Monday, November 21, 2011

The author of alpinism

How modern mountaineering in Japan was called into existence by a nature writer who never climbed a mountain.

In 1894, the country was a powder keg. The explosive potential lay in a wild profusion of mountains to climb, a rising class of energetic young men with money to burn, and new railways that could carry the men to the mountains. In short, Japan was primed for the outbreak of modern mountaineering. Except that, so far, nobody had thought of becoming a mountaineer.

Strange to say, this volatile mixture was touched off by a writer who probably never climbed a mountain in his life. As for the match he used to light the blue touchpaper, it was a treatise that went by the less than incendiary title of "Theory of the Japanese Landscape" (Nihon Fūkeiron). Yet, within a few years, it was this book that inspired Japan's first attempt at modern mountain exploration.

At a young age, Shiga Shigetaka (1863-1927) was sent by his samurai-class guardians - his father had died when he was six - to a naval preparatory school. This was less to prepare him for a naval career than to give him a head start in the English language - a skill that would clearly come in useful when dealing with the foreigners who were both threat and inspiration for Meiji Japan.

In 1880, Shiga moved on to the Sapporo Agricultural College, the forerunner of today's Hokkaidō University. The college had been founded with American help and classes were taught in English up to 1882. While polishing his language proficiency, Shiga steeped himself in contemporary ideas. Darwin became a strong influence on his own thinking.

Sapporo graduates were trained to become the nation's elite - "Boys be ambitious!" they were told by the college's founder, William Smith Clark. Alas, the jobs on offer when they graduated didn't necessarily match up to expectations. Shiga became a botany teacher at a junior high school in Nagano. This job imploded, as did the prospect of any further employment nearby, when in a fit of frustration he insulted the prefectural governor.

Shiga's big break came in 1886, when he persuaded the Imperial Navy to let him join a training cruise to the South Pacific. Actually, the Navy turned him down at first, only relenting when Shiga reminded them how the British navy had invited Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle. (This parallel must have meant something to Shiga; when he later discovered that an HMS Beagle had been sold to Japan, he tracked down the ship. Salvaging a small piece of timber, he installed it in a place of honour in his tea-house in Yokohama.)

If the Navy had taken a bet on Shiga, it was swiftly rewarded. Within a few weeks after landing back in Japan, the writer published Nanyō Jiji, a best-selling account of his voyage on board the screw sloop Tsukuba. For Shiga, it had been a formative journey: the ship had visited the Caroline Islands, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand - all either colonised by western powers or otherwise under their sway.

Colonialism was not all bad. Shiga was impressed by the British administration in Australia, and again by the ethos of hard work and sacrifice that he sensed in New Zealand. At the same time, he was horrified by the plight of the native peoples. The Darwinistic implications were clear: backward cultures would be subjugated by those from more advanced civilisations.

After his meeting with a Maori chief, Wi Tako, Shiga wrote: "Alas! Japan could become another New Zealand. As I look up at the autumn skies of these Southern Seas, I fear the threat to my home country far away. Having witnessed such cultural and racial oppression in New Zealand, I - as a son of the new Japan - must take immediate action to make my people aware of this possibly happening back home." (Nanyō Jiji)

Back home, Shiga became the editor of Nihonjin, a magazine established in 1888 to restore national self-confidence. In the very first issues, Shiga launched on the theme that he would later develop in Nihon Fūkeiron - the relationship of the Japanese people with the land of Japan. In the second edition, he wrote:-

The influence of all environmental factors of Japan - her climate and her weather conditions, her temperature and humidity, the nature of her soil, the configuration of her land and water, her animal and plant life and her landscape, as well as the interaction of all these factors, the habits and customs, the experiences, the history and development of thousands of years - the totality of these factors has gradually, imperceptibly, developed in the Japanese race inhabiting this environment a unique kokusui (national essence).

Landscape into kokusui: that pretty much sums up the essence of Nihon Fūkeiron. The theme is fully worked out in Shiga's masterpiece. Take, for example, this description of pine trees in the mountains:-

Standing against fierce winds, they distinguish themselves from other trees. What a graceful picture they present . Their trunks, branches, twigs and leaves defy all gusts of wind. Even after other feeble trees wither, they still remain alive. If they happen to be cut by an axe, they fall to the ground triumphantly, in a manner no other trees can display. Thus, Japanese pine trees typify the characteristics of our fellow countrymen. (Nihon Fūkeiron)

According to Shiga, such pine trees exemplify "tettō" - unspoiled wilderness scenery - one of the three qualities that distinguish Japan’s landscapes. The other two characteristics are "shōsha" (elegance), best exemplified by the autumnal beauty of Japan's maples, and "bi" (beauty), as seen in the nightingales and blossoms of spring.

