Friday, May 20, 2011

Mettre ski!

How an army officer from Bratislava became the father of skiing in Japan

Niigata’s ski resorts were haunted last winter by a cartoon effigy in a yellow uniform and shako. This, the blurb said, was "Lerch-san". A century ago, his original brought downhill techniques to the region. Later, this earned him a mention in Nihon Hyakumeizan as “the father of skiing in Japan”.

Theodor Edler Von Lerch was born in Bratislava, then called Pressburg, on August 21, 1869. The son of a colonel, he joined the Austro-Hungarian army and took up his first commission in Prague, in 1891. A turn-of-the-century posting to Innsbruck was fateful: it was in this mountain-girt city that he signed up for skiing lessons from the pioneer, Mathias Zdarsky (below).

It was a good time for a young officer to learn ski-running. The explorer Fridtjof Nansen had popularised the art in his 1891 book, "The first crossing of Greenland". Picking up the hint, the Austro-Hungarian army set up its first ski-patrols only a few years later. By 1910, it was making its own skis too.

Soon it was the Austrians who were writing the book. In 1897 Georg Bilgeri, a lieutenant in the Tyrolian Rifles, published his “Anleitung für den Gebrauch von Schneeschuhen und Schneereifen”. Bilgeri advocated the use of two ski-poles instead of the single one wielded by Zdarsky, another step towards modern skiing.

In 1910, Major von Lerch (above) was invited to visit Japan as an exchange officer. This posting was not unusual for its time. Japan’s victories against China (1895) and Russia (1905) had burnished its military prestige. Not only did its army and navy have all the latest kit; they had actually used it in recent campaigns. Officers from Europe's armies flocked to Japan, with orders to observe and report back.

For their part, the Japanese looked to profit from the Austrians. A decade before, the infamous Death March on Mt Hakkoda had shown the need for better winter training. Through Japan’s military attaché in Vienna, officers of the Imperial Army had heard of von Lerch’s prowess. So it was that, a few months after arriving in Yokohama, von Lerch boarded a train to Takada in the snowy Joetsu region.

In his luggage were two pairs of alpine skis that he'd brought with him from Europe. These were not the first skis in Japan. Colonel Horiuchi Bunjiro, who welcomed von Lerch to Takada, already had a pair – but his were of the Nansen-vintage Nordic (free-heel) type. Fine for crossing open country, not so good for carving down steep slopes.

Von Lerch’s skis had bindings that held the heel firmly, for downhill skiing. The army's arsenal in Tokyo was ordered to retro-engineer them and, within two weeks, the first ten pairs of Japanese-made alpine skis arrived in Takada.

Now the training could begin. On the first day, Horiuchi asked how steep a slope could be tackled on the new gear. Von Lerch demonstrated and, after arriving fluently at the bottom of the hill, elicited a resounding “Banzai” from the onlookers. Thus, on a January day in 1911, was inaugurated the art of alpine skiing in Japan.

Reserved for the regiment's officers, the first ski-training course took place three or four times a week. Von Lerch instructed in French, with Staff Captain Yamaguchi interpreting him into Japanese. The frequent order “Mettre ski!” soon earned the Austrian the nickname of “Monseigneur mettre-ski”. Progress was rapid: the first ski-tour, on nearby Nambuyama (1,700 metres), took place on February 12, 1911.

Japan was ready for skiing. Exactly a week after the Nambuyama tour, the country’s first ski club for civilians was founded, with von Lerch and Field Marshal Nogi Maresuke as honorary members. The opening ceremony was attended by Japanese princes as well as the minister of education. By the following year, the club had attracted 6,000 members.

Von Lerch was a good diplomat: he was a frequent guest of the local divisional commander, Lieutenant-General Nagaoka Gaishi. In April 1911, he also found time to inspect Mt Fuji. The moving spirit behind this trip was Egon von Kratzer, an Austrian businessman living in Yokohama. Von Kratzer had been skiing in Japan since 1909, and had already made two ski attempts on Mt Fuji. This time, the two Austrians made it as far as the mountain’s eighth station, at about 3,600 metres, where the increasingly icy conditions stopped them.

Skiing down to the base, the pair were greeted by a reporter from the Asahi newspaper. Von Lerch also sent a report to Marshal Nogi, who took up his ink-brush and replied in a fearsomely classical idiom:


As Fuji, towering for a thousand ages,
Shines over the country aglow in the rising sun
So far above the praise of trivial things rises
This mighty nation, the spirit-filled Land of the Gods

After the snow melted, von Lerch joined a route march from the Japan Sea to the Pacific. In November, he observed the Imperial manoeuvres in Kyushu, taking in Nagasaki, Miyajima, Hiroshima, and Osaka on the way back to Tokyo.

In February 1912, Lieutenant-Colonel von Lerch – another promotion had come through – reported to the garrison town of Asahikawa. Even by central Hokkaido standards, it was a cold winter. Ski-training took place in temperatures of minus 12–15°C. At night, it could fall to minus 30°C.

