Monday, June 3, 2013

The surveyors

How the map-makers led the way for Japan's modern-day mountaineers

The first modern ascent of Mae-Hodaka was all but fatal for its instigators. After topping out on the 3,090-metre peak and marking the highest point with a wooden peg, the two men started their descent. At that moment, the Army man slipped. His guide looked on, aghast, as the survey officer’s body bounced and tumbled, limbs flailing like a rag-doll’s, down twenty, forty, sixty feet of granite slabs before slamming onto a ledge.

The survey marker on Tsurugi in 1909

As quickly as he dared, the guide picked his way down the treacherous gully and edged across to the inert figure, hardly daring to hope. Amazed, he heard a groan; the Army man was still alive. Then, half-supporting and half-carrying his bloodied client, the guide brought him down to Kami-kōchi, where he kept a lodge. The legendary Kamijō Kamonji had pulled off the Meiji era's first high-mountain rescue.

Oku-Hodaka seen from Mae-Hodaka

As for the "damaged surveyor", he was discovered a few weeks later by Walter Weston, recuperating from his wounds at a nearby hot spring. Undismayed, the mountaineering missionary continued with his own plans to engage Kamonji and repeat the Mae-Hodaka ascent. The guide and the Englishman made an efficient team, as Weston records in his Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps:-

"Before 1.30 we were on the highest pinnacle. Driven into a crack in the rock I found a small stake, which marked the visit of the War Office surveyor some weeks before. As I looked down the rocks, where Kamonji pointed out the line of his fall, it seemed incredible the man could have survived."

Tate Kiyohiko
Tate Kiyohiko (1849-1927) was a tough customer. Not only did he survive his fall but, by the following year, he was fit enough to climb two more 3,000-metre summits. Together with the three mountains he'd already scouted, these tops would host the five "primary triangulation points" for the War Office's mapping of the Northern Alps. His name appears neither in Weston's book nor in Kojima Usui's account of the same accident. Yet he was one of the true pioneers of the Northern Japan Alps, at least in modern times.

Indeed, he was a pioneer among pioneers. It was no accident that Tate took responsibility for siting the all-important primary markers. For his career went back to the very outset of modern map-making in Japan. At the age of 22 or so, in July 1871, he'd joined the survey department of the new Ministry of Public Works. In 1874, these civilian map-makers were brought into the Home Ministry's Geographical Department. A few years later, they were out surveying among the highest mountains of Honshū, as Japan’s most famous mountain book records:

Occupying the position that it does, Akaishi has a name that resonates through the centuries. A party from the Home Ministry's geographical bureau reached the summit in 1879 and erected a survey marker there. A permanent triangulation point was installed a decade later, just a year after Japan's Land Survey Department was established. These efforts laid the groundwork for the 1:50,000-scale maps that are so indispensable to our mountaineering ventures today. (Nihon Hyakumeizan, Akaishi-dake)

Army surveyors carry a 50-kg theodolite into the mountains.
By this time, the Army had started its own map-making unit, which was folded into the new Staff Department in 1872. A French military mission helped it get up to speed on the latest surveying techniques. In 1888, the Army's General Staff unit, as it was now known, took over responsibility for the national survey and, with it, the map-makers of the Home Ministry too. The merged unit became the “Land Survey Department” mentioned in the quotation from Nihon Hyakumeizan above.

Five years later, the Army surveyors were filling in the remaining blanks on the new maps of Honshū. And Tate was on hand to lead the way into the high mountains. In 1893, he set the first primary triangulation point for this part of the survey by climbing Ontake, the isolated volcano at the southern end of the Hida mountains (the Japan Alps hadn't yet been invented, of course). In the same summer, he reached the summits of Shirouma and Mae-Hodaka, the scene of his near-demise.

The survey tower on Shirouma

In 1894, the veteran surveyor – now in his mid-forties – placed markers on the volcanic peaks of Norikura and Tateyama, the final primary triangulation points for the Northern Japan Alps. In fact, each peak in the survey had to be climbed three times - first to identify a suitable spot for the triangulation point, then to build up a high wooden marker, and finally to take the survey measurements themselves. Tate's role was to find the right spots; the work of building the survey markers and taking the theodolite measurements was left to colleagues.

Surfing the Great Snow Valley 
Every step in this process was recorded in a so-called "Ten-no-ki", a record of each survey marker's position, the costs and efforts involved in setting it up, and the survey results. As these dossiers make for dry-as-dust reading, it is fortunate for posterity that Tate supplemented them with some lively and presumably unofficial sketches. One of them (right) shows him tobogganing down the Great Snow Valley of Shirouma, seated on a torn-off branch of creeping pine that a porter is hauling along.

After Tate's last season in Hida mountains, his younger colleagues took on the work of setting up the secondary triangulation points. In 1902, they visited Yakushi-dake, Noguchi-goro, Kasa-ga-dake, Kashimayari, Sugoroku and finally Yari-ga-dake - narrowly beating the young banker and writer Kojima Usui to the top of that spire-shaped summit.

After a pause enforced by the Russo-Japanese war, the tertiary triangulation points were set up and surveyed in 1906 and 1907. During those seasons, the surveyors fanned out over the (soon-to-be) Northern Alps to Karasawa-dake, Minami-dake, Nishi-Hodaka, Suishō, Washiba, Otenshō, Aka-ushi, Mitsu-dake, Mitsumata-renge, Kurobe-goro, Nukedo, Tsurugi, Hari-no-ki, Jii-ga-take, and the “other” Yari-ga-take (鑓ヶ岳).

Shibasaki Yoshitaro
The ascent of Tsurugi, in July 1907 is, of course, the one dramatised in Tsurugidake – Ten no ki. This recent film makes great play of a supposed race to the summit between Shibasaki Yoshitarō, the Army surveyor (right), and the slightly effete gentlemen amateurs of the new Japanese Alpine Club or Sangaku-kai. But it’s doubtful whether any such contest took place; history relates that the leading lights of the Sangaku-kai were exploring the Southern Japan Alps in the relevant summer.

In reality, the surveyors had thoroughly explored the Hida mountains well before Kojima Usui and his friends founded their alpine club, in October 1905. But it would take some time for the Army to translate its survey results into actual maps. As a kind of consolation, therefore, the alpinists were left about a decade to discover the mountains for themselves. Then, in the mid-teens of the century, the Army General Staff started to bring out its detailed map series for the Northern Alps, dispelling some of their mystery in the process.

Surveyors at work: a sketch by Tate Kiyohiko
In later years, the Sangaku-kai’s old guard looked fondly back on this map-free “golden age of mountain exploration” (the phrase was invented or borrowed by Kojima himself). And some of this sepia-tinged nostalgia filtered down to the club’s younger members – even to Fukada Kyūya, who joined in June 1935, two decades after the golden age ended. This helps to explain the elegiac note sounded by such passages in Nihon Hyakumeizan as this one:-

The first mountaineer to pass this way was Shimura Urei in the summer of 1907, approaching from Eboshi. As he stood on the summit, he wrote, "I saw a small pond below and to the south, for all the world like an eruption crater … this crater on Washiba is probably a surprise for the world." In that pioneering era, such unexpected discoveries were not uncommon in the Northern Alps. Today, mountaineering is much more convenient but it has lost this element of surprise and wonder.

For their part, the surveyors had little time for nostalgia. The Army kept them ceaselessly on the move. As far as the General Staff were concerned, the Northern Alps were just a skirmish in their northwards drive to map every square metre of the Japanese islands. And when that campaign ended, there was a growing empire overseas that had to be accurately reduced to scale.

In this rolling advance, Shibasaki Yoshitarō was one of the foot-soldiers. And perhaps his story can stand for all of them. The year after his Tsurugi ascent he completed a survey in nearby Niigata prefecture. From 1909 to 1913, he was mapping first in Tohoku and then in Hokkaidō – where he also wrote a paper on Ainu legends. In 1914-15, he was back in central Honshū and found time to write up the first part of a monograph on the medieval battlefield site of Sekigahara.

