Saturday, January 7, 2012

The origins of alpinism (2)

The story of the Sangaku-kai continued: How Kojima Usui's furious scribbling helped to found Asia's first alpine club

Kojima Usui was always clear about the chain of events that led him to found the Sangaku-kai, later to be known as the Japan Alpine Club. As related in the previous post, he picked up a copy of Shiga Shigetaka's Theory of Japanese Landscape (Nihon Fūkeiron) in 1896, and was inspired by the book to climb Yarigatake a few years later. This led to the famous meeting in 1903 with Walter Weston, the mountaineering missionary, who suggested the idea of a club.

But what happened in the two years between the fateful meeting with Weston and the Sangaku-kai's actual formation in 1905? Here the story lacks detail. According to Kojima, the blame for that lies with the Great Kanto Earthquake, which devastated Tokyo and Yokohama in September 1923. By that time, Kojima was working as his bank's representative in California, but he'd left all his papers relating to the prehistory of the Japan Alpine Club - hundreds of letters - at his parents' home.

When the earthquake struck, the house was badly damaged and the family took refuge for the night in a nearby bamboo grove. While they were away, the house was looted. Quite why the thief should make off with bundles of old letters is obscure. But, Kojima adds vengefully, if the felon had wiped his nose with them, "may it wrinkle up like that of a Nambu salmon".

So, when it came to the events after the meeting with Weston (right), Kojima had to reconstruct from memory. - there might be gaps and errors in the narrative, he warns in his essay on the run-up to the Sangaku-kai's founding. If memory serves aright, though, his first move after meeting Weston was (characteristically) to write an article about him. This account, probably the first write-up of Weston's doings in Japanese, was published in a magazine for middle school students. It led to another meeting with the Englishman, who this time paid a visit to Kojima at his bank.

Starting with his "Account of the Exploration of Yarigatake" (1903), Kojima's mountain writings were now getting his name about. This saved him the effort of having to seek out like-minded folk. Indeed, all he had to do was wait for them to announce themselves. The first to pay his respects at Kojima's door was Takatō Jinbei, scion of a wealthy farming family from Niigata. Takatō's destiny was to bankroll the club during its early years to the tune of one thousand yen a year, a good sum in those days.

Then along came two students, Takeda Hisayoshi and Takano Takazō (left, photo taken, presumably, rather later in life). Both had a strong interest in natural history - Takeda had already written articles on botany, while Takano inclined to ornithology - and they had already founded their own club, the Japan Natural History Association. Takeda would later publish the first guide to Japan's alpine plants. Umezawa Chikamitsu was a third member of this group.

Another key man was Jō Kazuma, a lawyer and a member of the Tokyo city council. Later, he became head of the Korean court of appeals and also made a name for himself as an expert on the Meiji constitution. At that time, however, he still had time for his hobby, which was seeking out rare flowers in the mountains. He was the first to collect an example of the rare Tsukumogusa.

Soon they had a quorum: "Brought together by the mountains, and backed by Takatō's resources and energy, Jō Kazuma's social standing and statesmanlike judgement, the young naturalists' dedication, hard work and dash of romanticism, to say nothing of my propensity to recite Byron in the mountains and scribble away furiously, it was quite natural that we should end up by founding an alpine club."

Kojima is probably understating his contribution here. He had a talent for bringing people together, and not only on mountains. Later in life, for example, he acted as a negotiator of marital ceasefires between Yosano Tekkan and his wife Akiko.

Whatever the extent of Kojima's influence - and it was probably larger than he admits - the new Sangaku-kai met for the first time in Kojimachi, Tokyo, on 14 October 1905. Soon all its members and not just Kojima were scribbling furiously. The first edition of the new club's journal, Sangaku, came out the following spring.

Even before that, Takatō Shoku (Jinbei) published his magisterial Nihon Sangakushi (History of Japanese Mountains), a 1,200-page vade mecum to 207 peaks of the Japanese islands (including Taiwan) with contributions from Kojima Usui and several other Sangaku-kai members. Interestingly, an earlier version of the book was entitled "Nihon Meizan-shō (A Selection of Notable Japanese Mountains), foreshadowing the title of a much later author's masterpiece.

In this way, the Japan Alpine Club was almost literally written into existence. A bestselling book about nature had inspired its founder to start mountaineering. And Kojima's own writings were the operative instrument by which he gathered together the first few club members. Once Sangaku was established, the output of club members accelerated. In the end, Kojima's collected works would occupy half a shelf. And two collections of his essays are still in print today, as are two books by Takeda Hisayoshi.

The Sangaku-kai's belle-lettrist origins make an interesting comparison with the beginnings of alpinism in eighteenth-century Europe. There it was the savants who led the way, starting with Paccard, the young doctor who found the route up Mt Blanc, and continuing with Saussure, the scientist, who followed in his bootprints. In subsequent decades, there were Agassiz, Desor, Hugi, Forbes and Tyndall, who all made glaciers their study as well as climbing mountains. In Japan, by contrast, Kojima launched alpinism on a decidedly literary vector.


Kojima Usui: Sangaku-kai no seiritsu made. Essay in Arupinisto no Shuki (An alpinist's diary).

Anecdote about Kojima as a mediator between Tekkan and Akiko Yosano is from 多才なアルプニスト:小島烏水 article by 瀬戸島政博 (Setoguchi Masahiro) The Japan Journal of Survey, September 2008.

Photos copyright of 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).

No comments: