Okinoshima, Japan’s Newly Minted UNESCO World Heritage Site

By Lindsey E. DeWitt

On July 9, 2017, Japan received its twenty-first UNESCO World Heritage inscription, making a total of seventeen cultural sites and four natural sites (the full list can be accessed here). The newly designated UNESCO World Heritage site, “Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region,” features a solitary islet just four kilometers in circumference in the middle of the Genkai Sea, some sixty kilometers from the northern part of Kyushu Island. The decision marks the culmination of a nearly decade-long effort and puts a spotlight on the rich religious and cultural landscapes of Kyushu and the broader maritime sphere of the Korean peninsula and the continent.

The island’s tiny size and remote location belies its great cultural and historical significance. Japan’s eighth-century chronicles Nihon shoki and Kojiki note Okinoshima as the abode of one of three female deities who descend from the sun goddess Amaterasu (the central deity of Japanese mythology), and archaeological remains confirm ritual practices on the island from the fourth to ninth centuries. Many questions linger about the large-scale rituals on Okinoshima, including why they were performed there and who performed them. We only know with certainty what was left. Three intensive rounds of archaeological excavations on Okinoshima (1954–55, 1957–58, 1969–71), sponsored by petroleum tycoon and Munakata native Idemitsu Sazo (1885–1981), revealed some 80,000 artifacts. The ritual goods range from gilt-bronze horse trappings and bronze mirrors to iron swords, comma-shaped beads, and much more; they have been collectively designated a National Treasure since 1962.

In quantity and value, the “discovery” of Okinoshima’s treasures in the middle of the twentieth century came as a great surprise to many. Munakata Shrine officials, however, certainly had some previous knowledge of the cache, and they already held in their archive from some time unknown several objects (e.g., bronze mirrors) said to have been deposited onto the island from the fourth to the sixth century. Moreover, military personnel had been stationed on the island regularly since the seventeenth century, first at the behest of the Fukuoka domain and later the Meiji government. These people too must have known something of the island’s treasures, many of which were visible on the ground. But apart from a fantastic tale of flying treasures and godly wrath included in an eighteenth-century shrine history, nothing was officially reported. (The first documentary evidence about the wealth of ritual goods on the island is an 1891 scholarly report, which included rough sketches of some of the items that would be excavated decades later).

To better understand the silence about Okinoshima’s “forgotten” riches, we can look to the aura of myth and mystery that surrounds the island and is indicated by its various modern nicknames: “Island where gods dwell,” “Shōsōin Treasury of the sea,” “Island of mystery,” and “The Unspoken One” (Oiwazusama). Okinoshima’s mysterious reputation is deeply connected to certain taboos regarding: (1) purity (men must perform naked water ablutions before accessing Okinoshima’s shrine and inner valleys); (2) speaking about the island (nothing is to be said about what one experiences on Okinoshima); (3) removing anything from the island (not even a single stone or blade of grass); and (4) women (women are not allowed on Okinoshima today).

The author at the margin of Okinoshima, May 29, 2017. Courtesy of Fukuoka Broadcasting (FBS).

The taboo against women at Okinoshima is not well understood and has drawn a considerable amount of contestation, especially in the context of the World Heritage designation. The deity of Okinoshima and the other two locations of Munakata Shrine (one on the island of Ōshima eleven kilometers off the coast, and one in Tashima on the Kyushu mainland) are unambiguously female, yet today women are barred access to Okinoshima. I (a woman) was given the remarkable opportunity to travel to Okinoshima by boat on May 29, 2017, but the shrine only permitted me to observe the mysterious island from two kilometers away. According to one popular perspective, the island is a site of purity, and women are by nature subject to bodily impurities that will “upset” the local deities, jealous females who can cause calamities. Lore concerning jealous female gods and their dislike of “real” women can be heard at other locations in Japan that were formerly or are currently off-limits to women, such as Ōminesan in Nara prefecture, another UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Men’s access to Okinoshima is generally restricted as well, save for shrine priests, military personnel, researchers, media, and others granted special permission. On July 15, 2017, directly following the island’s World Heritage inscription, Munakata Shrine indefinitely canceled the one occasion each year when some two hundred men were allowed to land ashore in commemoration of a historic naval victory over the Russian Baltic Fleet nearby on May 27, 1905. Participating men were required to perform naked water ablutions before accessing the inner parts of the island, but the event otherwise held little “sacred” significance.

Munakata Shrine owns almost the entire landmass today and rigidly enforces the male-only policy as a long-standing shrine tradition. Nevertheless, the history of restrictions against women at Okinoshima is difficult to substantiate in historical records (in contrast to the other taboos, which are attested to in documents from the Edo period). Available evidence, drawn mostly from oral accounts, suggests that it has more to do with the professions of fishermen and military matters than religious sacredness or aura. Or not? It came as a great surprise when I interviewed local fishermen to hear that, for many, the taboo doesn’t really seem to exist at all. Several men claimed that male-female fishing couples have always traveled to the island—they could catch more fish and support their families better by working as a pair. Only one interviewee acknowledged the taboo, proclaiming that if women were permitted access all the treasures would disappear, but he had little knowledge of this idea’s historical origins.

The ongoing taboo against women is especially curious when we consider how several of the island’s other taboos have been continuously and egregiously broken throughout the twentieth century with seemingly no consequences from the gods. Okinoshima has been widely spoken about (this post being one example), and many natural and human-crafted goods have been taken from the island. You can see Okinoshima’s most precious treasures— a gold ring crafted in Silla in the fifth or sixth century, a glass shard from Persia that traveled much of the Silk Road, an 8th–9th century gilt-bronze miniature loom (the only one to be found in Japan), and a pair of bronze dragon-head finials from Wei China, and others—in a museum on the grounds of Munakata Shrine.

Okinoshima is known locally as the “island of mystery,” and indeed it is mysterious. Who ventured across the rough waters of the Genkai Sea with valuable objects in tow to perform rituals there, and why did they do it? How did the cache of artifacts that are so treasured today become forgotten by most from the ninth century until modern times? What are the historical roots of the taboo against women? Answers to these inquiries and others are not forthcoming, at least not yet.

Many are wondering what the future will hold for Okinoshima in its new capacity as a World Heritage site. A delicate balance exists between caretakers dedicated to preserving the so-called “untouched” (although this is hardly true, considering the human history of the island) sanctity of Okinoshima, and critics dissatisfied that a site of “outstanding universal value” (in UNESCO terminology) is off-limits—and for historically unsubstantiated reasons—to half the world’s population. Okinoshima’s gender taboo has been sensationalized by the media, but it seems doubtful that critics voicing cries of discrimination will be answered any time soon either. In the wake of the World Heritage inscription, Munakata Shrine authorities have taken measures to restrict the island even further. In addition to canceling the yearly on-site celebration of Japan’s historical naval might, the shrine has just implemented another new policy stipulating that no men at all, except for the single male shrine priest, will be permitted on the island anymore (media and most researchers will now be banned as well). As I see it, Okinoshima seems destined to remain enigmatic, floating alone out at sea.

Lindsey E. DeWitt received her Ph.D. in Asian Languages & Cultures from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is currently a visiting researcher at Kyushu University and a 2016-18 Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Postdoctoral Fellow.