Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Death March on Mount Hakkōda

Timeless lessons on mountain leadership from a master of documentary fiction

Such was the prestige of the Imperial Army that civilians were once prohibited from owning books about the disaster. But thanks to a film made in 1977, almost everybody in Japan today knows the story - that, just over a century ago, almost 200 soldiers perished in a blizzard on Hakkōda, a mountain in northern Japan. The film took its cue from a deeply researched novel published in 1971 by the meteorologist-turned-writer Nitta Jirō.

The historical facts underlying Nitta's novel are simple. In preparation for the coming war against Russia, the Japanese army embarked on a series of winter exercises designed to train units for combat in Siberia or Japan's northern territories.

Two platoons, one each from the 31st of Hirosaki and the 5th Regiments, set out to traverse the Hakkōda massif in January 1902. The platoon from the 3lst completed the exercise as planned but a ferocious blizzard, probably the worst in the century, caught the men of the 5th out on the open mountain. Of the 210-strong platoon, 199 soldiers froze to death.

Men of the 31st Regiment
on winter manoeuvres
In Death March on Mount Hakkōda, these facts are woven into a story of epic quality. Epic here may be taken in both its mountaineering sense of a miserable time and its literary meaning of a narrative with universal significance.

Partly because the authorities did their best to suppress the facts at the time of the disaster, the author has taken certain liberties with history. The two exercises were, in fact, unrelated, on different dates and followed different routes. But for the purposes of the novel, the platoons are vying for the honour of the first winter crossing of the mountain and it is their rivalry that leads to the disaster.

So, on one level, the book is a study of The Platoon that Got It Right versus The Platoon that Got it Wrong. On one hand, we have good planning, competent leadership, adaptability, proper equipment, careful navigation.

On the other, there is a confused chain of command, inadequate preparation, inflexibility in the face of impossible conditions and the inevitable outcome. The lessons are trenchant and universal. So much so, that, when the novel was first published, one Japanese company bought fifty copies to distribute to their management to impress on them the danger of failing to communicate with their staff.

But there is more than a dry analysis of an accident to this book. Born in 1912 in Nagano, trained as a meteorologist and having survived the war in Manchuria, Nitta Jirō knew his army, weather and mountains. So his account of the 5th and the 31st has the force of personal experience behind it. The feeling of threat as the blizzard approaches, the growing confusion and personality clashes as the 5th's platoon loses its way - these are moments that will be familiar to many a mountaineering leader. Here is Lieutenant Kanda of the ill-fated 5th as he loses control of the situation:

When Kanda turned to Shindo to explain to him, map in hand, why he thought he had been mistaken, Yamada grabbed Shindo's lantern and shone its light on the stump of the branch. "Look, someone cut a branch off this beech to mark the road to Tashiro. Now, go quick and tell the platoon leaders that we've found the way there. That ought to cheer up the men." Kanda had been unable to get a word in. He stood still. A wave of despair washed over him.

The 5th and the 31st are history but the mountain is still there, the winter skies still loom menacingly dark over the snowy ridge, and the panda grass still flutters in the north wind where the gusts have stripped the snow from the crest (Nitta's eye for detail bespeaks long acquaintance with the winter mountains).

And the same mistakes are still made in the mountains, with consequences from which modern Gore-Tex and fibre-pile are sometimes not enough to save us. For these lessons too, Death March on Mount Hakkōda is recommended reading for all summer, winter or armchair mountaineers.


Nitta Jirō, Death March on Mount Hakkoda, translated by James Westerhoven, The Stone Bridge Press, California.

Black-and-white photos are from Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Images and ink (16)

Image: Kodachrome view across Tanzawa mountains to Mt Fuji from Tō-no-dake

Ink: On Tanzawa, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

Today's mountaineers, though, tend to shun places that are deeply associated with some historical personage. Instead, they favor untouched mountains, still in the state of nature. So leaving Ōyama somewhat in a class of its own, they prefer to take the ridge paths of Tō-no-dake, Tanzawa-yama, and Hiru-ga-dake or to follow the valleys that cut into these mountains. 

That said, people have been climbing Tō-no-dake from nearby villages for centuries. Until it collapsed in the Great Kantō Earthquake, they used to venerate a huge rock near the summit. Some sixty or more feet in height, this was known as the Black Buddha. 

The town of Sagami was traditionally much given over to games of chance and it seems that every year on the fifteenth of May a procession of gamblers would wend their way up Tō-no-dake and hold a lively ceremony there.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Big White Peak

A forgotten photo collection reveals the Hyakumeizan author climbing in the Himalaya

Second-hand bookshops can be serendipitous. I recently emerged from one near Basel Station clutching, for a paltry five Swiss francs, a collection of faded colour photos of the Himalaya. The photographer's name - Kazami Takehide - had caught my eye. Needless to say, there was a connection with the author of Japan's most famous mountain book.

It happened like this. In the mid-1950s, Fukada Kyūya was a jobbing writer for mountaineering magazines. Perhaps inspired by the French ascent of Annapurna in 1950, he was increasingly interested in Himalayan topics. This led to a series of articles in the mountaineering journal Gakujin from June 1953, just after the first Japanese attempt on Manaslu, the world's eighth highest mountain.

Unfortunately, the income from these articles was substantially consumed by Fukada's almost compulsive purchases of books about the Himalaya, many imported expensively from abroad. To rid the house of tottering piles of alpine literature, his wife later took advantage of her husband's absence on a mountaineering trip to build a book-shed in the garden.

