s governor, Shingo Mimura, remarked that the Jomon not only lived in harmony with nature but also “worked together in peace”.

“The Jomon period has now been recognised as one of the most important base cultures in the history of this country,” Mimura said.

And let’s not forget that the Jomons’ unique pottery was the precursor of Japan’s long tradition of artistic ceramic production. Arguably, the Jomon sites are to Japan what Jingdezhen is to China, albeit with Unesco approval (the “Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen” has been proposed for the World Heritage list but has yet to be inscribed).

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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