Wednesday, September 17, 2014

“Give me radar”

The precise origins of the radar station atop Mt Fuji are veiled in mystery

Nineteen-sixty-four was when Japan got its mojo back. It was the year the Olympics came to Tokyo and when Prime Minister Satō Eisaku took on the mission to double the national income. The Tokyo monorail started running in September, and the first bullet trains a few weeks later. For sheer high-tech panache, though, those feats were upstaged when a grossly overloaded helicopter came flailing in towards Japan’s highest summit.

August 15, 1964 was an exceptionally calm day on Mt Fuji. It had to be. Onlookers held their breath as they watched the boat-hulled Sikorsky edge closer. They knew the cage-like structure dangling from the S-62’s load-strop weighed something like 600 kilos. They also knew that the helicopter could normally lift only 450 kilos while hovering at this height. To save weight, all surplus kit had been stripped from the helicopter, side-door and co-pilot’s seat included. Even so, the approach would be touch and go.

It’s unclear – at least to this blogger – exactly who decided to build a radar station on Mt Fuji, and when. Conventionally, the story starts with Typhoon Vera, which struck the Ise Bay region on September 26, 1959, battering and inundating the city of Nagoya. The storm killed more than 5,000 people, left an estimated 1.5 million homeless, and injured almost 39,000 more victims.

Another tragedy on this scale might be prevented if a weather radar could give better warning of a typhoon’s approach and intensity. But where to site one? You could put a radar on a southerly island, such as Hachijōjima and Torishima (both were considered). Or you could put it on high ground. From the summit of Mt Fuji, for example, a radar could look eight hundred kilometres out to sea.

Pursuing this logic, Japan’s Meteorological Agency submitted a budget request to the Ministry of Finance in 1961. The finance officials were concerned about the brevity of the building season on Mt Fuji’s summit: if the project was to be completed in two years, as planned, all the building work would have to be crammed into two summer seasons of just 40 days each.

A hard-driving meteorologist named Fujiwara Hiroto handled the Agency’s negotiations with the ministry. He argued the project could finish on time if building materials were moved up the mountain as soon as the snow started melting in the spring. This “snowline-chasing strategy” was sufficiently persuasive to secure a budget allocation of 240 million yen.

Even before building started in 1963, it became clear that existing portage methods wouldn’t work. Horses and “goriki”, the traditional carriers on Mt Fuji, couldn’t handle the volume. As for helicopters, the pilots briefly went on strike when asked to hoist panels that might flutter out of control in the slipstream. What to do? Caterpillar D2s were brought in, first to bulldoze a trail all the way to the summit, then to freight up the heavy supplies, two tons at a time.

Excavating the foundations posed another challenge. Before they could dig into the iron-hard permafrost of the summit rocks, the construction crews had to thaw it with blowtorches. Yet they kept to their schedule. By mid-summer 1964, the radar building was virtually complete, except for the all-important geodesic dome that would shelter the rotating parabolic radar antenna.

The dome could not be assembled on-site, and it was too big for the bulldozers. That left only a helicopter lift. But, even after taking out all surplus kit, the S-62’s pilot doubted if it could hover at this height. Still, the job might be managed, he reckoned, if a gentle headwind of not less than 5 knots but no more than 10 could provide the chopper with some “dynamic lift”.

As just such a zephyr was promised for the early morning of August 15, the S-62 clattered off the tarmac near Gotemba just after breakfast, hooked onto its underslung cargo, and started labouring up Mt Fuji’s southern flanks. Climbing to just above the summit, the pilot turned his straining craft into wind and set up his approach towards the gesticulating figure standing on the domeless roof of the radar building. Just at that moment, the breeze died and the helicopter shuddered as the pilot struggled to compensate for the lost lift. Then, while at least one onlooker braced himself for a spectacular accident, the S-62 nosed in over the roof. In that instant, workmen leapt out from cover and grabbed the structure’s rim to align it with the hold-down bolts. The dome had landed.

