Wednesday, August 25, 2010

“Mountains that women can climb” (2)

Continuing the story of Japan’s women mountaineers: how the Otenba of Taishō pushed out the boundaries. The second posting of a three-part series.

Conveniently for cultural historians, the start of the women’s movement in Japan can be traced to 1911, the year before Emperor Meiji died. That was when Hiratsuka Raichō started her “Blue Stocking” journal with its manifesto for women: “I am a new woman. It is my daily desire to become a true new woman. What is truly and forever new is the sun. I am the sun.”

Inconveniently for alpine historians, no such proclamation came from Japanese lady mountaineers. Nor was any discernible movement started. The ladies just went climbing. If a milestone must be highlighted, one might pick the August day in 1923 (Taishō 12) when Murai Yoneko (1901–1986), accompanied by three guides, completed her traverse of the Hodaka mountains to Yari-ga-take. The crossing of the narrow and crumbling Dai-Kiretto was an “adventure for a lady”.

Murai started her climbing career in 1917 when, as a sixteen year-old, she climbed Mt Fuji with her nurse and a servant (“jii ya, baa ya”). This she did with the full encouragement of her father, a journalist turned novelist turned culinary experimentalist. The following year, she topped out on Tateyama. After enrolling at Tokyo Women’s University, she spent the first summer vacation at Kami-kochi, camping and climbing mountains in the company of her brother. In April 1931, she climbed Mae-Hodaka and Oku-Hodaka in the snowy season and, later, she took up rock-climbing and ski-touring too.

Murai extended the boundaries, but she was by no means the first to assert a woman’s right to climb. As we saw in the previous post, the power of religious sects to bar women from sacred summits had been abolished as early as 1872. More significant, though, was the government’s edict of the same year that, henceforth, girls would receive the same number of years of compulsory education as boys.

By 1905, the year the Japan Alpine Club was founded, there were a hundred schools for girls in Japan; at some of them, mountain excursions would soon be commonplace. In 1914 (Taishō 3), for example, a group from a high school in Matsumoto climbed Shirouma, another high peak in the Northern Alps. The picture below shows students from an Ochanomizu girls' high school on their way to Mt Fuji in 1919.



Societal trends may have been favoured women who climbed mountains in Taishō Japan, but social attitudes took a while to catch up. Eyebrows lifted and tongues tut-tutted when Murai Yoneko climbed Tateyama, a sacred mountain. Other lady alpinists were derided as “otenba” (tomboys) or met with misplaced commiseration: “Poor Mrs Kuroda,” her neighbours sighed, “being forced to eat bread and getting dragged up mountains”.

Kuroda Hatsuko (b.1903; pictured abseiling above) was not looking for sympathy. She’d been in thrall to the hills since a girlhood visit to Mitsutoge, an eminence near Tokyo that affords panoramic views of the far-off Southern Alps. Her climbing career started when she married Tokyo University engineering graduate and mountaineer, Kuroda Masao: they visited Amagi on their honeymoon in 1923. Perhaps that year really does represent a milestone.

Soon the Kurodas were tackling sterner stuff. With her husband as climbing partner, Mrs Kuroda notched up first female ascents of Ko-Yari, Tsurugi Yatsu-mine, and Kita-Hodaka’s East Ridge, all destinations that require rock-climbing skills and a head for heights. Some of her exploits got into the newspapers.

“The scarier it gets, the more I want to get to grips with it,” she said. That included winter mountaineering: on New Year’s Day 1931, the Kurodas climbed Yarigatake, Japan’s fifth highest mountain. She kept on climbing - and eating bread too - after her husband’s death. And she parlayed her knowledge of nutritional science into a book on food and gear for mountain-climbers.

Another book describes her climbing experiences. In it, she relates how, at last, she reached the Southern Alps she’d set her heart on from Mitsutoge. From the ridge on Akaishi-dake, she saw in the clouds a rainbow-hued shadow that eerily mimicked her when she raised her ice-axe: it was the brockenspectre. Sunrise on the summit moved her beyond words and she bowed her head, knowing that she’d never see anything like this again.


Then there was Sakakura Tokiko (b.1910). The daughter of a hunting man, she was introduced to the hills at an early age. When she went out to work at the age of 17, she immediately joined the company mountaineering club. Its activities included a winter ascent of Tanigawa-dake, famous for its deep snows and unforgiving weather. She climbed mountains all over Japan, and visited the Alps and the Himalaya too.

Along the way, she was elected a member of the prestigious Japan Alpine Club – it formed a women’s section in 1949 – but she had her own ideas on how a club could be run. So, in 1955, she formed her own, for women only. The Edelweiss Club would encourage women to climb at their own pace. After all, what counted wasn’t the number of metres climbed – it was what the climbers brought back in their hearts.

