In May of this year, the Japanese city of Kamakura was dealt a cruel blow. It was once the effective centre of the country’s life, when the rulers of the city used brute force to crush rival clans 800 years ago. Kamakura was strong and proud. Now, the pride may remain, but strong it is not.
That show of force in the 12th century was the first time in Japan’s history that a family of great power was able to effectively steal control of the country from the imperial court. It was the beginning of a new warrior class in Japan – or, to put it in a different way, this was the birth of the samurais and Kamakura was its father.
You would have thought this would have been an extremely important time and place in the history of Japan. Kamakura, as a city, still has a large number of temples, shrines and monuments founded during this period or in the lead-up to it. So the city had applied to be included on the World Heritage List, the ultimate collection of the world’s cultural and natural history.
This year, it was one of just a few dozen sites to be officially considered for inclusion on the list. And then in May, the bombshell. Kamakura found out that UNESCO’s advisors were going to recommend the application be rejected.
The governor of Kanagawa, Yuji Kuroiwa, told the Japan Times that he was “shocked and felt as if everything around me became black”. So much effort had been put into this bid and the city was so confident of success. After all, this is where the samurais had first come from and everyone around the world has a romantic fascination with the ancient Japanese warriors.
But that, at its heart, was the problem with the application. It had relied too much on the connection with the samurai class. After five days of evaluations on site, and after consulting several independent sources, the conclusion by the international experts was that there just wasn’t enough evidence of that time.
The way the final report put it was, “however remarkable and important the history of the place may be, it is not supported by a sufficiently complete and outstanding heritage testimony”. In other words, there is no doubt that Kamakura and its samurais are hugely significant in the cultural story of Japan – there just isn’t enough evidence left from those days.
The Japanese authorities have refused to give up, though. They withdrew the application in June before it could be officially turned down by UNESCO. If the rejection had been formalised then Japan could never have applied again. But by withdrawing it earlier, there’s always the option of trying another year.
It’s hard to know how Japan would be able to make their bid more attractive, though. There is a lot to see already in Kamakura – the Hase-dera Temple, the Kotoku-in Buddha, Kencho-ji Temple and the Tsuruoka Hachiman-gu Shrine are just a few of the highlights. Because the city is only 50 kilometres from Tokyo, it has a steady stream of tourists and the sites are all well-maintained with plenty of historical information available.
The problem is that this collection of temples and shrines is not enough alone to warrant inscription on the World Heritage List. The international advisors said themselves that they don’t compare favourably enough to other temple complexes in Japan. What would set Kamakura apart is evidence of the samurai culture… but that has mostly been lost and built over.
The report put it like this: “The tangible testimonies of the places of shogunal power, other than the temples, are few in number and are often rather inexplicit. The Medieval city of the plain is absent from the property, and today has been overlain by 20th century urban development. Apart from the remains of the port, which are in a very poor condition, nothing really provides testimony to the way the city of Kamakura functioned economically and socially during the shogunate period.”
From a tourist’s perspective, Kamakura is a beautiful place to visit for a day. It is similar in many respects to visiting Kyoto or Nara because of the range of traditional religious structures spread out over the city. It is certainly not as impressive as either of those two cities but it is much easier to get to from Tokyo for people who aren’t planning to head further south in Japan.
It would be an enormous source of pride for the Kamakura authorities to get their city listed among Nara and Kyoto (and more than 900 other places around the world). It clearly offends them deeply that they are not given the same recognition. But if the crowd sizes on the day I visited are anything to go by, there is plenty of interest in the birthplace of the samurai… and hopefully that is enough to satisfy for now.