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This volume brings together the geological, geomorphological and ecological aspects of Japan’s natural heritage, arguing for dynamic conservation of such heritage and explaining their key characteristics in an accessible format for general readers. Sites from World Heritage Properties (Natural), UNESCO Global Geoparks, and National Parks of Japan representing key facets of this heritage are analyzed in depth, and the text is supplemented with color photographs and useful information for potential travelers. The volume is divided into thematic sections that help understand the diversity of Japan’s natural heritage, with supplementary information on conservation, tourism trends, local culture and lifestyles. In addition, chapters analyzing nature's mechanisms that engender diverse heritage landscapes and conservation/sustainable management schemes make this volume a valuable resource for both general readers and those with more specialized interests.



1. Introduction

This chapter provides an outline of the concept of natural heritage and discusses the main geological, geomorphological, and ecological characteristics of natural heritage of Japan. The chapter begins with referring to the Anthropocene concept and examines how pervasive anthropogenic influence has affected the contemporary geo-biosphere. However, even as our actions have transformed our planet at its surface level, we remain far from replicating the most fundamental earth processes, and in this sense, understanding how natural processes engender our planet’s heritage provides important insights for a better future of humanity. Accordingly, the chapter makes the argument that the term “natural heritage” must be reconceptualized through the appreciation of the mechanisms of our dynamic planet. The chapter then provides a brief discussion of the geological history of the Japanese Islands and introduces the main geomorphic and ecological characteristics of the archipelago, in order to explain the setting and scope of this book. By referring to the birth of this island arc in deep time, the chapter explains how the defining characteristics of land formation and landscaping in the Japanese Islands provide a snapshot of the beating heart of our planet. Finally, the chapter closes with an outline of the structure of this volume.

Abhik Chakraborty

2. Geology of the Japanese Islands: An Outline

The geological history of the Japanese Islands began from the breakup of the Super-continent Rodinia about 750 Ma. After a passive margin setting of about 250 million years, the Paleo-Pacific Ocean started to subduct beneath the Paleo-Asian continent about 500 Ma. The tectonic setting of this archipelago is an active convergent margin, where an oceanic plate has been continually subducting for over 500 million years. Plate subduction formed accretionary complexes based on sediment supply from mountains developed in the active continental margins. The accretionary complex is characterized by “ocean plate stratigraphy” which is basalt, limestone, chert, siliceous shale, and terrigenous turbidite in the ascending order. Non-metamorphosed accretionary complexes range from Carboniferous to the present in age. The accretionary complexes are metamorphosed into metamorphic rocks of low-temperature and high-pressure type and of high-temperature and low-pressure type. Extensive igneous activities occurred during Cretaceous to Paleogene, and arc volcanism has been very active throughout Cenozoic. The major tectonic events in Cenozoic are back-arc spreading and arc–arc collision. These events formed the Sea of Japan as a back-arc basin and a complicated island arc system around Japan. Plate subduction also causes frequent earthquakes and volcanic activities in the Japanese Islands. Although Japanese Islands suffer various geological hazards, these geological processes are fundamental for the formation of land for us to live on and for beautiful sceneries like Mt. Fuji.

Koji Wakita

3. Volcanic Archipelago: Volcanism as a Geoheritage Characteristic of Japan

This chapter sketches an overall volcanic profile of the Japanese Islands and provides a context for the volcanic geoheritage of Japan. Mechanisms and particularities of subduction zone volcanism are discussed, and the recent volcanic history of the Japanese Islands is compared with the volcanic histories of Chile and Indonesia. It becomes clear that Japan has not experienced very large eruption activities compared to Chile and Indonesia despite having geological similarities. This quiescence possibly implies a statistical likelihood of major eruptions in the near future due to accumulation of magma. It is also shown that the actual scale of volcanic eruptions is a poor determinant of the human casualty; instead, the locations of eruptions (distance from residential areas and access) and level of preparedness or vulnerability of the affected population are important factors. The chapter argues that although it is possible to provide probable eruption scenarios, accurate detailed forecasting remains difficult, as each volcano is a different system and the eruption style is not always identical even at a single volcano. It is also argued that fundamental research on individual volcanoes is indispensable to understand this dynamic earth heritage, and reflecting on experience of geoparks in Japan, the chapter states that such heritage branding could become effective tools for promoting awareness and resilience of local societies.

