World Heritage Site: The Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region Special Research Project
World Heritage Site: The Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region Special Research Project
Background & Research Schedule

“It is thought that the rituals of ancient Okinoshima were conducted to pray for safety of maritime navigation, so what was the reality of such ancient maritime voyages?”

“Rituals were conducted against a backdrop of interaction and exchange with ancient East Asia from the fourth to the ninth centuries, so how did these interactions with different cultures influence the religious beliefs and rituals of Okinoshima?”

“Why did changes to the series of rituals occur and what do these changes tell us? What do the offerings made at each stage symbolize? How and when did belief in the three female deities of Munakata first emerge?”

“Are there any other similar examples to be found in ancient East Asia of sacred islands and rituals relating to maritime navigation?”


The Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region was inscribed in the World Heritage List at the 41st Session of the World Heritage Committee, held in Krakow, Poland in 2017.

Among its recommendations at that time, the Committee advised that Japan should give consideration to “Continuing and expanding research programmes on maritime exchanges, navigation and related cultural and ritual practices within the State Party and its neighboring countries.” It was in response to that recommendation that the Preservation and Utilization Council of "Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region“ (Fukuoka Prefecture, Munakata City, Fukutsu City, Munakata Taisha) engaged in a five-year special research project from FY2018 to FY2022.

Three international review meetings and field surveys of related heritage sites were implemented, in order to advance a cross-sectional understanding of the issues. Based on these meetings, commissioned researchers compiled academic papers, and following discussions held at a general review meeting (Large Conference Room, ACROS Fukuoka, December 17-18, 2022), five papers were presented. A meeting to report the outcomes of the special research project was held on March 12, 2023, at Kyushu National Museum, and the final outcome report was also published in March 2023. The English language version of the report is expected to be published in March 2024.

International review meetings were held on three occasions on the following themes.

  • “Okinoshima and the Munakata Region seen from Navigation in Ancient East Asia” (1st International Review Meeting, February 26-27, 2019, Innovation Plaza, Kyushu University)
  • “Interchanges of Beliefs and Rituals in Ancient East Asia” (2nd International Review Meeting, January 12-13, 2020, SME Promotion Center)
  • “Ancient Maritime Faith in Ancient East Asia and Okinoshima, Munakata” (3rd International Review Meeting, March 21-22, 2023, Daimaru Elgala Hall)
    Each of these three meetings addressed the ancient rituals that were conducted on Okinoshima and associated sites from the 4th to the 9th centuries, seeking to bring together current knowledge in each field of expertise and region of East Asia, and consider the background to the rituals and the specific characteristics of Munakata and Okinoshima. For each theme researchers from Japan and overseas were invited to engage in discussions. In total 23 researchers were involved in this special research project.

Onsite field visits were undertaken to China and Korea, to sites that have a strong relation with the theme of the special research project, and also to cultural sites and museums, in Japan relating to maritime navigation, inter-cultural exchange and religious beliefs.

The field visit to China (Dec. 23-30, 2018) involved onsite studies in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, covering a wide area from the Zhoushan archipelago to Macau.

The field visit to Korea (Aug. 19-26, 2019), with the kind cooperation of Lee Kang-Seung (Emeritus Professor, Chungnam National University), involved onsite visits to cultural sites and museums relating to maritime navigation, inter-cultural exchange and religious beliefs from Heuksando Island to the west and south coasts of mainland Korea.

In Japan, field visits were conducted to the Jike site and other sites on the Noto Peninsula (Aug. 10-12, 2022), and to Tsushima (Nov. 4-5, 2022).

Makoto SATO

Maritime navigation, exchange and religion in ancient East Asia: Particularly from the perspective of navigation and exchange

Makoto SATO

Professor Emeritus, The University of Tokyo

I think that there may have been little inclination among young researchers to engage in research about Munakata and Okinoshima more than 50 years after the excavation of the sites had taken place.

However, following the inscription of the sites as World Heritage Site and the implementation of this special research project, various new research outcomes have been achieved. Although the original excavation survey undoubtedly reported outstanding fine results, after the passage of several decades I think that we are finally seeing a new academic revival and shining a spotlight on the sites once more. I believe that through these efforts we have been able to acquire a great deal of new knowledge and make new discoveries.


Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo. Committee chairman of the Expert Meeting of “Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region”
Specializes in the ancient history of Japan.

Major publications include: Ancient Japanese Imperial Capitals and Mokkan (wooden tablets), (Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1997), Ancient History of Excavated Materials, (University of Tokyo Press, 2002), Ancient Local Government Administrations and Society, (Yamakawa Shuppansha, Japanese History Libretto, 2007), Ancient History of Japan 6 Ancient Archipelago (Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1997).


The Historical Trajectory of the Functions of the Okinoshima Ritual: An Examination of Maritime Navigation, Exchange, and Religion in Ancient East Asia Through the Lens of Rituals and Religious Beliefs


Professor, Kyushu University

The rituals that were conducted on Okinoshima island intensely embody a complex and intricate historical trajectory through which Japan, known as ‘Wa’ by Chinese authorities, emerged as a distinct polity engaged in contact and competition with other polities in mainland Asia, ultimately establishing itself as an ancient state.

Therefore, this special research project holds immense academic significance in investigating globalization and the formation and transformation of world systems in ancient East Asia.


Professor, Faculty of Social & Cultural Studies, Kyushu University
Member of the Expert Committee: “Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region.” Specialized in theoretical and social archaeology.

Major publications include: Archaeology, Society and Identity in Modern Japan (2006, Cambridge University Press), The Archaeology of Japan: From the Earliest Rice Farming Villages to the Rise of the State (2013, Cambridge University Press), Global Social Archaeologies: Making a Difference in a World of Strangers(2019, Routledge, co-authored with Claire Smith)


Maritime World Heritage from the perspective of seacrafts, seafaring technology and inter-island networks


Director, Yamanashi Prefectural
Fujisan World Heritage Center

In the sea regions of East Asia, a variety of transoceanic activities have developed since the late Pleistocene and early Holocene periods. These cover a wide range of maritime activities between islands such as fishing, trades of commodities and tributes, intentional migration, invasion, exile, and accidental drifting. The success or failure of voyages was largely determined by natural factors such as ocean and tidal currents, prevailing seasonal winds, and typhoons as well as factors relating to the seacrafts technology and steering techniques. Inter-islands voyages between Japan and China conducted during the Kentoshi periods (632 – 894 AD), suggest changes in sea routes during the 7th and 9th centuries, due to the geopolitics in the area, and overall success rates of the voyages were fairy high. Even prior to the Kentoshi period, religious transactions prevailed in East Asian sea regions where the rituals to pray for the success of voyages were conducted extensively as clarified as evidences from various archaeological remains in Korean and the western Japan. The Munakata three goddesses, and the funadama (the female spirit of seacraft) represent the symbolic icons for the safety and security of seafaring. As the close relations among the Okinoshima World Heritage Site and relevant archaeological sites suggest, an inter-island maritime model, rather than a land-based concentric model, will provide much more useful means for the research and international cooperation.


Director-General, Yamanashi Prefectural Fujisan World Heritage Center, Professor Emeritus, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature
Specializes in ecological anthropology, marine ethnography, and ethnobiology.

Major publications include: Crossing World Beyond Nature and Culture: Dialogue with Philippe Descola (ed. Kyoto University Press, 2018), Research and Materials Relating to Fishery Rights from the Meiji to Early Showa Period, (Two vols., Rinsen Book Co., 2021), Cultural History of Sacred Mountains, (Bensei Publishing, 2023).

WOO Jae Pyoung

Exchanges between ‘Wa’ (Japan) and ‘Baekje’ (Korea) as seen from the ritual sites of Okinoshima and Chungmak-dong