Thanks to this high-wire episode, the new building was completed on time. The following August, the 1,500-watt Mitsubishi Electric-built radar tracked its first typhoon. After that, the station remained continuously in service until November 1999, when the radar was switched off for the last time, and its faithful service toasted in frozen beer at a “gokuro-sama” party under the radome. In 2004, the summit weather station closed too, ending 72 years of continuous human habitation atop Mt Fuji.

So much for the outline history. But, as you’ve noticed, this narrative stays curiously mum on who exactly was the first to propose siting a radar station on Mt Fuji. An obvious place to look for a smoking gun would be Fuji Sanchō, a lightly fictionalised account of the project. The novelist, who went by the nom de fudè of Nitta Jirō, was none other than Fujiwara Hiroto, the real-life Meteorological Agency man who handled the discussions first with the finance ministry and later with the big electronics companies that competed to supply the radar.

Nitta Jiro
(Photo: courtesy Bungei Shunju)
Unfortunately, Nitta sets his opening scene in the Finance Ministry, shedding little or no light on how the project started life. There are hints, though, that the novel’s hero, a not-even-thinly disguised Nitta/Fujiwara, had been following the technology ever since Japan set up its first weather radar during the early 1950s. That adds up. By background, Fujiwara Hiroto was a wireless engineer, not a meteorologist, and had spent his career mainly in the Agency’s instrumentation department. So perhaps the novelist was, quite literally, the author of his own story.

Another suspect is Fujimura Ikuo (we’ve met him before, as the instigator of the famous Mt Fuji ‘sit-in strike’ in the winter of 1932). Like many members of Japan’s business and administrative elite, the long-standing head of the summit weather station was fond of a game of go. At some point, perhaps in 1960, he was challenged to a match at the summit of Mt Fuji by Kobe Michinosuke, the president of Hazama-gumi, a construction company.

At this point Kobe’s staff intervened, fearing their boss might not survive the rigours of the climb. Graciously, Fujimura agreed that the match could instead take place at the Fukuda-ya, a favourite go venue in Tokyo. In gratitude, the company president asked if he could do anything in return. Fujimura thought for a moment before replying: “Give me a radar station.”


Fuji-san: oinaru shizen no kensho, Yomiuri Shinbunsha, 1992.

Dokiya Yukiko, Kawaru Fuji-san Sokkojo, 2004.

Images and ink (18)

Image: Celebratory Mt Fuji by Kataoka Tamako (1905-2008).

Ink: On Mt Fuji, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

The phrase "hachimen-reirō", meaning "graceful in all its aspects", was coined with Fuji in mind. Its form keeps its beauty whether viewed from north or south, east or west. All other mountains have their quirks, from which they draw their individual charm. But Fuji is simply vast and pure. In fact, I'm tempted to call it magnificently vulgar. Yes, would-be intellectuals might want to say that such starkness is tantamount to vulgarity. In the end, though, we all have to submit to this magnificent vulgarity.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Nonaka scoop

How a Meiji-era mid-winter epic on Mt Fuji was first broken to the English-speaking world

How humiliating. Until recently, Project Hyakumeizan believed that Portland-based Professor Andrew Bernstein and this blog were the first to introduce English readers to the detailed story of Nonaka Itaru and Chiyoko – the couple who endured 82 days on the summit of Mt Fuji in the winter of 1895 in a bid to take high-altitude weather readings.

Chiyoko and Itaru Nonaka and their Mt Fuji summit hut
But no. It turns out that both of us were scooped by Lafcadio Hearn, who had the advantage of climbing Mt Fuji just a year or so after Mr and Mrs Nonaka were rescued. His account is embedded within his essay "Fuji-no-yama", as later republished in Exotics and Retrospectives (1898). The relevant paragraphs are quoted below:

A Japanese meteorologist named Nonaka attempted last year the rash undertaking of passing the winter on the summit of Fuji for purposes of scientific study. It might not be difficult to winter upon the peak in a solid observatory furnished with a good stove, and all necessary comforts; but Nonaka could afford only a small wooden hut, in which he would be obliged to spend the cold season without fire! His young wife insisted on sharing his labors and dangers. The couple began their sojourn on the summit toward the close of September. In mid-winter news was brought to Gotemba that both were dying.