Setsuya Nakada

World Heritage Sites (Natural)


4. Shiretoko Peninsula: Dynamic Interaction Between Geology, Geomorphology, and Ecology at The Interface of Terrestrial and Marine Systems

This chapter describes and analyzes the Shiretoko Peninsula World Heritage area as a complex and dynamic system comprising of geological, geomorphological, and ecological characteristics. Declared a national park in 1964, Shiretoko became a World Heritage Site in 2005. The area is noted as an exceptional example of the interaction between marine and terrestrial environments, as the most southerly location of drift sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere, and as an environmental system that links tiny diatoms to whales and brown bears. Several endangered and iconic species such as the Blakiston’s Fish Owl and the Steller’s Sea Eagle can be seen here, and the surrounding waters support many fish species and large marine mammals such as the Steller’s Sea Lion, the Orca, and the Sperm Whale. However, the area has witnessed landscape fragmentation and change in ecosystem dynamics in the past due to anthropogenic impact and is also currently threatened by Global Environmental Change. This narrative evaluates Shiretoko as a combined and complex geo-ecological system, emphasizing the complexity, uncertainty, and plurality of the interaction between its different components as fundamental properties that have implications for its management as well.

Abhik Chakraborty

5. Shirakami Mountains: Old-Growth Forests of Siebold’s Beech Supporting Biodiversity in a Dynamic Landscape

This chapter analyzes the Shirakami Mountains World Heritage Site as a complex natural heritage based on distinctive geological, geomorphological, and ecological components and their mutual interactions. The property was inscribed onto the World Heritage List (Natural) in 1993, becoming one of the initial entrants from Japan. Fagus crenata dominates the crown cover of an old-growth forest here; the area is also noted for a rich diversity of flora and as the habitat of several large mammals, a large number of bird species, and a variety of fish in the rivers. Shirakami is a particularly excellent example of a dynamic heritage landscape that is shaped by rapid uplift, erosion, and heavy precipitation. Although currently protected under the World Heritage convention and several national and local level statutes, the forest came to the brink of serious exploitation in the 1980s when a plan to log off the old-growth beech surfaced, leading to citizen protests, nature conservation advocacy, and the eventual registration of the area as a World Heritage. Issues of landscape level fragmentation due to anthropogenic change and Global Environmental Change add to current issues, especially at the peripheral areas adjacent to the heritage property. The chapter concludes that attention should be paid to geological, geological, and ecological connectivity in order to protect the integrity of this important natural heritage.

Abhik Chakraborty

6. Ogasawara Islands World Heritage Area: An Outstanding Ecological Heritage

The Ogasawara Islands are created in the process of island-arc formation due to the ongoing subduction of an oceanic plate; these islands have witnessed unique speciation histories due to their remoteness from mainland Japan and any other continental landmass. The Ogasawara Islands were inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List as a Natural Property due to high species endemism, adaptive radiation, and low extinction rates, but the total landform–landscape–ecosystem uniqueness and value deserves to be upheld as a natural heritage. Today, these islands have become one of the premier ecotourism destinations in Japan, but at the same time, tourism has the potential to negatively affect these isolated environments. This chapter explains the outstanding universal value of this heritage and analyzes the threat of invasive species for native ecosystems and challenges for managing tourism in a way that can help preserve this highly valuable system.

