Sunday, January 12, 2014

A mountain for philosophers

How the Shirane Mountains of Kai, or one of them, morphed into today's Kita-dake

Once again, a reader of this blog raises a thought-provoking question. This is the message that came in from "Anon" the other day:-

My son is doing a report for school on Mount Kita in Japan. We are having trouble finding what kind of mountain range it is and the history of the mountain. Do you have any ideas or resources?

Anon’s mention of a school report reminded me of a certain Peanuts cartoon:-

“Mountains are so you can climb to the top and see where you’ve been.” How cute. Yet, come to think of it, Lucy’s “operational definition” is not so naïve. For, in truth, mountains – “Mount Kita” included – are quite slippery customers when you try to pin them down as concepts. The basic problem is that it’s hard to tell where one mountain stops and another begins.

This very question has spawned a small but dense academic literature on the ontology of mountains. Here – no kidding – you’ll find philosophers and geographers agonizing about whether mountains can be considered as objectively real. As two of these savants put it, "individual mountains lack many of the properties that characterize bona fide objects [such as tables and chairs]".

Social construct or fiat object?
This being the case, the two savants (see references), lean towards the conclusion that a mountain is a social construct. In other words, Mt Everest exists only because people agree that it does:

As an object, therefore, which was delineated, marked out, demarcated, set into relief in this fashion, and thereby also named, Mount Everest exists only as a result of human beliefs and habits. In this sense Mount Everest is, like downtown Santa Barbara … a product of socially established beliefs and habits. It is a fiat object.

OK, OK, I hear you objecting, but what does all this have to do to do with “Mount Kita”? After all, one only has to go to Wikipedia to find that Kita-dake is "the second tallest mountain in Japan, after Mount Fuji, and is known as ‘the Leader of the Southern Alps’.” Isn’t that clear enough?

As it turns out, though, the Leader of the Southern Alps is, ontologically speaking, as slippery a customer as any. In his write-up in Nihon Hyakumeizan, Fukada Kyūya virtually admits as much.

Everyone knows that Fuji is Japan's highest mountain, but ask people which the second-highest is and few will be able to reply. And even when they learn that it is Kita-dake, most will be unable to tell you where the mountain is situated. If you mention Shirane in the province of Kai, you may get a flicker of recognition because it is under this name that the peak appears in a famous passage from the Tale of the Heike, a medieval martial romance:

"In dismal spirits, Shigehira traversed the ivied path at Mount Utsu and journeyed beyond Tegoshi. Snowy peaks appeared far to the north; and, upon making enquiry, he was told they were the Shirane Mountains in Kai. He expressed his feelings in verse, restraining tears:

I do not desire
to cling to this wretched life,
yet, most happily,
I have survived to behold
the Shirane Mountains of Kai."

The Three Mountains of Shirane (photo: Wikipedia)
The difficulty here is that the “Shirane” name doesn’t exactly correspond to today’s Kita-dake – it rather refers to the whole snowy ridgeline that you see from the Yamanashi plains. To be sure, some folk used “Shirane” to refer only to today’s Kita-dake. That is, unless they were writing poems, in which case they sometimes preferred “Kai-ga-ne”.

If this seems confusing, remember that there wasn’t anything special about Kita-dake in those days. Unlike nearby Kaikoma, it wasn’t much of a destination for pilgrims. Nor was it prominent in the landscape, like Mt Fuji. And nobody back then was interested in climbing mountains just because they were high.

Climbing mountains because they are high (or steep) is a new-fangled idea. In Japan, it came in with the Meiji period and its first exponent was a young banker and journalist by the name of Kojima Usui. As is well known to readers of this blog, Kojima chose Yarigatake for his mountain expedition of 1902. This was partly because he thought the spire-shaped peak was the second-highest mountain in Japan and still unclimbed. As it happened, he was headed for disappointment on both counts.

Survey tower on Yari
When Kojima scrambled up Yari on August 17, 1902, he found that the cramped summit was already marked by a wooden survey tower. The Army surveyors, who were preparing Japan’s first series of modern maps, had topped out before him. As they’d already surveyed the Shirane mountains, it soon became clear that Yari had to concede the title of Japan’s second-highest mountain.

It was probably the Army surveyors who decided to fix on the name Kita-dake for their new maps. “Kita-dake” – which just means ‘the northern peak’ – may have appealed to the military mind as a pragmatic way of cutting through the taxonomical chaos. After all, Kita-dake is unarguably the northernmost of what even today are known as the “Three mountains of Shirane”.

At that time, unfortunately, it was still far from certain exactly which three summits comprised the “Shirane San-zan”. This led to a vigorous debate within the newly formed Japanese Alpine Club:-

This, of course, raises the question of which mountains the chronicle was actually referring to, an issue vigorously debated in our day by Kojima Usui and Takatō Shoku in the pages of the Sangaku journal between 1912 and 1914 (from the seventh to the ninth editions). The two protagonists brandished an impressive array of old maps and documents at each other, while third and even fourth parties uproariously stuck their oars in. While our forebears enjoyed a more leisurely pace of life than our own, as this episode suggests, one must admire the vigor with which they strove to clarify our orographic nomenclature. (Nihon Hyakumeizan)

Kita-dake, now with added "Buttress"
In the end, it was the Army’s choice of names that prevailed, thus deep-sixing centuries of literary usage. It is not known (to this blogger) exactly when “Kita-dake” became official. But Kojima Usui himself used that name when he visited the mountain in 1908.

It was on this trip that Kojima named Kita-dake’s most salient feature – the long rock pillar running down its east face. As no suitably rugged native word came to mind, Kojima opted for the English “buttress” – and, suitably transliterated into katakana, Kita-dake Buttress it remains to this day.

And so the literary “Shirane” morphed by degrees into a thoroughly modern mountain, complete with paths and huts, flower fields for photographers, and a steep Buttress for alpinists to have epics on. In retrospect, it's a mercy that the name changed too. For the new Kita-dake had nothing in common with the Shirane of yore. Perhaps that's why the Hyakumeizan author called it "a mountain for philosophers.”


Fukada Kyūya, Nihon Hyakumeizan, soon to be published in English as One Hundred Social Constructs of Japan

Barry Smith and David M. Mark, “Do Mountains Exist ? Towards an Ontology of Landforms”, Preprint version of a paper forthcoming in Environment & Planning B (Planning and Design)