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
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