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Japanese World Heritage

An Unprecedented Miracle of Industrialization

UNESCO has inscribed “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining” on the World Heritage List. Consisting of twenty-three component parts, they tell a story of uncommon historical value.

In July 2015, the decision was made to inscribe the property on the World Heritage List, grouped under the appellation “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining.” The twenty-three component parts, which span eight prefectures and eleven cities, tell the tale of how Japan seized the initiative and adopted Western technology between the closing days of the Tokugawa Shogunate (the final years of the Edo Era, 1603-1867) and the Meiji Era (1868-1912), developing human resources, constructing modern industries, and becoming an industrialized nation. This property represents the first successful transfer of industrialization from the West to a non-Western nation and was evaluated as the outstanding universal value essential for a World Heritage designation.

The trajectory of Meiji industrial development.

In only five decades, from the second half of the nineteenth century to the early years of the twentieth, Japan rapidly industrialized in the fields of shipbuilding, iron and steel manufacturing and coal mining, industries that would become keys to the country’s economy. Among historians, this transition is known as a miracle of industrialization unprecedented in history. As opposed to developments that relied on foreign funding, Japan’s industrialization was fueled from within—the Japanese people energetically and proactively took it upon themselves to learn about Western technology. Their trial-and-error approach, which emphasized studying and researching Western industry and inviting Western engineers to Japan for guidance, was incorporated into Japan’s traditional culture. Through continuous practice and application, this approach laid the foundation for the Japanese system of industry.

“The World Heritage registration effort spanned eight years, from its conception to the sites being added to the World Heritage List,” says Kengo Iwamoto, Counsellor of the Cabinet Secretariat of Japan from the Department of Industrial Heritage World Heritage Inscription and a central figure in the movement to have the sites recognized. “We were intent on having all twenty-three component parts inscribed, because together they paint a picture and provide a chronological map of Japan’s industrial development.”

Meiji Japan’s technology and spirit live on

The unique “chronological testimony” these heritage sites provide creates a matrix that reveals the progress of Japanese industry.

For example, one can sense how the high level of maritime technology at Miike Port, fostered by the Miike Coal Mine, dramatically accelerated the development of Japan’s contemporary transportation and shipping industries. The fact that Miike Port is a productive asset that is still in use today demonstrates that these sites are not relics but remain useful technology with great value.

Iwamoto explains their merits: “As ‘working industrial heritage sites,’ these sites have real authenticity. While one of the objectives of the World Heritage List is conservation, it’s performing the maintenance intrinsic to keeping these sites operational that allows us to conserve them for the future.”

The twenty-three component parts do not merely provide a technological ensemble; they offer snapshots of the ideas and knowledge flourishing in Japan during its industrialization. In particular, the Shokasonjuku Academy in Hagi, led by Yoshida Shoin, became a hotspot of overseas ideology in the Choshu (Hagi) Clan, and produced many great statesmen and leaders of social change. The Shuseikan in Kagoshima was where Satsuma Clan lord Shimazu Nariakira enthusiastically studied Western ideas and consequently took a proactive approach to adopting Western industrial technology. The site reveals the larger story behind the rise of big business in Japan. The Former Glover House and Office was the workplace of Scottish merchant Thomas Glover, who made major contributions to Japan’s shipbuilding and coal industries, and served as a gathering place for those involved in the industrial science and technology of the day. Overseas ideas were combined with Japanese values that had a huge impact on the luminaries of the Meiji Era, who refined these concepts to create new value. It is this history that these sites embody and illustrate.

Preserving Japan’s roots as an industrial nation

A pillar of the World Heritage Sites project—and a key part of preservation efforts—is to share information about the sites with the world to promote understanding. Iwamoto says: “To properly communicate the value of these historic sites, it’s vital to provide more than just visual information. We also must promote understanding of the culture, history and heart of the people of Japan that constructed them.” He adds that there are plans to provide an improved website for global tourists and a 3D app that allows views of areas inaccessible to the general public.

Discussions have been held with the owners of sites still in operation that are privately owned, where the owners have been asked to cooperate in site conservation. A buffer zone has also been established around each industrial site to regulate future use and to preserve the surrounding environment in the hopes of maintaining each site’s primary value.

“The industrial might that lay in the primary technologies of the day enabled Japan to reestablish itself after the devastation of two world wars, and became the very foundation of contribution to Japanese society,” Iwamoto explains. “The Meiji industrial heritage sites are the birthplaces of Japan’s technological strength and as an industrial nation. It is essential that we conserve the sites themselves and the great value they represent.”

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