A Japanese island where women are banned from stepping foot has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Before entering Okinoshima, a sacred island located between Kyushu, Japan’s southwestern main island, and the Korean Peninsula, men must remove their clothing and cleanse themselves in the sea, a practice known as misogi. Up to 200 visitors—all of them men—are permitted on the island on one day, May 27, every year, to attend a festival honoring sailors who lose their lives during the Russo-Japanese War. This festival only lasts two hours, and access to and behavior on the island is limited and stringent—visitors cannot discuss their visit with anyone after their departure or take back any objects, even pebbles or blades of grass.
The island has served as an ancient religious site where prayer rituals are conducted for the safety of traveling ships and trade relations with China and Korea, rituals which date to as early as the fourth century. Only priests from Munakata Taisha, a collection of Shinto shrines, may worship at the island’s Okitsu shrine, which was constructed during the 17th century. A mark of its sacred status, the island is protected at all times bye a Shinto priest who prays to the island’s goddess.
Around 80,000 artifacts have been unearthed on the island, from Persian glass to gold rings from the Korean Peninsula, indicating the island’s significance as a source of information about Japanese rituals which were not recorded until the 8th century. The island’s history also provides important information on ancient trade between the Japanese archipelago, the Korean Peninsula and China.
Despite the island’s historical significance, the controversial UNESCO designation draws unanswered questions over the island’s total exclusion of women. No clear explanation has been offered for the ban on women, although some believe that women have never been allowed to enter the island due to the Shinto belief in menstrual blood as an impurity. Others speculate that the ban stems from the belief that women could not survive the journey to the island from the mainland.
By designating Okinoshima as a World Heritage Site, UNESCO is promoting and honoring an island where taboos have barred all women from entering. While the rich cultural history of the island serves as an important lens into Japanese history, it will remain a site of exclusivity, an aberration from the kinds of locations UNESCO usually names World Heritage Sites—ones where others can visit, and especially ones that haven’t historically barred an entire group from stepping foot.
Last year, a Hindu group based in the United States called on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to refuse to consider Okinoshima for the designation unless it lifted its ban on women. Although UNESCO states that it “considers gender equality as a fundamental human right, a building block for social justice and an economic necessity,” it did not heed these calls to deny Okinoshima World Heritage status for its gender-based exclusion.
As it turns out, the priests that guard the island would rather have it maintain its anonymity and its traditions. “Strict preservation is a must now that the island has received a UNESCO listing,” said a spokesperson for Munakata Taisha. Although places that are named World Heritage Sites usually attract large numbers of tourists, the men who visit for its annual festival will no longer be permitted access starting in 2018. For the island known for housing the gods, we can expect that its ban on tourism won’t be changing any time soon. And, according to Munakata Taisha’s chief priest Takayuki Ashizu, neither will its ban on women.