Photo/IllutrationToshiyuki Kono (Photo by Koichi Ueda)

It's fitting that Toshiyuki Kono went traipsing around temples and shrines during his high school days.

Although he went on to forge a career in law, his interest in cultural properties eventually led him to using his legal expertise for the protection of cultural properties.

Kono, 59, is the newly-appointed head of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an advisory panel to UNESCO that assesses whether to grant World Cultural Heritage status to candidate sites.

It is the first time for a Japanese to serve as president of the international body. It is the only nongovernmental organization of this kind and has more than 10,000 expert staff in 153 countries.

“Were it not for the hard work by ICOMOS, World Heritage sites could not be preserved,” Kono said.

Although most ICOMOS members have a background in archaeology, Kono is an expert in law.

“I had never imagined I would build such a career,” said Kono, referring to his appointment in December as ICOMOS president.

After graduating from Kyoto University’s Faculty of Law, Kono started working at Kyushu University as a private international law specialist. He currently holds a professorship at Kyushu University’s graduate school.

While pursuing his studies in Germany in his late 20s, Kono attended a symposium on illegal trading in cultural assets. He said it made him realize that cultural properties and law are "interlinked.”

Acting on this thought, Kono published an academic paper after his return to Japan. That led to the invitation to join Japan ICOMOS.

Few lawyers around the world are au fait with legal frameworks to protect cultural assets, which has made Kono something of a trailblazer in the field. He played a key role in drafting a UNESCO treaty called the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. He also researched ways to reconstruct Afghanistan's giant standing Buddha statues in Bamiyan that were dynamited by the Taliban in March 2001, and other heritage sites at risk.

Kono had served as an executive committee member and vice president of ICOMOS. He is currently pressing ahead with projects to strengthen his organization's profile and financial base.

Kono has come a long way since his high school days, when he liked nothing better in his free time than to trudge, map in hand, around temples and shrines.

“It was an old-mannish hobby,” he said, smiling. “Cultural properties can make people happier. I want more people to experience this firsthand.”