The high point of this posting was a ski-ascent of Yōtei-zan (or Shiribeshi-yama), a Fuji-like stratovolcano of 1,893 metres to the south of Sapporo. This time, nine colleagues from the 7th Division came with von Lerch, as well as a journalist from the Otaru newspaper. The party climbed to the fifth station on skis, then continued on foot to the crater rim.

By now, they were climbing in cloud and driving snow, causing them to miss the highest point. It was extremely cold; some of the party suffered frostbite, but all got down safely. Morally speaking, if not technically, the group achieved the mountain's first ski ascent.

By September, von Lerch was back in Tokyo. On the 13th, he witnessed the funeral of Emperor Meiji, which was closely followed by those of General Nogi and his wife. At the end of the month, he left Japan for ever, travelling back to Europe by way of Korea, Manchuria and India.

The Belle Époque was over. Now a full colonel, von Lerch started the war as chief of the 17th Army Corps general staff, first in Galicia and then at Isonzo on the southern front. In 1917, he took command of a mountain brigade in Albania. He gained a reputation as a good leader, who was careful of his soldiers’ lives. His last posting brought him to Flanders just a month or so before the Armistice.

Major-General von Lerch was pensioned off in 1919 and got married in 1922, in time to become the father of two daughters. During his retirement, he gave lectures and wrote up his travels, especially the Japan years. Old friends dropped by: Yamaguchi, who'd once interpreted his ski commands, visited him in Vienna in 1922. He also kept in touch with Nagaoka Gaishi, who'd moved into politics, until the latter's death in 1933. Von Lerch died in Vienna on Christmas Eve in 1945.

In Japan, the father of skiing is remembered by a museum at Takada, a permanent exhibition in the Asahikawa garrison museum, and two bronze statues, one in Takada and another at Asahikawa airport. And once in a while, as they snap into their Silvretta or their Diamir bindings, ski mountaineers or elite winter warfare troops might give him a thought too. Mettre ski!


Most of this post has been adapted and summarised from the magisterial account of von Lerch’s career on the official Austrian army website: Generalmajor Theodor Edler von Lerch: Wie der Alpine Schilauf nach Japan kam, by Brigadier Dr. Harald Pöcher.

Additional details of the Mt Fuji and Yōtei-zan ski tours, and the historical photos, are from 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)

Theodor von Lerch’s account of his life in Japan has been published in Japanese (but is out of print there), but never in his native German or English. This is too bad. Perhaps somebody should do something about this.

Centennial article about von Lerch by Bill Ross, editor of Outdoor Japan


“The landmark peak [Shiribeshi-yama] … was not attempted again in winter until 1912 (Meiji 45) when Theodor von Lerch, the father of skiing in Japan, set off for the peak on skis. However, he did not reach the top. After several more attempts, the summit was finally attained five years later by a party that changed its skis for crampons at the sixth station.”

(Nihon Hyakumeizan, Chapter 9, Shiribeshi-yama)


Iainhw said...

Another fascinating posting. Full marks to you for the English account.
I vaguely remember Weston writing about skiing in Japan in, I guess, The Playground of the Far East. I shall investigate further.

Tony said...

Great stuff... particularly enjoyed the idea of him deciding to join a route march from the Japan Sea coast to the Pacific... presumably a fairly normal thing to do in those days :-)

By the way, there's an article in the latest Outdoor Japan magazine on a very similar theme, which you might find interesting...


Project Hyakumeizan said...

Iain: many thanks for that reference, which I'd missed. Yep, here is Weston's account of von Lerch, on page 268 of the facsimile edition of "The Playground..." It adds one or two useful details to the story - if they are correct. One is that the Ski Club of Japan grew out of the Takata Ski Club. Weston also says that Fuji was successfully ski-climbed in 1912, on the third attempt. One of the previous attempts ended in a fatal accident. Wonder who was behind the successful attempt? Weston hypothesises that "one reason why Japanese ski-runners have made such rapid and easy progress is because the foot of the ordinary person is so strong and so natural in form, not having been subject to the cramping and weakening effect of leather boots". Naruhodo, na....

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Tony: many thanks for the Outdoor Japan reference - somehow I failed to pick this one up on Google, when researching von Lerch. Will put in a link to Bill Ross's excellent article immediately. Looks like we were both referring to the same source, Brigadier Poecher of the Austrian Army. With all this centennial interest in von Lerch, it would be great if his account of Japan could be published in the original German, say - apart from the skiing and mountaineering, it must provide some fascinating insights into everyday life in the Imperial Army...

sunnybeauty said...

It was very nice to know about this friendly Von Lerch and his mixing with Japanese people and having brought skiing into Japan. There is one thing I want to know: After leaving Japan in 1912, he went back to join Austrian army, didn't he? In 1914, the World War I started and Japan joined the Allies, which means Japan became Austria's enemy, doesn't it? Did he write anything about how he coped with this sad course of events?

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Sunnybeauty: von Lerch was a professional soldier and I'm sure he never let business interfere with his life. As we see from Brigadier Poecher's excellent biography, he kept in touch with all his Japanese friends after WW1 too...