Monday, April 30, 2012

Roadmap to mountain writing

A survey of who wrote what during Japan's first half-century of alpine literature

If you were looking for a roadmap to Japan’s rich landscape of mountain writing, you’d seek out a guide. The ideal candidate would be a scholar alpinist who’d written a fair bit of mountain literature himself. That would be somebody like Tanabe Jūji (1884-1972), professor of English literature, pioneer of the Chichibu range, and a prolific all-terrain writer.

Fortunately, Tanabe (above) did indeed draw up such a roadmap. In the summer of 1943, he published a short essay on modern mountaineering literature (現代山岳文学について). What follows is summarised and adapted from that survey.

Mountain literature began in the Meiji era, says Tanabe, at least if we define the genre as mountain travel literature - which accounts for the greater part of mountain literature. People wrote up mountain ascents before Meiji, of course, but these were incidental episodes within travel diaries or the like.

Two examples are Bashō’s visit to the Dewa Sanzan in his Narrow Road to the Deep North and Suzuki Bokushi’s excursion to the flat-topped summit of Naeba in his Snow Country Tales. Several Meiji-era writers also recorded their travels in mountainous regions, including Kōda Rohan and Chizuka Reisui. But, again, the mountains were more or less incidental to their journeys.

The originator of true mountain literature – where the mountain is the main object of the journey – was Kojima Usui (1873-1948), the banker, writer and founder of the Japan Alpine Club. Kojima started out as a travel writer – his first book, Sentō Shōkei (扇頭小景) published in 1899, described lowland rambles.

What transformed Kojima (above) into Japan’s first mountain writer was the shock effect of reading Shiga Shigetaka’s Nippon Fūkeiron – the book on the landscapes of Japan that prompted him to climb Yari-ga-take in 1902. This ascent led to a pivotal meeting with Walter Weston a year later. Over tea, the mountaineering missionary introduced Kojima not only to the idea of a club for alpinists but to John Ruskin’s famous essay on Mountain Glory.

It was after the Weston meeting that Kojima became a true “mountain writer and researcher”. His sway over later mountain writing is difficult to understate. When, together with six like-minded friends, he founded the Japan Alpine Club – it started life simply as the Sangaku-kai, on the model of Britain’s long-established Alpine Club – Kojima also ensured that it would have its own journal. The first edition of Sangaku came out in the spring of 1906, the year after the eponymous club held its first meeeting.

All subsequent Japanese mountain writers, says Tanabe, were directly or indirectly influenced by Kojima Usui. All, up to Tanabe’s time of writing, got their start as mountain writers by contributing articles to the Japan Alpine Club’s journal. Among these Sangaku authors were the scientists Tsujimoto Michimaru, Tsujimura Isuke (most famous for his Swiss Diary), and Takeda Hisayoshi, who started their writing careers in the last years of Meiji. Then, in the Taishō era, came Kogure Ritarō, Kanmuri Matsujirō, and Tanabe himself.

As a club journal, Sangaku wasn’t sold in bookstores and did not attract the attention of a broader public. But some Sangaku writers started to publish book-length works in the Taishō era. Tanabe’s Pilgrimage to the Japan Alps and Chichibu came out in Taishō 8 (1919), for example, and Tsujimura Isuke’s Swiss Diary in Taishō 11 (1922). So, although mountain writing flourished in the Taishō era, it remained the preserve of a small coterie of authors with links to the Japan Alpine Club.

It was not until the early years of Shōwa that the mountain travel journal reached a broader public. That was when mainstream authors started to turn their hands to mountain essays, novels and poetry. In this light, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke was something of a front-runner, climbing Yari-ga-take at the age of 17 in August 1909 (Meiji 42). He wrote up the ascent as Yarigatake Kikō.

Mountain books published in the first few years of Shōwa included Takabatake Tōzai’s Yama wo iku, Kanmuri Matsujirō’s Tateyama Gumpō, and Tanabe Jūji’s own Yama to Keikoku. Fukada Kyūya’s Waga yama yama – an early mountain work of the Hyakumeizan author - appeared in Shōwa 9.

Meanwhile, the name of Kojima Usui had been almost forgotten. His early period of literary creativity had ended in 1915, when his bank posted him to its Los Angeles branch. Returning from America in 1927, he made up for lost time by publishing another shelf-load of mountain titles, including Hyōga to mannenyuki no yama, Shōsai no gakujin, Arupinisto no shūki, and Haimatsu no nioi.

The early Shōwa period also saw the publication of books by Takeda Hisayoshi (a Sangaku-kai founder member), Ōzaki Kihachi, Uramatsu Sumitarō, and Kawada Miki. Women writers made an appearance: Kuroda Hatsuko and Murai Yoneko are “well known”, Tanabe says, and, more recently, Kawano Fujiko had published her Yama no sugao. Another “important product of the Shōwa era” was Kogure Ritarō’s Yama no omoide; its author had only previously published articles in Sangaku and other journals.

Mountain travelogues present the writer with a substantial challenge, Tanabe warns. They stand or fall by the description of nature but, pile on too much detail, and they degenerate into mere guidebooks. So the writer’s task is to make it literary. Within the limits set by the facts, he has to describe nature, incident, and imbue the work with his individual character. Guidebook accounts are of little value.

Mountain novels are an even rarer feat, Tanabe continued. Indeed, it’s a matter for debate whether they are even possible. Travelogues are based on the writer’s experience, but novels are not so simple. One basic problem is that the average reader doesn’t live in the mountains. If a novel limits itself to mountaineers’ concerns, it just becomes a man-vs-mountain adventure story. Thus the raw material for a mountain novel is limited. Even so, Chisaka Masauchi, “a mountaineer with a superb imagination”, managed to publish Yama no nakama, a novel about mountaineers.

If mountain novels are to achieve any wide appeal, they have to be set where people live; for example, in mountain villages. But there are few actual examples of such novels either in Japan or abroad, not least because writers get few opportunities to experience life in a mountain village. Works of pure imagination, such as Izumi Kyōka’s Kōya Hijiri, are rarer still.

The Meiji era produced little or nothing in the way of mountain-related poetry. But making a name for themselves in the early Shōwa years were Tomita Saika, Maeda Tetsunosuke, Ōzaki Kihachi, Nakanishi Godō. Then there is the pastoral poet of Yamagata Prefecture, Takemura Toshio, whose collection Arakusa also includes fine mountain poems.

Mountain writing, Tanabe concludes, is a new art form. And any new form of art requires decades to produce a masterpiece.


About modern mountain literature (現代山岳文学について), by Tanabe Jūji, an essay collected in Yama to Keikoku (Iwanami Bunko)


Iainhw said...

Other than Sangaku, another source of early Japanese mountain writing would be the Inaka journals. I went through them again last week and recall that there are a few trip write ups by Japanese writers.
Did Tanabe's essay include the foreign contribution to Japanese mountain literature or did the year of it's publication perhaps mean that it was deliberatley omitted?

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Iain: thanks for reading this inordinately long post. No, Tanabe doesn't mention any non-Japanese authors (except Weston) - either in this essay or the others that I've read in his "Yama to Keikoku" collection. But I don't think that was chauvinism - after all, Tanabe was a professor of English Literature. I think it's more likely that the Kobe Mountain Goats and their publications were simply unknown to him. They wrote (mainly) in English and were in the Kansai - and their Inaka newsletter had a very small print run. As for Tanabe, he was in Tokyo and at the centre of a very lively Japanese mountain writing scene - so lively that I guess it simply drowned out the voices emanating from some other parts of the country....

Unknown said...

Yeah, the post is really long and the topic is also quite strange but it was interesting to read that :)

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