Like Kuroda Hatsuko, Sakakura wielded a deft pen, writing several guidebooks and a history of women’s mountaineering. On occasion, she churned out sixty manuscript pages in a single day. Hard work kept her young; at the age of 85, she traversed Yarigatake. By this time, she was pioneering the way less for women – that cause was surely won when Tabei Junko summited Everest on May 16, 1975 – than for Japan’s growing cohort of “silver age” alpinists. But this is another story, and one yet to be written.

Previous post: the first woman to climb Mt Fuji. And, next in the series: the Shōwa era ushers in the equal-opportunity climbing Valhalla

References

Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, Harvard University Press

Hito wa naze yama ni noboru ka (人はなぜ山に登るか), Taiyō Bessatsu, Autumn 1998 – a summarized history of Japanese mountaineering.

目で見る日本登山史, 山と溪谷社 (編集) (Yama-to-Keikoku-sha: Illustrated History of Japanese Mountaineering)

Hiroko Seiwa and Akio Funahashi, History of Japanese Mountaineering and Women in the Light of their Relations to Religion, Faculty of Education, Kochi University, 1982

19 comments:

Kittie Howard said...

What a fabulous post! You had me from word one to the end. Much history well written...also loved the photos. I was amazed that Murai climbed anything in those shoes (more like sandals), so understood when she wrote a book about climbing gear. It took a lot of courage for these early female climbers to crack that mountain ceiling. Yuko, my former Japanese language partner, once said, "In Japan, cats have names. Dogs have names. But not women, especially after they marry." Yuko said this not that long ago.
So, don't know, don't know.

Haven't a clue how I missed the previous post. Gonna check it out now.

wes said...

An excellent summary of some of the key figures of the Taisho era. Some of their exploits are beyond belief, especially considering the lack of 'high tech' gear back in those days.

Any idea of the kind of preferred footwear? From the photos it looks like a combination of tabi and straw sandals?

Kittie Howard said...

Couldn't open the first part. But I did read your other blog, decided to follow...the snow-covered Alps aren't even close to how they were, all very sad.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Kittie, Wes - wow, you commented almost before I'd finished publishing: thanks for reading. Yes, it certainly took some moxy for those redoubtable ladies to break into mountaineering. But they were redoubtable - and I think they probably kept their names after marriage, too.

Footwear? In the photo (second one down) of Murai Yoneko on her 1923 Hodaka-Yari traverse, she is wearing "waraji" (straw sandals). At that time, it was still standard practice to wear those even in the high mountains - "waraji" were also what Tatsu and her companions wore to climb Mt Fuji in the snow back in 1832. Otherwise, I assume that the lady mountaineers of the Taisho era wore what the men were wearing ie modern boots with cleats for the rock climbing, and "waraji" (straw sandals) for lighter walking and sawa-nobori. Indeed, there was a worklady alpinist in our own club who used exactly the same combination ...

Kittie: link to the previous post? Have put another one in at the bottom of the article - hope that one works...

Iainhw said...

Yet another very enjoyable read.
Sakakura san sounds a very interesting character. Do you have any reference to what she or any of the other ladies achieved in the Alps? Also, is she still alive?

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Iain: good to hear from you. Yes, Sakakura was an interesting character. I think she might be claimed as one of the first "worker alpinists", given that she climbed mainly with clubs (as opposed to with a husband or brother etc) and was a working woman for her whole career. After the war, I think I read somewhere that she was with JTB. Is she still living? She was when my source book (Hito wa naze...) was published in 1998. More information about women climbers in the Yamakei Illustrated history - which you have - pages 186-195. As you see, I've only scratched the surface of this topic....

Anonymous said...

Ms Sakakura Tokiko died at the age of 98, on the 3rd of December, 2008. You can find a eulogy by one of her followers here: http://www.geocities.jp/oriental_com/ogura/anohi/sakakura/index.htm

Anonymous said...

Come to think of it, you may find far more women than men on Japanese hiking trails nowadays, though mountaineering clubs still tend to have far more men than women members.

Also, there is a new trend. Until recently, hiking seemed to have become mainly of middle-aged and elderly people's activities. However, if you go hiking in Japan these days, you will find many fashionable young girls enjoying hiking. Very interesting. I think more young women are joining alpine climbing, too. Is this happening only in Japan, I wonder?

hanameizan said...

Fascinating article and photos. Thank you for taking the time to ferret out this information and write it up. Where do you manage to find the photos?