Masahito Yoshida

7. Yakushima Island: Landscape History, World Heritage Designation, and Conservation Status for Local Society

This chapter provides a description of Yakushima Island, off the coast of Kyushu in southwestern Japan, which was designated as a World Heritage Site (Natural) in December 1993. Yakushima has an image of “pristine nature,” and the island contains several rare and relatively undisturbed geological, geomorphological, and ecological features. This perception attracts many tourists to the island, but conservation areas of Japan also contain a wealth of cultural and historical materials such as communal forestry and sacred landscapes, in addition to their natural landscapes. This chapter presents an overview of the human association on the forests in modern times and provides an account of some challenges that world heritage designation can pose for the management of heritage. The chapter also focuses on how cultural and historical remains and the customs of local communities constitute an important addition to the recognized natural heritage values.

Shigemitsu Shibasaki

UNESCO Global Geoparks


8. The Origin and Development of Geoparks in Japan: Reflections from a Personal Perspective

This chapter provides a historical overview of geopark development in Japan, especially focusing on the initial stage. The author was a key stakeholder in these efforts, and the chapter is based on his personal experience. In the initial stage, excepting a few geoscientists, the geopark concept was virtually unknown. The International Year of Planet Earth (IYPE) was a major catalyst for introducing geopark activities into Japan. The first key stakeholders were academic societies and scientists, and it was realized at that stage that local administrative participation was vital for the growth of this concept in Japan. The Japan Geopark Committee (JGC) was established to evaluate the scientific merit of applications, and the first designated geoparks voluntarily set up the Japanese Geoparks Network (JGN). The first global geoparks from Japan were recognized in 2009, and this helped generate media attention and popular interest. Today, Japan has 35 national geoparks and 8 UNESCO global geoparks. The activities have become much more diverse compared to the initial years, the stakeholder base have become broader, and educational programs in geoparks have gained praise from evaluators; however, several issues such as conservation of geological heritage and long-term plan for sustainable development needs more attention.

Mahito Watanabe

9. San’in-Kaigan UNESCO Global Geopark: Geology and Conservation of the Oriental White Stork

This chapter provides an introduction of the geological characteristics of the San’in-Kaigan UNESCO Global Geopark and an ongoing scheme of reintroducing wild populations of the Oriental White Stork. Landforms that correspond to a continental margin of Pre-Sea of Japan formation, the formation of the Sea of Japan, and recent sea level rise are found in the coastal areas of this geopark. The area is noted for varied coastal landforms and landscapes of natural beauty, in addition to significant geological sites. The Genbudo Basalt Cave, associated with the formulation of the geomagnetic reversal theory and the Matuyama reversed chron, is a signature geological site; the coastal dunes of Tottori are an important geomorphological feature as well as a major tourist attraction. Recently, a project aiming at the restoration of the Oriental White Stork has succeeded in bringing together a number of local stakeholders for nature restoration. The Oriental White Stork was a familiar bird in seminatural agrarian landscapes, but the species became extinct in the wild after widespread hunting and habitat destruction. The current restoration program aims for “comprehensive nature conservation” by identifying the role of the species as a “marker” of ecological health of landscapes, and in this way, the project represents the linkages between the geological and ecological characteristics of the region.

Naoki Kikuchi, Kuniyasu Mokudai

10. Muroto Geopark: Understanding the Moving Earth

Muroto UNESCO Global Geopark is characterized as a place “Where the ocean and the land meet—the forefront for the birth of new habitable land.” This “meeting” takes place over a tectonic plate boundary known as the “Nankai Trough.” Tectonic processes have formed the relief and landscape of Cape Muroto: continuous distribution of marine terraces is observed over the sandstone and mudstone base layers in this area. The Muroto Geopark is located at the southern tip of the Muroto Peninsula, southeastern Shikoku Island, and encompasses the administrative district of Muroto City. The geopark covers an area of 248.2 km2, stretching 18.6 km from east to west and 27 km from north to south, and has a coastline length of 53.3 km. The wedge-shaped cape of Muroto is a distinctive feature of Muroto Geopark. This chapter describes the geological background and the use that Muroto Geopark is making of this by introducing specific aspects of Muroto’s Geological Heritage.

