The Yomiuri Shimbun Aug 25, 2014
Surveying and exploring sunken ships on the seafloor off Japan’s coasts could reveal new historical facts and information. We think more efforts should be made to research such underwater wrecks and sites.
About 500 such sites have been confirmed in Japanese waters.
On the seabed off Matsuura, Nagasaki Prefecture, lie the remains of a military vessel thought to have sunk during the Mongolian invasions of Japan in the 13th century. It was discovered three years ago by a research group from the University of the Ryukyus. Items including spherical fragmentation bombs, which were drawn as “tetsuhau” (grenades) in “Moko Shurai Ekotoba,” illustrated narratives of the Mongolian invasions, were found at the site and recovered.
The sea area near this site is home to what is known as the Takashima Kozaki site. This was the first submerged site in Japan to be registered as a national historic site. Furthermore, underwater exploration of the area was conducted this summer.
The Cultural Affairs Agency plans to use the achievements and results of this research in future surveys of underwater ruins and sites. It has launched an exploratory committee of scholars to oversee this task. We have high hopes that there are outstanding developments in store.
The Seto Inland Sea is the final resting place for the Iroha Maru, the ship carrying Sakamoto Ryoma that collided with a ship run by the feudal Kishu domain during the final days of the Tokugawa shogunate. Furnishings thought to have been used in the ship’s cabins have already been retrieved from the site.
Chinese ceramics from about the 13th century have been found in the sea near Ojikajima island, which is one of the Goto Islands that are part of Nagasaki Prefecture and have served as key traffic lane on the sea route to China from ancient times.
Despite such examples of the historically significant items under the sea, in actuality most submerged sites around Japan have been left untouched.
Funding main problem
Underwater archaeology is the study of sunken ships and ancient cities that have sunk below the surface of the sea, a field that can provide insight into the levels of craftsmen’s skills and technology, as well as into people’s ways of life at the time. Since the end of World War II, this discipline has mostly developed in Europe and the United States.
In recent years, advances in sonar, remotely controlled cameras and other technologies have helped researchers learn even more about what lies under the sea. Japan lags behind many other countries when it comes to underwater archaeology and needs to strengthen its foundation in the field.
The greatest obstacle to this is funding. Surveying underwater reportedly costs about 10 times as much as examining ruins on land, so finding the cash for such projects is daunting. In many cases, local governments and research institutes play a central role in conducting such surveys.
However, underwater surveys can, on occasion, run up bills of hundreds of millions of yen. Such exorbitant costs have probably given organizers of many potential projects cold feet. To conduct surveys of ruins with historical value, financial support from the central government is essential.
Japan also will need to nurture more underwater archaeology experts.
Japan is a member of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The convention states for objects of an archaeological and historical nature “particular regard” will be “paid to the preferential rights of the State or country of origin, or the State of cultural origin.” There will likely be cases in which the examination of foreign ships that sank in waters near Japan will require coordination with the nation from which the ship came.
The first task for the government will be sorting out and examining the various issues involved in the survey of underwater wrecks.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 25, 2014)