This week the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO announced this week that it will designate Mount Fuji as a "World Heritage site" in June. This honor is certainly well-deserved, but you might find it strange that it comes long after the ancient forests of Yakushima (inspiration for Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke) and Hokkaido’s Shiretoko National Parks, as well as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and 13 other Japanese sites, have been registered for protection under the Convention. What took so long?
Long the most recognizable symbol of Japan, Mt. Fuji has been revered as a sacred mountain since ancient times. In the early Heian Period (794-1185), a Sengen Shinto shrine that enshrines Konohana-sakuya-hime, the goddess associated with volcanoes, was built at the base of the mountain’s north side. In spiritual terms, Fuji is divided into three zones. The bottom, or Kusa-yama, is said to represent the everyday world. The forest line, or Ki-yama, represents the transient area between the world of humans and the world of gods, and the “burned” area, or Yake-yama, at the top is said to represent the realm of the gods, Buddha and death. Thus, to climb Mount Fuji is to descend from the living world to the realm of the dead and then back, by which pilgrims can wash away their sins.
Efforts to get Mount Fuji, which drew more than 318,000 hikers last summer, listed with the World Heritage Committee date back to the mid-1990s, first as a U.N. Natural Heritage site. However, when representatives from UNESCO visited Fuji in 1995, they were greeted with a sea of garbage and the smell of human excrement due to the lack of public facilities, and told Japan not to apply until the mountain was cleaned up. After years of effort, there were toilets for about 15,000 climbers a day as of 2012. In the end, however, the government decided to try to get the mountain listed as a cultural, rather than natural, heritage site.
Consequently, UNESCO agreed to designate Mt. Fuji as a cultural site, rather than a natural site. It is also worth remembering that Mt. Fuji is also still an active volcano that last erupted in 1707.