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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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)