Relatives and friends tried to organize a rescue-party. But the weather was frightful; the peak was covered with snow and ice; the chances of death were innumerable; and the goriki would not risk their lives. Hundreds of dollars could not tempt them. At last a desperate appeal was made to them as representatives of Japanese courage and hardihood: they were assured that to suffer a man of science to perish, without making even one plucky effort to save him, would disgrace the country;– they were told that the national honor was in their hands.

This appeal brought forward two volunteers. One was a man of great strength and daring, nicknamed by his fellow-guides Oni-guma, "the Demon-Bear," the other was the elder of my goriki. Both believed that they were going to certain destruction. They took leave of their friends and kindred, and drank with their families the farewell cup of water– midzu-no-sakazuki--in which those about to be separated by death pledge each other. Then, after having thickly wrapped themselves in cotton-wool, and made all possible preparation for ice-climbing, they started – taking with them a brave army-surgeon who had offered his services, without fee, for the rescue. After surmounting extraordinary difficulties, the party reached the hut; but the inmates refused to open! Nonaka protested that he would rather die than face the shame of failure in his undertaking; and his wife said that she had resolved to die with her husband.

Partly by forcible, and partly by gentle means, the pair were restored to a better state of mind. The surgeon administered medicines and cordials; the patients, carefully wrapped up, were strapped to the backs of the guides; and the descent was begun. My goriki, who carried the lady, believes that the gods helped him on the ice-slopes. More than once, all thought themselves lost; but they reached the foot of the mountain without one serious mishap. After weeks of careful nursing, the rash young couple were pronounced out of danger. The wife suffered less, and recovered more quickly, than the husband.

According to Nonaka Chiyoko, who wrote her own account of this episode, the porter who rescued her was called Tsurukichi. So it was this very goriki (“strong man”) who later guided Lafcadio Hearn on his much less eventful ascent. This means that, unlike Professor Bernstein and myself, Hearn was able to get his story from a first-hand participant in the Nonaka story.

Well, it’s no disgrace to have been scooped by the maven of Matsue. After all, before he came to Japan, Hearn pounded the streets of Cincinnati as a journalist. Nor was Mt Fuji his first try at adventure writing – while working for the Cincinnati Commercial, he agreed to be carried to the top of the city’s tallest building on the back of a steeplejack. But this is another story altogether.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Images and ink (17)

Image: Autumn view of Mt Yōtei by Kataoka Tamako (1905-2008).

Ink: On Shiribeshi-yama, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

On the way by train from Hakodate to Sapporo, two mountains catch one's eye. The first is Koma-ga-dake and the second Shiribeshi-yama. In contrast to the breathtakingly stylish peak of Koma, Shiribeshi-yama is almost oppressively thick-set. As if to justify its traditional appellation of Ezo-Fuji, the mountain's regular form means that it looks much the same from any viewpoint. I strongly oppose simplifying the name of this mountain to plain Yōteizan. A name with deep historical roots, Shiribeshi-yama is recorded in the Nippon Shoki with an entry as early as the fifth year of Saimeichō (659) ...

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Death March on Mount Hakkōda

Timeless lessons on mountain leadership from a master of documentary fiction

Such was the prestige of the Imperial Army that civilians were once prohibited from owning books about the disaster. But thanks to a film made in 1977, almost everybody in Japan today knows of it - that, just over a century ago, almost 200 soldiers perished in a blizzard on Hakkōda, a mountain in northern Japan. The film took its cue from a deeply researched novel published in 1971 by the meteorologist-turned-writer Nitta Jirō.

The historical facts underlying Nitta's novel are simple. In preparation for the coming war against Russia, the Japanese army embarked on a series of winter exercises designed to train units for combat in Siberia or Japan's northern territories.

Two platoons, one each from the 31st of Hirosaki and the 5th Regiments, set out to traverse the Hakkōda massif in January 1902. The platoon from the 3lst completed the exercise as planned but a ferocious blizzard, probably the worst in the century, caught the men of the 5th out on the open mountain. Of the 210-strong platoon, 199 soldiers froze to death.