Yugo Nakamura, Kazuhiro Yuhora

11. The Interface of Geology, Ecology, and Society: The Case of Aso Volcanic Landscape

Aso, located in central Kyushu, is one of the largest terrestrial caldera volcanoes on Earth. The name Aso actually refers to a group of active volcanoes. The volcanoes of Aso witnessed several very large explosions from 300,000 BP to 90,000 BP, whose ejecta is found over a wide area in Kyushu. The surrounding highlands around the volcano are a major headwater source for the area’s rivers such as the Shira River. Some of the largest human-managed grasslands in Japan are found in this area. Aso is a UNESCO Global Geopark for its credentials as a supervolcano and an FAO-designated Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System for its grassland landscape. This chapter introduces the main features of the Aso UNESCO Global Geopark and explains how seminatural grassland landscapes are a result of long-term interaction between the local and regional geology and geomorphology, biotic elements, and human culture. In recent years, the condition of some parts of the grassland has deteriorated; this threatens many ecosystem services (ES) that they produce. This chapter evokes the concept of traditional socio-ecological landscapes that are known as “satoyama” in Japan, as an important management issue for this remarkable volcanic geoheritage.

Shamik Chakraborty

12. The Mt. Unzen Disaster: A Terrible Learning Experience

Mount Unzen is an active composite stratovolcano in the Southwest Japan Arc. It is made up of a cluster of overlapping volcanoes that have formed at various times over the past 6 million years on the Shimabara Peninsula of Kyushu Island. This complex is close to the major cities of Nagasaki and Kumamoto and has considerable settlement around it on the peninsula. Of course, communities of human beings have always lived on volcanoes and their surrounding landscapes, whether active or dormant. These volcanoes provide visitors to such communities with access to their geological history and have even provided the remains of previous settlements now covered by eruptions (e.g., Pompeii (Vesuvius AD79) and Soufrière Hills (Montserrat). As a representative of the most dangerous of these volcanoes, Mt. Unzen became a worldwide media sensation in 1991 when it produced a series of massive eruptions (which claimed 44 lives) after many years of calm. This event raised concerns about community awareness of volcanic activity and created new opportunities for the study of major volcanic events and their precursors. From this situation, some of the more destructive volcanoes have been classified as requiring constant monitoring (the Decade VolcanoesDecade Volcanoes), while calls for more information on all those identified as active (and, more recently, on those considered dormant given several occurrences of reactivation that were not considered likely) are frequently made.

Malcolm J. M. Cooper

13. Challenges for Geoconservation in Contemporary Japan

This chapter analyzes the challenges for geoconservation in Japan, based on the findings of a questionnaire survey. Geoconservation is defined as the action taken with the intent of conserving earth heritage, but it has proven difficult to implement this concept at the ground level due to perceived low priority of conservation and lack of funding. In the case of Japan, the predominance of the natural hazards discourse has resulted in extensive modification of watersheds and coastlines by engineering, affecting the surface level features of geodiversity. Although there are a large number of national geoparks and eight UNESCO Global geoparks in Japan, the study found that those geoparks currently lack substantive information on the anthropogenic threats on geodiversity, a robust monitoring scheme to track down change, and adequate expertise to mitigate fragmentation and possible loss of geodiversity. The study also concludes that while international recognition such as the UNESCO Global Geopark brand does not bring additional protection, such recognitions do seem to elevate stakeholder awareness for geoconservation.