WOO Jae Pyoung

Professor Chungnam National University

The background to the emergence of the Okinoshima ritual site appears to have been strongly influenced by the emergence of religious systems that accompanied the formation of the “Wa”(Japan) state. However, if we consider the geographical position of the Okinoshima ritual site, which could be said to be the gateway to the Korean Peninsula from Wa, it becomes imperative to also approach the issue not simply from the formation of religious systems, but also from the aspect of strengthening the long-distance seaborne economic trading systems. During the fourth to sixth centuries, namely the Kofun period in Wa, the single greatest challenge for the ruling elite was to secure a stable supply of strategic materials, such as iron, from overseas. Due to Goguryeo’s southern expansionist policy on the Korean Peninsula it is generally thought that there would also have been strict controls on the import of iron materials to Wa from Geumgwan-Gaya. The primary purpose of the voyage, which involved putting to sea on quasi-structural ships, trading vessels vulnerable to rough seas, loaded with Wa goods such as Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata), was to head to the international port of Geumgwan-Gaya. It was a sea route fraught with danger and risk. In particular, if the Wa vessels loaded with strategic materials that had been purchased overseas, such as iron from Gaya, were to encounter difficulties or be lost at sea, the Wa political elites and merchant groups would also suffer devastating losses. There is no doubt that at that time, Wa poured every effort into ensuring the safe transport of strategic materials such as iron, which was also as a means of resisting the threat posed by Goguryeo. In the process of trading vessels plying the waters of the Genkai Sea, it is thought that there were diverse and varied efforts to protect the safety of those vessels. One particular area into which the political elites and merchant groups of Wa focused their attention during the fifth to sixth centuries was prayer to deities. The main purpose of such prayers was likely to have been to pray for the safe return of the trading vessels, loaded with strategic materials of great value, such as iron. The loss of a trading vessel could be said to have been a disaster that was to be avoided at all costs. In order to avert disaster for their ships it is thought that the political elites and merchant groups decided to hold grand-scale rituals on Okinoshima. Around the fifth century there was a trend that saw the ritual acts on Okinoshima further enhanced. This phenomenon could well have been due to the impact of the southern expansionist policies of Goguryeo on the Korean Peninsula at the time. Rituals similar in form to those conducted at the Okinoshima ritual site have also been confirmed at the Chungmak-dong ritual site of Baekje (Korea). This is a coastal ritual site located on the western coastal route, on the way from Wa to Gongju, the capital of Baekje at the time. Around the fifth to sixth centuries, at this coastal ritual site in addition to remains of Baekche-style rituals, traces of Wa-style open-air rituals have also been found, with stone-made copies of implements being offered. These traces of Wa-style rituals could be said to be similar in form to the ritual sites of Okinoshima. They very likely document how, at a time when the threat from Goguryeo was increasing, protecting the safety of Wa trading vessels plying the waters along the western coast of Baekje was a strategic goal for both countries. Accordingly, the Okinoshima ritual site and the Chungmak-dong ritual site can be said to be the most valuable religious heritage for understanding the international political situation and trading environment that Wa and Baekje faced at that time.


Professor, Department of Archaeology, Chungnam National University, Korea
Specializes in archaeology, political history of the Kofun period, and the history of exchange between Japan and Korea.

Major publications include: “Tomb System of the Daeseong-dong Tumuli Group in Gimhae, Korea and the Beginning of the Kofun Period in Japan,” Machikaneyama Archaeological Papers, (Osaka University, 2005), Research into Articles Detailing Relations with Korea in the Nihon Shoki I-III, (Co-editor, Isshi Publishing, 2002-2004), Early Korea - Japan Interactions (2018, Harvard University, Korea Institute, co-editor).


Sea routes in Japan-Korea negotiations during the Kofun period: Focusing on analysis of ancient Japanese materials from the south and west coast regions of the Korean Peninsula


Associate Professor,
National Museums of Japanese History

During the Kofun period, Wa (Japanese) society actively accepted and incorporated diverse culture from the Korean Peninsula, making it a part of their own culture. The people of Wa in those days were active seafarers, interacting with people on the Korean Peninsula from Baekche, Silla, Gaya, and the Yeongsan River basin. Archaeological remains that are noteworthy in relation to the sea routes that were traversed from Wa to the Yeongsan River basin and Baekche, are the “Wa-style burial mounds” constructed in the southern and western coastal regions of the Korean Peninsula in the first half of the 5th century. Located overlooking the sea, these tumuli generally adopt the tomb system seen in small and medium-sized kofun tumuli in the northern Kyushu region. It is therefore hypothesized that the persons buried in these tombs were not native to the locality, but rather of a different origin, and could realistically be the tombs of people from Wa, who engaged in negotiations with Baekche and the Yeongsan River basin region. Furthermore, given that ruins of settlements related to ports of call are scattered along the western and southern coasts of the Korean Peninsula, it is possible to recreate the routes by following the ports of call.