Then he spent another two years in Hokkaidō, surveying the Ishikari and Kitami regions, as well as the northern island of Etorofu. In 1918-19, he accompanied the Army’s foray into Siberia (for what purpose remains obscure: possibly he was collating captured Russian maps), returning to Hokkaidō thereafter. Then the Army sent him to Taiwan, where he spent four years working on the secondary triangulation of the island’s central and northern districts.

Meiji-era mountain guides
In the end, the incessant expeditioning may have been too much for him. In 1930, Shibasaki suffered a stroke and, although he recovered enough to go back to work, he retired from government service in 1933. He died in January 1938, aged 64. Perhaps in those last years, there was a moment or two for recollection. Did Shibasaki look back then to Tsurugi as the high point among all his "Ten no ki", in that cool alpine summer, decades ago, when rugged Chojirō and Kinsaku found a way for him up the most difficult mountain in all Japan?


Seto Masahiro, Survey mountaineering in late Meiji times, Japan Journal of Survey, July 2008

Seto Masahiro, Shibasaki Yoshitarō: what happened then ( Part 1), Japan Journal of Survey, April 2009

Seto Masahiro, Shibasaki Yoshitarō: what happened then (Part 2), Japan Journal of Survey, May 2009

Yamada Akira, The day Shibasaki Yoshitarō climbed Tsurugi, Japan Journal of Survey, August 2008

Hakoiwa Eiichi, The role of the Army General Staff in surveying, Japan Journal of Survey, July 2008

Seto Masahiro, Kojima Usui, the multi-talented alpinist, Japan Journal of Survey, September 2008

Seto Masahiro, Uji Chojirō, the guide who supported Shibasaki’s survey party, Japan Journal of Survey, September 2008


wes said...

Interesting post and excellent research as usual. I'm intrigued by the triangulation points, as a lot of Japanese guidebooks seem to reference them. For example, the books will say "this mountain has a 1st triangulation point (1等本点), while others are 2等 or 3等. I guess these numbers relate to the survey markers laid by the army?

The other thing that is confusing is that some markers will refer to 1等本点 and 1等補点. Not sure what the difference is or if you could elaborate.

The wiki entry on 三角点 just plain confuses me.

Kittie Howard said...

Mountain climbing's intricacies never cease to awe. It seems so simple -- just climb -- but it's so much more and with little room for error. Anyway, great post; I really learned a lot.

☆sapphire said...


Thanks a lot for this interesting post!! I can see how tough it was for the surveyors in the Meiji period to accomplish their missions. At that time ropes were still made of natural material and mountain guides wore waraji and so on. I suppose their equipment back then was quite different from today’s. I wonder if there also was much difference in a sense of mission....

I found the movie really nice even though there are some fictional episodes in it...

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Wes, Kittie, Harumi (both!): thank you for reading.

Wes: you'll find an excellent explanation of Meiji-era surveying techniques in Dave Fedman's paper about the Japanese surveyors in Korea. You can find it here:-

Kittie: ah, yes, indeed - climbing is simple. But these surveyors were climbing for a purpose, not just to amuse themselves. There's all the difference in the world.

Sapphire: as for the sense of purpose, I get the impression that all these men (and women) of Meiji were driven both by a mission - to build a great country, which they did - and also by a very nineteenth-century sense of curiosity and exploration. Shibata didn't just do his job well - he also wrote papers and articles on the most varied subjects - about the ritual implements they found on top of Tsurugi, about the battlefield of Sekigahara, about Ainu legends, and about his travels in Etorofu. He even wrote an article or two for "Sangaku", the alpine club's journal. He must have met Kojima Usui (Shibasaki joined the Japanese Alpine Club in 1913, apparently) - and surely they would have got on well together, after exploring the mountains in their different ways....