Shiga grounds his aesthetics in geographical fact: Japan owes its magnificent forests and flora to its enormous climatic variation, from sub-tropical to sub-arctic; its high humidity imbues the landscape with a special hue; heavy rainfall sculpts its landforms into intriguing crags and gorges; and, above all, the country has volcanoes.

Shiga was lucky with his timing, getting Nihon Fūkeiron to press just after the start of Japan's war with China. Readers were in the right mood to be compared to storm-defying pine trees. Within eight years, Nihon Fūkeiron was reprinted fifteen times. So many copies rolled off the presses that you can still easily and cheaply pick up early editions in the bookstores of Kanda.

Among Shiga's audience was a 23 year-old bank clerk and aspirant writer in Yokohama. Kojima Usui read Nihon Fūkeiron again and again, "trusting the book as if it was the scripture of natural beauty". What especially captured his attention was the appendix to the book, curiously entitled "Tozan no kifū wo kōsaku subeshi" (Cultivate the mountaineering spirit). And, within that appendix, one passage transfixed him:

Start out; ascending about eight hours from the village of Shimashima, you will reach the hut on the Tokugō pass at about 1,500 metres in altitude; from there, in about three leagues, you will find the Miyagawa hut, which you can regard as the foot of the mountain proper; from Miyagawa, climb six leagues or seven hours, and you will reach the summit; for the first three of these hours, you will follow a fast-flowing river that cuts through granite walls; mountains made of granite rise skywards one above the other; as you leave the river, the mountains become still more precipitous, the view more and more impressive, the granite presenting its mysterious forms as if it were a huge landscape painting; as you continue, you will step onto snow, and sometimes you will see ptarmigans, bears, and mountain goats (kamoshika); if you want to know the real nature of granite mountains, then you must by all means climb Yarigatake.

It matters little that Shiga probably cribbed much of this appendix from the English-language Handbook for Travellers in Central and Northern Japan, published by Ernest Satow and A G S Hawes a decade or so earlier. Nor that the Japanese author had scant personal knowledge of mountain-climbing. For the effect on Kojima was electric; on reading the passage about Yari, as he later recorded, he felt "as if his heart and soul had been blown away".

Getting to the mountain took a little longer: his parents were opposed, accurate maps didn't exist and - most vexing of all for the prototype salaryman-alpinist - he could take barely a fortnight's annual leave from his bank. Nevertheless, after one false start, Kojima reached Yari's summit in 1902, together with his friend Okano Kinjirō, an oil company employee.

It was only on their way to the mountain that the pair learned that they would not be making a first ascent. Government surveyors had beaten them to the summit by a few months, leaving behind a trigonometric marker post (above). Still, Kojima felt that the climb was worth writing up and, the following year, his account appeared in instalments in the Bunko magazine.

Arguably, Yarigatake Tankenki (Exploring Yarigatake) was Japan's first work of modern mountaineering literature. Or perhaps Japan's first work of modern mountaineering literature in Japanese. For, when he published it, Kojima was still completely unaware that an English mountaineering missionary had preceded him to the summit of Yari eleven years earlier.

Walter Weston had written up his climb in Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps, published in London in 1896. But the book was hardly known in Japan at that time - it wasn't until later that it was translated.

So it was only by chance, in the summer of 1903, that Okano Kinjirō, the Standard Oil man, saw a copy of Weston's book at a colleague's house and learned of the author's climbing activities in the previous decade. Then he discovered that, in the meantime, Weston had returned to Japan and was now living close by, in Yokohama.

An invitation to tea with the Englishman soon followed. Weston showed Kojima and Okano an alpenstock and other pieces of equipment, as well as several issues of the Alpine Journal, the year book of Britain's long-established Alpine Club. Okano was much taken with the kit; for Kojima, however, it was the idea of a club that took hold. Two years later, in late 1905, he and a small group of friends formed their own "Mountain Club" - known at first simply as the "Sangaku-kai" after its model.

One of the earliest acts of the new Japan Alpine Club was to elect Walter Weston as its first honorary member and vice chairman (right in picture) and Shiga Shigetaka (left in picture) as its second. Yet, by Kojima's own account, the priority could well have been reversed. As far as he was concerned, the birthplace of the Sangaku-kai was Yarigatake. “Thanks to that climb,” he continued, “I got to know Weston, from whom I learned that there were alpine clubs all over the world. Before that, nobody had ever suggested to me the idea of a club. But, as to why I climbed Yari in the first place, that was because I’d been inspired by a book – none other than that of the late Shiga Shigetaka-sensei. We are all obliged to this great instigator.”


