Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Stamps of authority

Is the Japanese Post Office trying to challenge the Hyakumeizan canon?

“Philately, that’s it – now I’m definitely going to take up stamp-collecting!” At moments of stress, back when we were serving our mountain apprenticeships, this was the phrase I’d sometimes hear from my rope companion. 

Yesterday, philately popped up again in the shape of a brown envelope bearing a Tokyo postmark. Tearing it open, I found a complete set of the recently issued Japanese Mountains Series No.2” stamps, together with a note from Japan-based mountain photographer and fellow Hyakumeizan enthusiast Peter Skov.

It was most kind of Peter to send them over. For you really have to see the originals of these stamps to appreciate their superb colours and print quality; web images just don’t do them justice. 

Sitting up there in pride of place, at the top left-hand side of the sheet, is Mt Fuji. As you’d expect, Japan’s top mountain has been adorning the nation’s stamps for quite a while, and especially in times of crisis. 

After the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, for instance, a new stamp design featured the imperial chrysanthemum crest over Fuji against a background of cherry blossoms. These stamps had to be printed on private presses, as the earthquake had levelled the official printing office.

During the turbulent years of early Shōwa, Mt Fuji appeared on set after set of stamps – for the full details, refer to H Byron Earhart’s magisterial book on Mt Fuji. But more than crude nationalism may have been at work. According to Baron Takaharu Mitsui, writing on “Japan portrayed in her postage stamps” in 1940:

Even those Westerners who have not been to Japan know that Japanese nature is symbolized by Mt Huzi (sic) and the Japanese character by her cherry-blossom … The snow-crowned Huzi, the charming cherry blossom, the frost-braving plum blossom … these are to be taken at a higher connative worth than their mere ornamental value.”

When the smoke of war cleared, it temporarily became illegal to show Mt Fuji in a film, for fear that its silhouette would somehow rekindle nationalistic sentiments. And, whether or not by official diktat, the mountain also vanished from coins and banknotes for some years, reappearing only in 1951 (or was it 1969?) on a new 500-yen note.

But, curiously, this ban or abstention never applied to postal issues. On stamps, at least, it was as if Mt Fuji rose above the petty differences of the humans running around at its foot. A Japanese stamp catalogue explains the apparent anomaly in official policy as follows:

Postwar efforts at postage stamp making in Japan were marked by the implementation of a program for revising designs so as to symbolize a country out for peace. The first step toward the avowed object was the issuance on August 1, 1946, of a stamp, 1 yen, blue, R 217. The design is taken from the ‘Shower at the foot of Mt Fuji’, one of the masterpieces of Hokusai Katsushika…

Mt Fuji is, of course, the pre-eminent member of Fukada Kyūya’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan. And seven other mountains in the current stamp series – Tsukuba, Kasa-ga-dake, Ibuki, Zao, Gassan, Ryōgami, Kujū – also belong to this elite cohort. But that leaves two mountains that are quite unknown to Hyakumeizan fans: Nijō-san, a twin peak on the ridge dividing Osaka from Nara, and Iinoyama, a lowly if shapely eminence on Shikoku.

Neither was high enough for Fukada to include them in his 1964 list of Hyakumeizan – for which (with two exceptions) he stipulated a minimum altitude of 1,500 metres. But that doesn’t mean that these hills are lacking in aesthetic and literary charm. Iinoyama, for example, is a mere 422 metres high. Yet its Fuji-like form was once immortalised by no less a poet than Saigyō:


And never a day goes by
When no smoke curls from Sanuki’s
Fuji up into the morning sky.

That still leaves the question of just why the Post Office selected this particular mountain for its Series 2 set. Now a reader of this blog suggests an intriguing possibility. As it happens, Iinoyama belongs to an “alternative Hyakumeizan” chosen and published by the mountaineer and writer Iwasaki Motoo in 2007 – a list that diverges from Fukada’s selection by no fewer than 48 peaks. Might it be that the Japanese Post Office has decided to let a little variety – not to say competition – into the Hyakumeizan canon?

Well, thanks again Peter. I had no idea that stamp-collecting could be so potentially subversive of the established order. You know, if the Post Office keeps stirring up the Hyakumeizan scene like this, I really could see myself taking up philately one of these days…


sean said...

Beautiful post. I'm amazed to learn images of Fuji were forbidden in the post-war years. Mountains as religion? Good to read you again.

☆sapphire said...

Interesting and lovely post!! The "Japanese Mountains Series”stamps look really beautiful. I should have bought them. I think Japan Post has always issued pretty postage stamps like the Mountain series. It seems to me that they do whatever they have to in order to do good business, for example, they issue Hello Kitty stamps and postcards annually, and have issued Doraemon stamps, Hanshin Tigers stamps, Ultra-man and Anpan-man stamps, and so on and so forth so far. And they issue various kinds of memorial stamps very frequently.


wes said...

I like your theory, but perhaps the answer is a bit more simple. I'm sure the mountains were decided by the Japan Post Stamp Design Committee. 8 members were enthusiastic mountaineers, while the other two were from......Kagawa and Osaka~!

That being said, Iinoyama is a spectacular mountain. (see my write-up on Hiking in Japan for proof - haven't written it on Tozan yet). Nijozan is also a fun peak, though quite the victim to overuse over the last couple of years

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Sean: mountains as religion? You bet - see the H. Byron Earhart book.

Sapphire: good to hear that the Post Office also recognises Hello Kitty. How could they not, indeed.... Reminds me, I must add an image of Hello Kitty Climbs Mt Fuji to the relevant post. Thanks for pointing this out.

Wes: many thanks for pointing out your post on Iinoyama. Great photos and I was intrigued to learn that Sanuki-Fuji has ten "climbing stations" just like the real one. So it really is a Meizan, just in miniature...

Peter Skov said...

I am always impressed how much information and old images you are able to dredge up in your research. Your site here is invaluable to the English speaker who desires to learn more about Japan and I think more Japanese should be made aware of it because you do their country a great honour.

Now I know I have to find those photos of old envelopes and stamps that I snapped last year. Thanks for the intriguing write-up and thanks also for the mention. It was my sincere pleasure to send you those stamps.

David Mantripp said...

Philately? Steady now, that could be the first step on the road to train spotting! And yet ... how many bullet train photos lack a dramatic Mt Fuji background?

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Peter: well, most all of the philatelic (?) history in this post comes from H. Byron Earhart's book, so he gets the credit - a book very well worth reading, by the way.

David: now there's an idea - actually, I think it's been anticipated. I seem to remember that a Japanese mountaineering magazine ran a series about "famous branch lines" that ran photogenically in front of famous mountains .... But Project Hyakumeizan is not going to go there just yet.