I can confirm the comment of Anonymous that the mountains are attracting fashionable young women (and men); something of a boom is under way. Here's a typical example from last weekend on Kitadake:

http://www.yamareco.com/modules/yamareco/photodetail.php?did=74788&pid=3202f5d60d5859570189666bba3afaa1

As for the shoes, those lightweight slippers look very comfortable. The US Army (if you trust them) calculates that 1 kg on the foot is equivalent to 6 kg in your backpack. I'm tempted by the modern equivalent of Waraji, "Vibram Fivefingers".

Traversing Yari at 85? Magnificent! I'm looking forward to your next post on the silver hiking generation.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

(H)Anonymous: many thanks for the information, though I'm sad to hear that Sakakura-san has passed on. Somehow I was hoping to hear that she'd done the first centenarian ascent of Yari.....

Hanameizan: well, there always were frighteningly competent all-women teams abroad in the Japan Alps. Allan and I were overtaken by a ladies' rope on Kita-dake buttress. We were overtaken because we were pitching the route and they were just treating it as "continuous climbing" territory. Maybe they were Edelweiss members...

Iainhw said...

Project H - thanks for directing me back to yamakei. I have just been looking at it with an old climbing partner from Japan who is in town for a couple of days.

Anonymous - Thanks for the eulogy reference for Sakakura san.
A boom in fashionable young ladies in the Japanese mountains sounds like very good news! I do hope they are all suitably dressed.

☆sapphire said...

Hello Hyakumeizan

Thanks so much for this fantastic summary of these women mountain- climbers! I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't know most of them except Murai Yoneko(村井米子)and Tabei Junko. The second photo(Yoneko) is very impressive. WOW! She is wearing "waraji"!
By the way, I've read a few books about Yoneko's father, Murai Gensai(村井弦斎). He was really really an interesting man; he was a gourmand and led a Jomon(縄文)life in a pit dwelling in his old age.

PS
I love the Yoshida Hiroshi's "Sunrise on Eboshi-dake" in your previous post! It reminds me of the sunrises I saw when I climbed Yatsuga-take and Shirouma! Splendid 雲海s and ご来光s were unforgettable! Thank you!

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Sapphire: many thanks for visiting - and for the fascinating information about Murai Yoneko's father - naruhodo, famous daughter of famous father. Quite what Mr Murai was trying to achieve by living in a pit is an interesting question - but one, alas, that some other blogger will have to research....

Anonymous said...

Hey Captain,

I was browsing through your amazing work on Flickr and came accross the beautifull Arête 1 picture :(http://www.flickr.com/photos/70148269@N00/3278653270/in/set-72157614263591757/)

I have been walking the Mt. Bianco area this summer with my son (who is 12 years old) and I made him the promise that when he is older we would go up on those mountains together. To inspire him and remember the promise I wanted to give him a blow up of a nice picture. I wonder if you could be so kind to maybe send me a larger version of this picture. I will not use it for anything other than for the personal use described above. If you would be willing to do so, could you send it to leojaarsma at hotmail.com ?

Thank you so much!

Leo

Peter Skov said...

Congratulations on yet another well-researched and well-presented piece on the culture and history of mountaineering in Japan. As I read about these tough gals tackling the hills I feel that I wish I could have been there at the tops of the mountains as they came up. When I see all the kawaii image mimics on the TV and train everyday I can't help but think that these girls are working hard at reversing the image of women that the fine stout ladies mentioned in your post created with their exploits. But I guess the world - or Japan at least - needs cute too.

Peter Skov said...

And yes, I have seen many groups and soloist young women climbers, mostly in their 20s up to mid-30s. The flowers are lovely but I much prefer a conversation with a lovely otenba.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Although appearances can be deceptive, Peter. Coming down to Kami-kochi one Golden Week, we found ourselves camped next to two young ladies who'd got there on formidable and mud-spattered Africa Twin trail bikes - studded tires, off-road sus, the lot. Turned out that their day job was bowing and smiling and gesturing delicately with white-gloved hands to the honourable customers at a renowned Yokohama department store.... You never can tell, can you...

Peter Skov said...

Having that kind of job is one thing. Making it a past-time obsession to fuss with hair, false eyelashes, pretty bows, frilly short skirts, high-heels that don't allow steps of more that five centimetres, and little purses that balance on wrists with hands ending in ornately decorated nails with heart stickers is very much another. I don't begrudge these girls their hobbies. I just admire the ladies who LCD up their boots and climb a mountain more. :)

Peter Skov said...

One of the difficulties of typing o. A iPhone is when you don't quite tap the key right and miss a letter, such as A in lace, and the phone software then guesses that you meant LCD and puts that in instead. Then you don't notice the erroneous correction and post a comment with a sentence that doesn't quite make sense.

Girls who LACE up their boots!