Men of the 31st Regiment
on winter manoeuvres
In Death March on Mount Hakkōda, these facts are woven into a story of epic quality. Epic here may be taken in both its mountaineering sense of a miserable time and its literary meaning of a narrative with universal significance.

Partly because the authorities did their best to suppress the facts at the time of the disaster, the author has taken certain liberties with history. The two exercises were, in fact, unrelated, on different dates and followed different routes. But for the purposes of the novel, the platoons are vying for the honour of the first winter crossing of the mountain and it is their rivalry that leads to the disaster.

So, on one level, the book is a study of The Platoon that Got It Right versus The Platoon that Got it Wrong. On one hand, we have good planning, competent leadership, adaptability, proper equipment, careful navigation.

On the other, there is a confused chain of command, inadequate preparation, inflexibility in the face of impossible conditions and the inevitable outcome. The lessons are trenchant and universal. So much so, that, when the novel was first published, one Japanese company bought fifty copies to distribute to their management to impress on them the danger of failing to communicate with their staff.

But there is more than a dry analysis of an accident to this book. Born in 1912 in Nagano, trained as a meteorologist and having survived the war in Manchuria, Nitta Jirō knew his army, weather and mountains. So his account of the 5th and the 31st has the force of personal experience behind it. The feeling of threat as the blizzard approaches, the growing confusion and personality clashes as the 5th's platoon loses its way - these are moments that will be familiar to many a mountaineering leader. Here is Lieutenant Kanda of the ill-fated 5th as he loses control of the situation:

When Kanda turned to Shindo to explain to him, map in hand, why he thought he had been mistaken, Yamada grabbed Shindo's lantern and shone its light on the stump of the branch. "Look, someone cut a branch off this beech to mark the road to Tashiro. Now, go quick and tell the platoon leaders that we've found the way there. That ought to cheer up the men." Kanda had been unable to get a word in. He stood still. A wave of despair washed over him.

The 5th and the 31st are history but the mountain is still there, the winter skies still loom menacingly dark over the snowy ridge, and the panda grass still flutters in the north wind where the gusts have stripped the snow from the crest (Nitta's eye for detail bespeaks long acquaintance with the winter mountains).

And the same mistakes are still made in the mountains, with consequences from which modern Gore-Tex and fibre-pile are sometimes not enough to save us. For these lessons alone, Death March on Mount Hakkōda is recommended reading for all summer, winter or armchair mountaineers.


Nitta Jirō, Death March on Mount Hakkoda, translated by James Westerhoven, The Stone Bridge Press, California.

Black-and-white photos are from Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Images and ink (16)

Image: Kodachrome view across Tanzawa mountains to Mt Fuji from Tō-no-dake

Ink: On Tanzawa, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

Today's mountaineers, though, tend to shun places that are deeply associated with some historical personage. Instead, they favor untouched mountains, still in the state of nature. So leaving Ōyama somewhat in a class of its own, they prefer to take the ridge paths of Tō-no-dake, Tanzawa-yama, and Hiru-ga-dake or to follow the valleys that cut into these mountains. 

That said, people have been climbing Tō-no-dake from nearby villages for centuries. Until it collapsed in the Great Kantō Earthquake, they used to venerate a huge rock near the summit. Some sixty or more feet in height, this was known as the Black Buddha. 

The town of Sagami was traditionally much given over to games of chance and it seems that every year on the fifteenth of May a procession of gamblers would wend their way up Tō-no-dake and hold a lively ceremony there.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Big White Peak

A forgotten photo collection reveals the Hyakumeizan author climbing in the Himalaya

Second-hand bookshops can be serendipitous. I recently emerged from one near Basel Station clutching, for a paltry five Swiss francs, a collection of faded colour photos of the Himalaya. The photographer's name - Kazami Takahide - had caught my eye. Needless to say, there was a connection with the author of Japan's most famous mountain book.

It happened like this. In the mid-1950s, Fukada Kyūya was a jobbing writer for mountaineering magazines. Perhaps inspired by the French ascent of Annapurna in 1950, he was increasingly interested in Himalayan topics. This led to a series of articles in the mountaineering journal Gakujin from June 1953, just after the first Japanese attempt on Manaslu, the world's eighth highest mountain.