The biographical information about Shiga Shigetaka above comes mainly from Masako Gavin's full-length biography, The Forgotten Enlightener: Shiga Shigetaka.

Additional detail on Nihon Fūkeiron comes from Kären Wigen's article on Discovering the Japanese Alps: Meiji Mountaineering and the Quest for Geographical Enlightenment (The Journal of Japanese studies, Volume 31, Number 1, Winter 2005).

The quotation from Nihonjin magazine is via the chapter on Shiga in Julia Adeney Thomas's book, Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology (2002)

The account of how Kojima came to climb Yari, meet Walter Weston and found the Japan Alpine Club is mainly from Nobuko Fujioka's article, Vision or Creation? Kojima Usui and the Literary Landscape of the Japanese Alps (Comparative Literature Studies, Vol 39, no 4, 2002).

The closing quotation from Kojima Usui is from his essay on the foundation of the Japanese Alpine Club (山岳会の成立まで)

And Project Hyakumeizan is indebted to the Sensei for the translation of Shiga's (or perhaps Satow's or Hawes's) instructions on how to climb Yari.

All 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).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Images and ink (11)

Image: Above the clouds, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1928)

Ink: Fuji, a poem by Kusano Shinpei, translated by Leith Morton:

A snowslide on Fuji swallowed the lives of 15 students in a matter of seconds
This mountain unlike any other in Japan.
Fuji does not believe that a column of monks is too heavy.
Nor that a mountain observatory is too noisy.
Sometimes clouds furry like mufflers wind round and round Fuji.
Sometimes classic pince-nez clouds float close by.
In the sea of trees even snow-grouse have multiplied.
The Osawa landslide must have carved out a huge mass of mountain.
That too does not bother Fuji.
Leaving everything to humanity and physics.
Before long it may yet poke out again a tongue of fire.
That too is left to nature.
Fuji is there.
Fuji simply exists.
Heaven overhead always.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The wolf and the wild boar

An ecological parable from the beech forests of northern Japan

Reading Brett Walker's book on the Japanese wolf led me to the case of another vanished beast. You won’t find any wild boar in Japan’s snowy Tohoku region today. With their short legs and their need to dig up fodder from the forest floor, the animals can’t live through winters where deep snow lies for seventy days or more.

In the past, those northern winters must have been even colder and snowier. Yet records from the Edo period show that wild boar once roamed as far north as Aomori, right at the top of Tohoku. In fact, so many of them were raiding farmers’crops around Hachinoe in 1749 that they caused a famine during which 3,000 people starved to death.

Despite all efforts to wipe them out, wild boar continued to thrive in northern Japan until the nineteenth century. Then, at some point in Meiji times (1868-1912), they went into decline. The last Tohoku boar was hunted down in 1907. This was just two years after the demise of Japan’s last wolf.

Was there some link between the fates of wolf and boar? The question had to go unanswered until the 1990s, when ecologists in Poland made studies of the country’s Carpathian mountains. This region resembles Tohoku in its rolling beech woods, cold winters, and deep snow cover.

Lynx, wolves and wild boar still roam the Polish forests. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the wild boar often furnish lunch for the wolves. So much so, that when the wolf population grows, the number of boar shrinks, and vice versa.

What was less expected is that the wolf returns this favour. During the winter months, the boar can't dig through the snow and frozen ground to get fodder. So how do they survive? Seemingly, by foraging on the leftovers from wolf and lynx kills.

That might explain how the wild boar of Tohoku endured the long winters. It also suggests why they died out in the north country. Traditionally, the boar’s disappearance was explained by swine cholera, a disease brought into the country with imported pigs when Meiji Japanese acquired a taste for tonkatsu.

Disease can't be the full story, as wild boar have survived in warmer parts of Japan. In Tohoku, however, the boar suffered a double whammy. First, they lost their winter food supply when the wolf went extinct –then the absence of their main predator meant that sick or weak wild boar continued to spread the swine cholera unchecked.

The secret liaison of wolf and boar is just one of the web of dependencies that makes up a forest. Pull on one thread, such cases suggest, and the ecosystem may unravel somewhere completely unexpected. What hidden connection will those northern woods next reveal?


Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka?, Volume 103 in the Taiyo Bessatsu: Nihon no Kokoro series (Heibonsha, 1998) - chapter on the Japanese wolf

Picture of wild boar from Wikipedia

And see Sapphire Sky for an update on the urban wild boars of Kobe ...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Images and ink (10)

Image: Peaceful Rishiri, woodprint by Yoshida Hiroshi (1938)

Text: On Rishiri, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

I'll never forget the starkly beautiful form of Rishiri, silhouetted against the evening sky. Seen from the neighbouring island of Rebun, it rose up across the shimmering sea, not as a facsimile of Fuji, to which it is sometimes likened, but as a jagged rock, steeped in gold by the rays of the setting sun The whole island seems to surge upwards into its central peak of 1,700-odd metres. ... This ideal mountain floating on a shimmering sea can only be Rishiri.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Good kama, bad kama (3)

The Kitakama concluded: scaling the final chimney in the footsteps of alpine pioneers

We granted ourselves a ten-minute lunch break on the greenwood col. No more, because the afternoon clouds were already boiling up from nearby ridges. Scrambling to our feet, we addressed ourselves again to the Kitakama. No soft lead-in was offered or taken. Rising abruptly from the col, Pinnacle 8 was a fifty-degree slope of leafmould and stony tilth. Security, if any, was found by gripping the whitened roots of the creeping pine, some of which broke off in our hands.

If we’d hoped to see Yari after topping this rise, we were disappointed. Instead, the view was filled by the triangular bulk of the Doppyō, a peak in its own right. Evading its in-your-face challenge, we took to aery traverses on the west side, some on sound rock and some on rubble-strewn ledges that tilted downwards over impressive spaces. In one place, huge blocks were poised over the path like some Temple of Doom device in an Indiana Jones film.

Yet the rock looked almost sound when compared with the horror show of Sulphur Ridge, which reared its spiny length along the other side of the Senjo valley. In the heyday of post-war alpinism, people used to traverse those serrated towers of Digestive Biscuit, but we felt no desire to emulate them. That would certainly be a ridge too far.

Donald had just disappeared round the side of a small peaklet when I felt the rock tremble; a muffled thud sounded from somewhere far beneath. Before I could panic, Donald's head reappeared over the ridge. Not to worry, he’d just trundled a large boulder into the snow gully below.

This incident reminded us to keep our heads switched on. Like any great alpine climb, the Kitakama demands ceaseless vigilance; the exposure is continuous and the route's remoteness gives it a special atmosphere of isolation and menace. Rescue, if any, will be a long time coming. In those days, there was said to be only one civilian helicopter pilot in Japan who was qualified for alpine rescues.

Right now, though, it was thirst rather than the scenery that was getting to us. Somehow, in the excitement of our river-crossing a few hours before, we’d omitted to refill our water bottles. This was a mistake; the ridge proved to be as dry as Prohibition. Meanwhile, the sun, the heat, and the cracking pace set by Donald had the sweat rolling down our foreheads.

By Peak 15, we were assailed by the Foaming Tankard Syndrome, a syndrome that prevents its victims thinking of anything else. Finding an unexpected patch of flat ground – this must have been Yari-daira, a favoured bivvy site for winter and spring ascensionists – we took a break. My water bottle was long since empty, but Donald shared the last drops of water from his own. Such gestures live for ever in a mountaineer’s memory.

At 3.45, Yari's shadowy north face loomed above us. Fortunately, the climbing proved less formidable than it looked. We scrambled up the left arête until it steepened, then side-stepped rightwards into a commodious chimney that wafted us to the summit.

Maybe I don’t remember that right, because the mountaineering missionary Walter Weston, who pioneered this route in 1912, was of a different opinion. He called it the hardest and most interesting climbing he’d ever done in Japan - excepting only his Ho'o-zan feat. (Weston's party too trundled a boulder that “splintered itself as it ricocheted from point to point and then fell into and down the couloir in a thousand fragments”.) Watch out for this stuff.

As Weston and Nemoto Seizo, his guide, traversed in from the south side of Yari to reach this climb, they didn’t make the first ascent of the Kitakama. That honour fell to rival teams from Waseda and Gakushūin universities who raced each other up the ridge on a July day in 1922. This was the year after Maki Yuko made his epoch-making first ascent of the Eiger’s Mittelegi ridge; suddenly, in Japan, long alpine ridges were all the rage.

We finished our own ascent some time after 4pm, popping up on the summit beside two artisans who were busy bedding in a new shrine. After half an hour’s relaxation amid the drifting afternoon clouds, we made our way down the mountain’s south side to the hut where a be-dreadlocked student from Cambridge brought us foaming cans of Asahi. All we had to repay this kindness was a solitary packet of cashew nuts. Although, of course, it had come all the way up the Kitakama.


Walter Weston, The Playground of the Far East, Chapter VIII, The Northern Alps Revisited - New Faces of Old Friends

日本のクラシック ルート3、槍ヶ岳 北鎌尾根、山と渓谷 1993/6月号

And, for the Kitakama ridge in a more modern idiom, see CJW's account of his recent solo ascent.