Thursday, May 8, 2008
The meaning of Meizan
The distinctive charm of selected Japanese mountains that are more or less famous
Visitors to this blog will soon come across the term “Meizan”. But what exactly is a Meizan? Those in search of an answer would do well to consult Craig McGinty, a professional Japanese-to-English translator and a pioneer of Hyakumeizan studies in the English language.
In his paper Making a Mountain of Mountains: The Term 名山 According to Fukada Kyuya, McGinty argues that it is misleading to translate 名山 simply as “famous mountain”, as the Japanese characters for ‘meizan’ might suggest.
Indeed, he points out, some of the mountains that Fukada Kyuya chose for his magisterial “One Hundred Mountains of Japan” were distinctly obscure, at least until Fukada summoned them into the limelight.
So if a Meizan is not necessarily famous, what distinguishes it? The best definition, suggests McGinty, is the one provided by the Hyakumeizan author himself. In the afterword to his book, Fukada stipulates that mountains must fulfil three conditions to be included in his list:-
First, a mountain must have stature. It must be a mountain that anybody would rejoice to see. Height alone is not enough. I reject run-of-the-mill mountains. I reject mountains that lack the severity or the power or the beauty to strike people to their hearts. Mountains have character in greater or smaller measure, just as people do. Mountains, like people, must have character.
Secondly, I attach great weight to a mountain's history. No mountain with deep and long-standing links to humankind could be excluded from my list. A peak that people admire from morning to night, that they crown with a shrine, necessarily qualifies as an "eminent mountain". A true spirit of reverence inheres in such places …
Thirdly, a mountain must have an air of distinction. A mountain with this quality calls attention to itself as surely as a distinctive work of art. What I value is the essence, be it of form, feature, or heritage, that makes a mountain uniquely itself. I do not concern myself with humdrum, run-of-the-mill mountains. It may be true that, as all mountains are different, all have distinguishing features. But this is not enough. What I look for is an extraordinary distinctiveness.
Additionally, I stipulate an altitude of at least one thousand five hundred metres. This does not mean that I respect mountains simply for their height, but only that a mountain must have a certain stature to enter the lists … For the reasoning behind my two exceptions to this rule, Tsukuba-san and Kaimon-dake, I refer you to the relevant chapters.
Yet, as Fukada admits, an element of chance as well as individual taste creeps into any selection like this one. A mountain could only advance into the ranks of the Hyakumeizan if Fukada had himself climbed it.
Thus, he records, “I would dearly like to have included Oizuru-ga-dake or Ō-kasa-yama from the Hakusan range of the Hokuriku. Not only was I partial to these mountains of my home town, but I hoped to introduce their hidden charms to the wider world. Unfortunately, I had climbed neither, so there was nothing for it but to pass on with a sigh of regret.”
Ultimately, Fukada concludes, the One Hundred Mountains of Japan represent a personal choice and he makes no claims for them beyond that. And, he adds somewhat mischievously, “if there is a chance to reprint the book, I may well change a mountain or two.”
For good or ill, it is too late for that now. Marked on every hiking map and enshrined in scores of spin-off books, the Hyakumeizan are now firmly embedded in Japan’s mountain traditions.
Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyuya, in the forthcoming translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”
Making a Mountain of Mountains: The Term 名山 According to Fukada Kyuya, by Craig McGinty, in the JLD Times, newsletter of the Japanese Language Division of the American Translators Association
Photo: one Hyakumeizan from another - Mt Fuji at dawn, seen from mid-height on Kaikoma