At that time, a network of relationships, which could be referred to as a regional network existed along the western and southern coastal regions, involving the exchange of goods, technology, information, and ritual methods. It is thought that delegations from Wa, who were sailing to the Yeongsan River basin and Baekche, utilized these networks to interact with local groups in ports of call, sometimes sharing living quarters for short periods of time as a means of facilitating coastal navigation. In the course of these voyages invariably some seafarers from Wa would die, and it was for such persons for whom the “Wa-style burial mounds” were constructed. Rituals to pray for safety of passage would also be conducted, and it would appear that situations arose in which some of the Wa seafarers would settle on the Korean Peninsula.


Associate Professor, National Museum of Japanese History, Associate Professor, Graduate University for Advanced Studies SOKENDAI
Specializes in archaeology, and the history of pre-historic and ancient Japan-Korea relations.

Major publications include: Japan-Korea Relations in the Kofun Period, (Yoshikaa Kobunkan, 2014), Japan (Wa) as Seen from Beyond the Sea, (Kodansha Gendaishinsho, 2017), “Unusual” Burial Mounds: Keyhole-shaped Tumuli on the Korean Peninsula, (Kadokawa Shoten, 2019).


The Hata clan and the deities of Munakata: Seeking clues from the Hata-shi Honkei-cho


Professor, Waseda University

The “Hata-shi Honkei-cho” as described in the Honcho Gatsuryo, a guide to annual rituals in the first half of the 10th century, records that the Hata clan invited and enshrined “Tsukushi Munakata Nakatsu-no-Okami” at Matsunoo Shrine (Matsuo-sha) in Yamashiro Province. Using clues described in the “Hata-shi Honkei-cho,” this paper examines the background and circumstances that led the Hata clan, a migratory clan based in Yamashiro, to dedicate a shrine to the deities of Munakata. The results of research show that the Hata clan enshrined “Tsukushi Munakata Nakatsu-no-Okami” at Yamashiro in 608, a deity thought to be the same as the female deity of Oshima Island. The background to this is thought to be the influence exerted by the activities of the Hata clan in Buzen relating to the management of the Miyake fief system, and the influence of external military activities undertaken on royal authority in northern Kyushu around the beginning of the 7th century, which developed on the basis of the Miyake system. These facts indicate that the Miyake system and the military activities undertaken on royal authority based on the Miyake system in Tsukushi, which was the central hub for foreign interactions by the royal house of Wa, brought about significant changes in local social relations and beliefs, and that belief in Oshima was important in ancient maritime traffic and not limited exclusively to the Okinoshima route.


Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University
Specializes in Japanese ancient history.

Major publications include: Foreigners and the Control of Ethnic Peoples in Ancient Japan, (Azekura Shobo, 1997), Ancient Archipelagic International Trade, (Kadokawa Sensho, 2016), Foreign Visitors and Naturalized Citizens, (Kadokawa Sensho, 2019).

Mamoru SASO

The significance of ancient rituals in Munakata and Okinoshima and their transformation through to the medieval period: From the perspective of human cognitive functions and environmental change