Abhik Chakraborty, Kuniyasu Mokudai

National Park Sites


14. The Lake Akan Area: A Future Geopark?

Akan National Park is found on the Island of Hokkaido. It was designated in 1934 as one of the second batch of properties to be declared national parks in Japan. The natural heritage of the area includes a group of volcanoes, Me-akandake, O-akandake, and Akan-Fuji, and three lakes of volcanic origin, Akan-ko, Kussharo-ko, and Mashu-ko. The geological structure consists of a large caldera that originated in the early Pleistocene and a group of younger partly Holocene, andesitic, and dacitic cones. The highest point of the complex is the Me-akandake (1499 m) stratovolcano. It consists of nine overlapping cones, with three summit craters, and has erupted least 17 times since the beginning of the nineteenth century. The national park based on this natural heritage is a popular visitor destination, offering sought-after views and bathing opportunities all year round and skiing and other snow sports in the winter. Lake Akan-ko is also known for its “marimo”—a species of algae that forms large green balls when mature—and a natural phenomenon that in Japan is unique to this lake. The social capital of the area also includes traditional Ainu settlements (an early Japanese indigenous ethnic group now mainly confined to Hokkaido). This is an important feature given that cultural geotourism is a global phenomenon. Many indigenous communities offer their unique interpretations of natural and other forms of heritage, including food, around the world, and the implications of such an interest by tourists for the Ainu community around the lake are considerable.

Malcolm Cooper

15. Oze Wetland: The Birthplace of the Nature Conservation Movement in Japan

This chapter describes how the modern nature conservation movement in Japan grew out of opposition to dams and other development schemes in the Oze Wetland in Honshu. The Oze wetland is a rare highland marsh with a distinctive landscape and biodiversity. The region was virtually unknown until the industrial development of the late nineteenth century, but thereafter its environment was rapidly placed under threat from several development schemes, the most contentious of which was a dam construction proposal. However, Oze became a rare example where bureaucrats, nature conservationists, and scholars came together to form a successful opposition movement that succeeded in saving the wetland; this movement was subsequently broadened at the national level. However, the rise in the popularity of Oze also meant a rise in visitor impact on its natural environment. The chapter outlines the main events in the course of the development of the Oze conservation and management program and identifies the problems that make active conservation of this precious environment a continual need.

Kiyotatsu Yamamoto

16. Mount Fuji: The Volcano, the Heritage, and the Mountain

This chapter describes Mount Fuji, which at 3776 m asl forms the highest point in Japan, as a composite heritage. Fuji was registered in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 2013 as a Cultural Property, but the mountain and its surrounding landscapes also represent a significant natural heritage. The steep, conically shaped mountain we see today almost wholly comprises volcanic products from the newest phase of Fuji volcanism, and a volcanic complex of three older volcanoes is buried under the ejecta from this new phase. Past eruptions of the mountain posed significant dangers for the densely populated Kanto plain; different landforms and ecosystems were formed out of those events that further underscore the mountain’s value as a composite natural heritage. While Fuji is an exceptionally vigorous stratovolcano, many landforms in this area are formed by active denudation forces. Apart from the mountain, the surrounding areas offer a rich diversity of landforms such as artesian spring rivers, lava tunnels, and lakes. Tourism at Mount Fuji has changed significantly from its pilgrimage roots, and this transformation has put considerable pressure on the landscape. The natural heritage of this area urgently needs holistic planning and conservation measures to control the footprint of tourism and urban development.

Abhik Chakraborty, Thomas E. Jones

17. Synthesis: Toward Dynamic Conservation of Our Natural Heritage in the Anthropocene

This chapter provides a synthesis of the chapters of this volume. Based on the discussion provided in the foregoing chapters, it evokes the concept of “dynamic conservation” of natural heritage. The geological bearings of the landscape level and ecological aspects of the Japanese Islands' natural heritage are briefly revisited; and key discussion points of the case study chapters are summed up. It is shown how the chapters of this volume bring out the defining contours of the natural heritage of Japan, and how aspects of the dynamic earth revealed through these heritage landscapes could provide an important insight for heritage conservation based on the integral connections between abiotic and biotic processes that together make up natural heritage.

Abhik Chakraborty


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