Unfortunately, the income from these articles was substantially consumed by Fukada's almost compulsive purchases of books about the Himalaya, many imported expensively from abroad. To rid the house of tottering piles of alpine literature, his wife later took advantage of her husband's absence on a mountaineering trip to build a book-shed in the garden.

In 1956, the Japanese collected their own 8,000-metre trophy. The veteran climber Maki "Yukō" Aritsune led the Japanese Alpine Club's third expedition to Manaslu, enabling Imanishi Toshio and Sherpa Gyalzen Norbu to reach the summit on May 9. Their success helped to stoke a mountaineering and skiing boom in Japan.

It also fired Fukada's own Himalayan ambitions. A Japanese Alpine Club member himself, he was now well enough known in mountaineering circles to find generous corporate support for a private expedition, although it was organized several years before ordinary Japanese citizens could easily travel abroad.

With three companions, Fukada took ship for Calcutta in the spring of 1958, arriving in Kathmandu some forty-five days after leaving Kobe. With Fukada at the head of fifty porters, an experience that made him feel like Napoleon, the expedition then marched to its base camp in the Jugal Himal.

Their intended mountain, today known as Loengpo Gang (7,083m), had been named Big White Peak three years earlier by a party of Scottish lady alpinists who climbed one of its neighbours. It was a wildly ambitious objective. Three high camps would be necessary to reach the summit, the Japanese party judged.

The comforts of Camp Three were scant. By the time it was established at 5,000 meters, the party's lack of high-altitude climbing experience was starting to tell. Age too may have had something to do with it; as Fukada had put it to a journalist just before leaving Japan, he was "only" 54 years old. Just to clamber in and out of the high-altitude tent's round hatch during a blizzard was a torment that had to be repeated several times a night.

The expedition photographer did manage to reach the east ridge by taking turns to break trail with a Sherpa companion. There the brown plains of Tibet were glimpsed through the clouds. Honour satisfied, Fukada decided to abandon the peak, impressing one colleague with his Buddhist spirit of self-abnegation. The party then moved on to the Langtang Himalaya and, after two months under canvas, back to Kathmandu.

The high-climbing expedition photographer was none other than Kazami Takahide. In the blurb to the English-language edition of his photobook The Himalayas, he is introduced as follows:-

"The author . was born in 1914. In 1943 he joined the Japanese Navy, where he did a three-year tour of duty, after which he managed a Ginza camera shop and and then the Sanei photo library, both in Tokyo. He has made several journeys in India and Southeast Asia. His most absorbing interest has always been high-mountain photography, and he is author of several books on the subject."

In his preface to The Himalayas, Kazami is curiously reticent about his participation in Fukada's expedition. All he vouchsafes about that experience is this: "In 1958 I spent a couple of months in Nepal, where I fell in love - with Nepal." To be sure, most of the photos in the book were taken on a later trip, in 1964, which he undertook specifically to take photos of the land and people.

Yet a few images from the Fukada expedition do creep into The Himalayas. On page 112, for example, there is an image of a Camp 3 in the Jugal Himal (see picture left). The mountain is not identified but the height given - 23,240 feet - makes it clear that the peak in the background is Big White Peak or Loengpo Gang. One glance at those Big Bad Ridges shows why Team Fukada would never get anywhere near the top.

Looking again at the photo, my attention was drawn to the figure standing in the foreground. As there were only four Japanese mountaineers on this trip (or was it three?), this is likely to be Fukada himself. The comb-over hairstyle is also a giveaway. But there is no way of knowing for certain.

As an expedition, the attempt on Big White Peak was somewhat of a fiasco. That's not to say that the effort was wasted. Sometimes it takes an overseas trip to make you appreciate your native land. The Himlayan trip may have done that for Fukada. On returning to Tokyo, he revived a project that he had been mulling for years - to portray one hundred of Japan's most eminent mountains. And the rest, as they say, is history.


Tazawa, Takuya, Hyakumeizan no Hito, TBS Britannica, 2003.

Photos from Kazami, Takahide, The Himalayas, Kodansha International, 1967.