The story of Tatsu, and how she led the way by climbing Mt Fuji in October 1832. First article in a three-part series about women in Japanese mountaineering history.
By the late 1960s, the writer Fukada Kyūya was enjoying a certain fame. His book on the one hundred famous mountains of Japan was selling well and he’d become a guru to aspirant Himalayan climbers. One day, a slightly built but fit-looking young alpinist came round to the modest house in Setagaya. She wanted advice on possible goals for an all-women’s expedition to Nepal. “Hmm,” mused the Hyakumeizan author as he pored over maps and photos with his guest, “Are there any mountains that women can climb by themselves?”
In Japan’s feudal period (which lasted until 1868), there were few high mountains that women could climb. By custom and law, women were barred from Mt Fuji and other sacred summits. But not everybody agreed with nyonin kinsei, as these restrictions were known. One dissident was a 25-year old woman called Tatsu.
October 20, 1832: high on Mt Fuji, Tatsu and her companions wondered what to do next. To prove that women too are worthy of climbing Mt Fuji, they'd set out from the village of Fuji-Yoshida on the previous day. They’d chosen to climb dangerously late in the season to avoid meeting other climbers; the last thing they needed was to be denounced to the feudal authorities. But now there was a more immediate threat: a foot of new snow covered the slope and it would get deeper with every upward step they took.
A dilemma confronted the party’s leader, an elderly man named Sanshi. It was he who had invited Tatsu, a maid in a Tokugawa mansion, to climb the mountain. He believed that her success should please the gods, but the snow seemed to belie that optimism. Even in high summer, pilgrims froze to death up here. To continue would be to invite disaster, clad as they were only in thin cotton robes and quilted jackets. They would have to turn back, he decided.
It was at this moment that Tatsu spoke up: “I want to reach the summit even if I have to give up my life the moment I get there,” she said, “And if I can return home after reaching the summit, I will tell women everywhere. I want to encourage them to climb the mountain.”
There was something in her eyes and tone that convinced the seven men. And so they turned their faces towards the mountain again, digging their staves into the snow, ploughing their way through waist-high drifts, stumbling as their straw sandals slipped on icy boulders. At least they weren’t going to meet many other pilgrims. As they climbed the last hundred feet, the slope was already deep in the mountain’s freezing blue shadow. When they summited, the sun was hovering low on the horizon.
Despite the lateness of the season and the hour, Tatsu survived to tell her tale and the feudal authorities chose to overlook her infraction. Villagers at the mountain’s foot took a dimmer view: when beset by natural disasters over the next few years, they blamed Tatsu.
Yet, to climb the mountain at all, Tatsu must have had the support and complicity of quite a few people – in particular, the porters, hut-owners, and the “oshi” of Fuji-Yoshida, who managed the Sengen shrine, provided the pilgrims with lodging, conducted purification rituals for them, helped them in various ways to climb the mountain safely, and collected offerings and fees. As Miyazaki Fumiko points out in her paper on female pilgrims on Mt Fuji (see references), several factors helped this female pioneer on her way.
The first was pressure from women themselves. All through the nineteenth century, women quietly tested the boundaries set for them. By the start of the century, it was generally accepted that they could climb to the Third Station at 1,750 metres. Later, the limit was pushed upwards a few hundred metres, to the nyonin raigōba, or women’s worshipping site. And, as early as 1800, some women found a way, unofficially, to the Fifth Station at 2,300 metres.
Secondly, there was faith. Tatsu belonged to a sect known as Fujikō (and later as Fujidō) that centred on the worship of the volcano’s deity. The sect’s head, Otani Sanshi (1765–1841), invited Tatsu to climb Fuji because he believed that women should be treated as equals. “It is wrong to prohibit women from climbing the mountain,” he wrote. “Japan is a country where women deserve respect even if the situation may be different in China and India … The world exists thanks to women.”
Money too helped to undermine the status quo. The “oshi” of Fuji-Yoshida feared that their business might slip away to more convenient climbing centres such as Omiya or Subashiri. If women were allowed to climb the mountain, they reasoned, Yoshida would gain attractiveness and win extra revenues. In 1800, they wanted to allow women to climb as far as the Fourth Stage at 2,150 metres, but the superstitious villagers forced them to drop their plan.
In 1860, the Fuji-Yoshida “oshi” at last got their way. Citing the authority of an old document that they had conveniently mislaid, they successfully petitioned the feudal authorities that women be allowed to climb Fuji for the duration of this special “kōshin” year. Then they posted advertising flyers up and down the highways. When summer came, it was as if a dam had broken: thousands of women took advantage of the chance to climb Fuji. Villages on the other climbing routes also relaxed their stance on nyonin kinsei.
By late September 1860, women accounted for almost half the number of pilgrims in the Fujidō’s climbing parties. A Fujidō leader wrote a poem to describe the scene: “The women, young and old alike, climbed the mountain at a smart pace. Holding the banners in their hands, they climbed up to the seventh and the eighth stages in higher spirits than the men. No woman seemed to be sick [despite the height]. What a great progress! Men followed the lead of the women, softly singing lullabies and religious songs in an atmosphere of harmony.”
Supposedly, the usual restrictions were re-applied after the jubilee year. But it was getting hard to take them seriously. They were ignored both by Mrs Parkes, the wife of Britain’s minister plenipotentiary to Japan, who accompanied her husband to the summit of Fuji in 1867 – and by the feudal authorities who permitted the climb. Then came the regime change of the Meiji Restoration. In 1872, the new government abolished nyonin kinsei altogether.
Attitudes took longer to change. In August 1906, Ohdaira Akira, a member of the newly formed Japan Alpine Club, was staying in the overcrowded Murodo Hut on Hakusan, one of the three most revered sacred summits of Japan, when a girl of 17 or 18 arrived in the company of her father. As wind and rain buffeted the hut, ungracious words were heard from a corner: “This is the punishment you get for allowing a woman to climb a mountain.” And so the resentful murmurs ran round the room. The incident was reported by Ohdaira in an early edition of Sangaku, the Alpine Club’s journal.
Yet attitudes were changing, as Sangaku itself showed: women contributed articles on mountain subjects even to its first year's volume. And the patriarchal Meiji period had only a few years left to run. In the next Emperor’s reign, women would start to leave their bootprints much more clearly on the history of Japanese mountaineering. Tatsu would have felt at home in the new age.
Next post: Women and mountaineering in the Taisho era
Much of the information about Tatsu in this article – and details about the all-important background to her climb – come from Miyazaki Fumiko’s excellent paper on Female Pilgrims and Mt. Fuji: Changing Perspectives on the Exclusion of Women, published in Monumenta Nipponica, Volume 60, Number 3, Autumn 2005, pp 339–391.
Some of the circumstantial detail is drawn from this blog, while the anecdote about Fukada Kyūya meeting the lady alpinists was related in an article on Everest climbers, Everest Shomei Futatsu, by Fujishima Koji in the Asahi Shinbun, November 15, 2005 edition.
Ohdaira Akira’s experience in the Hakusan Murodo hut is described in the relevant chapter (“女性のパイオニアたち”) of the YamaKei Illustrated History of Japanese Mountaineering. (目で見る日本登山史、 山と溪谷社) The black-and-white images also come from this book. They show (top) pilgrims on Fuji in traditional dress during the Taisho period, (b) a group on Fuji (c) a cartoon satirising women climbers on Fuji.