Mount Fuji and UNESCO

There are lots of things many Japanese people find attractive that baffle people from other countries – a stray tooth protruding from the upper gum of a teenage girl, comic book pornography, grown women who speak like Micky Mouse after a kick in the balls at a helium party, high school girls who run with a pigeon-toed, can’t-lift-my-feet-just-shat-my-pants shuffle, and characters and products that most people have stopped finding ‘cute’ by the time they have started primary school – but there is one Japanese object of beauty is almost unanimously agreed upon throughout the world: Mount Fuji.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Mount Fuji. She is the mountain child would draw. Her simple conical shape, conspires with a size and location to create a perfect snow crown for much of the year and she changes, not just with the seasons and the size of her snow hat, but with the day and with the hour. The weather and the light can have wonderful effects on the mountain, so that one day she is a mysterious presence in a hazy sky, little more than a geometrically pleasing outline, while the next she may be awash with browns and greens and a clarity that allows you to see the trees on the lower slopes, deep crevices on her flanks and, as darkness falls, the twinkling lights of the buildings and rest huts lining the routes to the summit. It is little wonder that she has been and remains so beloved of the Japanese people and that she holds such a special place in the county’s art and literature, religion and folklore. One website specializing in trivia claims that she is, ‘The most photographed, most painted, most climbed, and perhaps most beautiful mountain on earth,’ but then again it also refers to her as Mount Fiji so I’m not sure we can take its assertions as unchallengeable truth.

And yet, for all her beauty, Mount Fuji has had her problems. There is the small matter of potentially fatal eruptions, of course, but that is not the reason why Mount Fuji has yet to be granted that one status that many Japanese people seem to believe validates natural and cultural heritage in the eyes of the world: the UNESCO seal of approval and designation as an official world heritage site.

Of course, in reality a designation is far more worthwhile than simple validation. It is designed to help with the preservation and conservation of important cultural and natural properties around the world. In other words, it encourages us not to damage nice or interesting things so much that future generations are unable to enjoy them. The designation means that funds may be available to assist with any immediate action that becomes necessary to maintain a property, and the simple fact that the need for preservation has been officially recognized should in turn help ensure that the property is ever more protected. It does bring prestige, too, but just because something hasn’t been blessed by UNESCO doesn’t make it second rate.

Japan is 14th in the world chart for number of world heritage sites, with a total of sixteen – 12 in the cultural category and 4 in the natural. The natural sites that have been granted status are Yakushima Island, a sub-tropical island off the southern coast of Kyushu, the Shirakami-Sanchi mountain range straddling the northern prefectures of Aomori and Akita, the unspoiled Shiretoko Peninsula in the east of Japan’s most northerly island, Hokkaido, and the volcanic Ogasawara Islands. These designations bring people national pride and as such it pains some that Mount Fuji has not yet been deemed worthy. And it’s not for want of trying. An application was made in the early nineties for her to be deemed a natural world heritage site, but the man from UNESCO, he said no.

Why? In short, rubbish. You see, back in the old days, if you wanted to climb Mount Fuji, you had to do it properly. You had to start at the bottom and climb to the top. Many people would take a look and then say, ‘Nah, maybe next year.’ But in the 1960s, the powers that be built roads up to about the half way mark of the mountain and the flabbier and less energetic of people began to think that maybe they could give it a go after all. They could drive up as far as you could go and climb from there. Buses, too, could take people up to those higher starting points – the fifth stations as they are known – and the climbing tourist boom was soon well under way. Indeed, even those who didn’t fancy a climb much could pop up to the fifth station for a look-see and leave some rubbish behind, and perhaps decide that this would be a nice spot to defecate. And rubbish and defecation, it would seem, was where the problems lay.

The main hiking trails up Mount Fuji are divided into ten stations. The fifth stations on the four major trails are at elevations of roughly 1,440 metres, 2,000 metres, 2,305 metres and 2,400 metres  respectively, and it is from one of these four stations that most hikers begin their climbs. The fifth stations on the Gotemba and Subashiri trails are still relatively undeveloped but the same cannot be said for those on the Fujinomiya trail and, particularly, the Kawaguchi trail, which has a three-story parking garage, restaurants, shops, and, as with everywhere in Japan, vending machines. With these developments came traffic, both vehicular and human and now somewhere between 200,000 to 300,000 people climb Mount Fuji annually. And where there are people there is collateral damage. And there is trash and there are faeces.

Exhaust fumes from cars and buses and slope erosion from millions of feet are some of the side effects of the hiking boom, but over the years rubbish and human waste have also played their part in making the volcano far more attractive from a distance than it is up close. Cans and food wrappers, batteries, bits of hiking kit, you name it, things get left behind and over time that trash builds up. People use the toilets, of course, but according to an article in the Asahi Shimbun in July 2011, the ‘waste-management system … has consisted of collecting human waste in storage tanks and dumping it down the mountain when the climbing season closes, leaving “white rivers” of toilet paper and a horrible stench.’ It is not altogether surprising then, that when the UNESCO representatives came to have a look in 1995, after Japan had applied for natural world heritage status, that they held their noses and said, ‘Clean up the rubbish, get rid of the shit, and then we’ll talk.’ They did agree that Mount Fuji was worthy of a designation, but said that in order to be approved, something had to be done to solve the pollution problems and find a way to manage the situation more effectively on a continuing basis.

Japan responded. The mountain lodges were equipped with eco-friendly toilets and you were now at least far less likely to slip on skid-marked toilet paper on your way up or down the flanks. But some problems remained due to the large numbers of people having a poo. One toilet facility at the fifth station on the Kawaguchi route was equipped to deal with the waste of around 3,000 people a day. In the summer climbing season, though, there were still too many people using it, making it more than a tad smelly. New toilets, but still too much waste. At the end of June 2012, just in time for the most recent climbing season, however, new improved toilets were opened there and now up to 15,000 people a day can safely empty their bowels without worrying too much about the awful stink they are helping to build.

Toilets aside, general clean-up campaigns have become a regular activity on and around the mountain. Volunteer groups often go out on picking-up-trash expeditions and local companies take part in organized cleanings. Perhaps no organization has done more to assist in the re-beautification of Mount Fuji than the Fujisan Club. Founded in 1998 by Tomohiro Watanabe, the club organizes and sponsors regular clean-up campaigns, not just of the slopes themselves, but also of some of the forests and areas around the foot of the mountain. For there, too, rubbish is a problem, with cans and bottles and with unwanted household appliances and almost any other kind of detritus you care to mention. Televisions, fridges, cookers, old car batteries and tyres can all be found dumped illegally. Many have been lying there for decades and have long been sucked into the undergrowth.  The Fujisan Club is doing much to discourage such dumping and has assembled computer maps of waste sites to aid clean-up activities. The club’s website also has photos of dump heaps in the hope that fewer people will be tempted to abandon things surreptitiously if they know their activities and these sites may be monitored. Watanabe has reached out to foreign countries, too, forging links with with the national parks of Mount Rainier in the United States, Mount Ngauruhoe in New Zealand, and Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia in order to compare and learn about effective management practices.

Other organizations are also making efforts to improve the rubbish situation. Faced with concerns about the impact a 156-kilometre race in the area might have on the environment, the committee for the Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji Race in 2011 set out a number of rules relating to how to make sure their event had no negative effects on the areas through which the runners would pass. These ranged from ‘No Passing’ sections so that runners wouldn’t be tempted to veer off the trail and onto parts where damage to endangered plant species could occur, to a rather alarming ‘No bear bells’ section where runners were told to put their bear bells away so as not to disturb either nearby residents or wild birds. I’ll be honest – if I had to weigh up the consequences of annoying a few birds or getting eaten by a bear, I’m fairly certain I’d have gone with the ‘fuck the birds’ option.

The committee for the race also vowed to research all and any impact the race may have on the environment and arranged to conduct thorough clean-ups of the area both before and after the race. On a single day, 21st May, 2011, over a distance of 20 kilometres, a team of 93 volunteers in a pre-race clean-up collected 1.5 tonnes of garbage. Armed with 45-litre capacity bags they gathered up 11 bags of plastic bottles, 21 bags of cans, 12 bags of glass bottles, 62 bags of combustible garbage and 800 kilogrammes of what they called ‘large/oversized bulk garbage’. More pleasing was that comparatively little trash was found on the actual hiking trails and that some of the trash that was collected was over 20 years old, suggesting that perhaps, just perhaps, recent hikers have been becoming more prudent and things are getting better.

Ironically, one problem with being granted world heritage status is that places tend to become more popular with tourists, and those tourists can bring with them some of the problems that stopped Mount Fuji being accepted by UNESCO in the first place. The Ogasawara Islands were awarded world heritage status in 2011. In the year that followed, the number of tourists visiting the islands shot up by 60% and, according to an article in The Japan Times in July 2012, indigenous plant species have been threatened as a result. The tourists did bring an increase of over 50% in economic benefits, in the form of some ¥2.28 billion, but they have also apparently been snapping branches off important trees and trampling on precious plants. At least there are no reports of streams of brown-stained toilet paper.

Mount Fuji, though, is already immensely popular and it is unlikely that world heritage status would bring huge numbers of tourists who wouldn’t have come anyway. She is used to an annual influx of summer hordes in a way that the Ogasawara Islands never were. They just need to make sure they can continue to manage those hordes in a way that keeps Fuji clean and tidy. But for better or worse, Watanabe of the Fujisan Club and indeed, it would seem, most of Japan still hope that Mount Fuji will be granted its missing world heritage status.

They may not have to wait much longer. The Japanese government has submitted recommendation papers for Mount Fuji’s inclusion in 2013. This time, they are aiming for recognition not as a natural heritage site, but as a cultural one. Perhaps they feel the gaudy developments at the fifth stations and the car parks and man-made developments that have already occurred will make getting natural status quite difficult, I don’t know, but they have found reasons for why it should be a cultural heritage site instead and have gone for that.

Those reasons are that Mount Fuji has long been considered a religious icon and sacred mountain, with a Sengen Shrine in honour of its deity dating as far back as the 9th century, and that it has been an inspiration for artists and poets for almost as long as such people have existed. She even has a role in some of the very oldest literature of Japanese origin. Whether Mount Fuji makes the cut and becomes a cultural heritage site remains to be seen but, either way, in the quest to have her recognized as such, people have begun to take better care of her. That, at least, should help her to remain as something to be proud of. And that can only be good.

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7 Responses to Mount Fuji and UNESCO

  1. Jeffrey says:

    The contrast between Fujisan and easily the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in Japan, Kamikouchi, is remarkable. Fuji is over-used, poorly “policed” and disrespected in way unfathomable by many non-Japanese. On the other hand, Kamikouchi is pristine and well-managed.

    Fuji doesn’t need a UNESCO designation, the area surrounding it simply needs to be treated as are national parks in the States – little or no and strictly controlled development, much more limited access – meaning closing most of the roads around the mountain and controlling those that remain open as well as controlling the number of day visitors, and closing off parts of the park during the winter.

    You would think that the Japanese, since they have an extra special appreciation of nature (as they like to tell all us clueless gaijin), would agree that these are reasonable ways to manage the the most sacred mountain in Japan.

  2. Usman Makhdoom says:

    You writing, as ever: fantastic.

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