UNESCO heritage listing for Osaka tombs

People in western Japan are celebrating after UNESCO listed the Mozu-Furuichi tumulus clusters in Osaka Prefecture as a World Cultural Heritage Site. The decision came on Saturday at a meeting of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku.

Osaka tuned in

Back in Japan, some 700 people gathered on Saturday afternoon in front of a big screen in the city of Sakai to watch live footage of the meeting.

Applause and cheers broke out when the committee announced its decision. Some people even cried with joy and talk soon turned to plans to invite friends to the new Heritage Site.

Interest in the area was so high, people even turned out to watch a live committee meeting.

On Sunday, an event was held in Habikino City to celebrate the listing. Mayor Tsuguo Kitagawa said he wants people to work together to protect their shared heritage.

The Mozu-Furuichi tumulus clusters span the cities of Sakai, Habikino and Fujiidera in southern Osaka. They consist of 49 ancient tombs that were built over 100 years or so from the latter half of the fourth century.

The clusters scattered around the area look like a forest.

Among them is a keyhole-shaped tomb, which the Imperial Household Agency considers to be the Mausoleum of Emperor Nintoku.

The tomb measures about 486 meters long, making it the largest burial mound in Japan.

It is also one of the largest ancient tombs in the world, comparing favorably with the Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt and the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi in China.

The Mozu-Furuichi tumulus clusters are characterized by the fact that the huge ancient tombs are surrounded by other tombs of differing dimensions. It is believed that the size and the shape reflect the status of the person buried there.

The tombs are also thought to offer clues as to how royal authority developed in ancient Japan.

Road to registration

Along the way to securing the World Heritage registration, the parties involved, such as local governments, needed to develop a clear strategy.

For example, they established ordinances that restrict the display of outdoor advertisements around the sites. They made multi-language booklets and other materials to explain the importance and significance of the ancient structures.

They also came up with concrete plans for getting visitors to and around the sites and developed long-term plans for protecting and managing the tombs.

The project to support the application also led to the creation of some unusual promotional items. Local restaurants started serving curry in the shape of a tomb and special postage stamps went on sale in Osaka.

Tomb-shaped curry and rice has become a popular dish.

Practical issues remain

With the listing secured, the next step will be to address some practical problems. One of the biggest is the fact that there is no way to view the entire area, as there are practically no good observatories around any of the tombs.

Taking the biggest Mausoleum as an example, there is an observation point, but it's on the 21st floor of the Sakai City Office. And, since the mausoleum is so huge, its characteristic keyhole shape is not visible from there anyway.

Visitors can't see the full picture, even from the 21st floor.

In October 2018, Sakai City joined hands with a private helicopter firm to conduct a trial sightseeing flight over the tumulus clusters. The city is also working on a plan to build a 12-meter high observation deck beside the Mausoleum.

While it will clearly be a challenge to ensure the local area sees the benefits of the UNESCO registration, the decision will also encourage people to think about how to protect their heritage.

The tombs reveal ancient construction skills and offer a valuable insight to the birth of a nation.