Mamoru SASO

Professor, Kokugakuin University

This paper reexamines the ancient rituals and perceptions of deities in Munakata and considers the transformation that took place through the years to the medieval period. The ancient Okinoshima rituals have been restored using a huge rock from the ritual site as a “Iwakura (the belief in rocks as Yorishiro containing Kami in ancient Shinto).” However, as demonstrated in cognitive religious studies of recent years, based on the human cognitive function that seeks to intuitively assign the actor (deity) a specific function, it can be inferred that the basis for deific perceptions was that deities enshrined at Okitsu-miya (Okinoshima) and Nakatsu-miya (Oshima) functioned as maritime objects of navigation, while that at Hetsu-miya (mouth of Tsurikawa River) functioned as a deity overseeing the lagoon that was suitable as a harbor. In particular, in the case of Okinoshima the function of Mt. Ichinotake, the highest point on the island which can be viewed from the sea, was of particular importance, and the possibility can be suggested that it was the subject of rituals. From around the latter half of seventh century these ancient rituals changed to a form in which Sue ware was used as vessels for offerings of food to the deities, and talc representations were used as offerings. The background to this change was the establishment of Munakata-gun in Shin-gun, and the formation and establishment of Kanbe settlements based on the traditional villages there. It is thought that the divine character of the three female deities of Munakata as seen in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki was established in parallel with the compilation of those historical chronicles. The perceptions of the divinity and rituals relating to the three female deities of Munakata transformed from the late 9th to 10th centuries in response to domestic and international tensions and changes in the environment. The Tengyo Rebellion led to the conferral of Bodhisattva status on the Munakata deities, and their rituals took on a more pronounced Buddhist character. Also, from the 10th century onwards beach ridge were formed at the mouth of the Tsurikawa River, and it is thought that this resulted in the river mouth and the lagoon facing Hetsu-miya losing their functionality as a port area. Conversely the port functions of Tsuyazaki tidal flats to the west of Hetsu-miya became more established, coming to serve as a hub for trade between Japan and the Song Dynasty, in which the Munakata clan, Daiguji of Munakata Taisha, was involved. In this process, the idea of Buddhist invocations was adapted for the three female deities of Munakata, and at Hetsu-miya a shrine precinct landscape was established in which the three deities were enshrined together, incorporating the deities of Okitsu-miya and Nakatsu-miya. In particular the Tei-ichi-gu of Hetsu-miya was named Soja-Sansho (collective shrine). On the other hand, Okitsu-miya (Okinoshima) was removed from the main maritime route for Japan-Song Dynasty trade, becoming a sacred sanctuary symbolizing the presence of a deity since ancient times, a belief that would be passed down to subsequent generations.


Professor, Faculty of Shinto Studies, Kokugakuin University, Director of Kokugakuin University Museum.
Specializes in Japanese archaeology and the history of Japanese religion.

Major publications include: Archaeology of Shinto, Buddhist and Village Landscapes, (Kobundo, 2005), Archaeology of Ancient Japanese Rituals, (Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 2012), Archaeology of God and the Deceased, (Yoshikawa Kobunkan 2016).

Yasuyoshi OKADA

Yasuyoshi OKADA

President, ICOMOS Japan. Professor Emeritus, Kokushikan University.
Specializes in the architectural history of West Asia and cultural heritage studies.

Major publications include: The Development of the Architecture of Doors and Gates in Ancient Mesopotamia, (Co-editor.translator, Institute for Cultural Studies of Ancient Iraq, Kokushikan University, 1985), Sixty Chapters for Understanding Modern Iraq, (Co-editor, Akashi Shoten, 2011), “World Heritage and Archaeological Sites,” Journal of the Japanese Society for Cultural Heritage, No. 10, (Japanese Society for Cultural Heritage, 2013), Philosophy of World Cultural Heritage, (Co-author, University of Tokyo Press, 2017).

I am really impressed with what has been achieved, and my hope remains unchanged that the special research project will be deepened further in the future.

This research project has World Heritage Site as its subject. World Heritage Site is truly about how an object speaks of its value. In other words, the landscape or condition of the site at the time of its inscription in the World Heritage List should never be compromised. There are tremendous expectations that conservation and maintenance projects will be conducted at each of the component sites, so that as well as advancing research and studies, more people can deepen their understanding about the sites.



Senior Cultural Properties Specialist (World Heritage Conservation), Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan
Specializes in historical geography and regional policy studies.

Major publications include: “The Purpose of Cultural Landscapes,” (Gekkan Bunkazai (Cultural Properties Monthly) No. 590, Agency for Cultural Affairs, Dai-ichi Hoki, 2012), “Global Strategies to Reflect Representativeness, Balance and Credibility,” Thoughts on World Cultural Heritage, (University of Tokyo Press, 2017).

Following the inscription of the property as a World Heritage Site, we have been diligently working to implement UNESCO’s recommendations, conducting not only archaeological research but also interdisciplinary research, including cognitive religious studies, and disseminating the results widely, with a view to building a new body of knowledge about Munakata and Okinoshima.


The Preservation and Utilization Council of the sacred island of
Okinoshima and the Associated Sites in the Munakata Region