In 1956, the Japanese collected their own 8,000-metre trophy. The veteran climber Maki "Yukō" Aritsune led the Japanese Alpine Club's third expedition to Manaslu, enabling Imanishi Toshio and Sherpa Gyalzen Norbu to reach the summit on May 9. Their success helped to stoke a mountaineering and skiing boom in Japan.

It also fired Fukada's own Himalayan ambitions. A Japanese Alpine Club member himself, he was now well enough known in mountaineering circles to find generous corporate support for a private expedition, although it was organized several years before ordinary Japanese citizens could easily travel abroad.

With three companions, Fukada took ship for Calcutta in the spring of 1958, arriving in Kathmandu some forty-five days after leaving Kobe. With Fukada at the head of fifty porters, an experience that made him feel like Napoleon, the expedition then marched to its base camp in the Jugal Himal.

Their intended mountain, today known as Loengpo Gang (7,083m), had been named Big White Peak three years earlier by a party of Scottish lady alpinists who climbed one of its neighbours. It was a wildly ambitious objective. Three high camps would be necessary to reach the summit, the Japanese party judged.

The comforts of Camp Three were scant. By the time it was established at 5,000 meters, the party's lack of high-altitude climbing experience was starting to tell. Age too may have had something to do with it; as Fukada had put it to a journalist just before leaving Japan, he was "only" 54 years old. Just to clamber in and out of the high-altitude tent's round hatch during a blizzard was a torment that had to be repeated several times a night.

The expedition photographer did manage to reach the east ridge by taking turns to break trail with a Sherpa companion. There the brown plains of Tibet were glimpsed through the clouds. Honour satisfied, Fukada decided to abandon the peak, impressing one colleague with his Buddhist spirit of self-abnegation. The party then moved on to the Langtang Himalaya and, after two months under canvas, back to Kathmandu.

The high-climbing expedition photographer was none other than Kazami Takehide. In the blurb to the English-language edition of his photobook The Himalayas, he is introduced as follows:-

"The author . was born in 1914. In 1943 he joined the Japanese Navy, where he did a three-year tour of duty, after which he managed a Ginza camera shop and and then the Sanei photo library, both in Tokyo. He has made several journeys in India and Southeast Asia. His most absorbing interest has always been high-mountain photography, and he is author of several books on the subject."

In his preface to The Himalayas, Kazami is curiously reticent about his participation in Fukada's expedition. All he vouchsafes about that experience is this: "In 1958 I spent a couple of months in Nepal, where I fell in love - with Nepal." To be sure, most of the photos in the book were taken on a later trip, in 1964, which he undertook specifically to take photos of the land and people.

Yet a few images from the Fukada expedition do creep into The Himalayas. On page 112, for example, there is an image of a Camp 3 in the Jugal Himal (see picture left). The mountain is not identified but the height given - 23,240 feet - makes it clear that the peak in the background is Big White Peak or Loengpo Gang. One glance at those Big Bad Ridges shows why Team Fukada would never get anywhere near the top.

Looking again at the photo, my attention was drawn to the figure standing in the foreground. As there were only four Japanese mountaineers on this trip (or was it three?), this is likely to be Fukada himself. The comb-over hairstyle is also a giveaway. But there is no way of knowing for certain.

As an expedition, the attempt on Big White Peak was somewhat of a fiasco. That's not to say that the effort was wasted. Sometimes it takes an overseas trip to make you appreciate your native land. The Himalayan trip may have done that for Fukada. On returning to Tokyo, he revived a project that he had been mulling for years - to portray one hundred of Japan's most eminent mountains. And the rest, as they say, is history.


Tazawa, Takuya, Hyakumeizan no Hito, TBS Britannica, 2003.

Photos from Kazami, Takehide, The Himalayas, Kodansha International, 1967.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Asahi Shinbun marks Hyakumeizan's jubilee

Tensei Jingo (“Vox Populi, Vox Dei”) is a daily column that runs on the front page of the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s most popular and revered newspapers. On July 26, the column wrote about Nihon Hyakumeizan, which was published fifty years ago this summer. Here is the article in full:-

Fukada Kyuya (Asahi Shinbun
file photo)
Many Japanese people have probably heard of the book "Nihon Hyaku Meizan" (Japan's 100 famous mountains), even if they are not familiar with the name of its author, Kyuya Fukada (1903-1971). Published in the month of July exactly 50 years ago, the book has remained a perennial favorite of mountain lovers, not a few of whom have made it a lifelong project to climb all the 100 mountains selected by Fukada.

On July 20, the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book was celebrated in Fukada's native city of Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture, with the unveiling of a commemorative monument.

Fukada is often dubbed "the man of letters of the mountain." Given his track record as a mountaineer, he was certainly not just a writer whose hobby was dabbling in mountain climbing. Even though he was born during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), he explored the Himalayas and called himself a "romantic pilgrim."

Fukada climbed every one of the 100 mountains he selected for his book, rating them by their history and his own standard of the mountain's "dignity" and "personality." In describing how he felt when he had to reject a mountain that fell slightly short of his "passing mark," he noted, "I felt the sort of agony a teacher would feel when he has to fail his beloved pupil."

Rereading the book, I was deeply impressed by his wealth of knowledge and perceptiveness. For instance, he describes iconic Mount Fuji as "one big simple entity that needs no cheap tricks" and adds, "Toddlers can draw Mount Fuji, but even the greatest artists struggle to capture its essence." His words hit the nail on the head

Out of curiosity, I counted the number of mountains I have scaled so far. The total is 51, the majority of which are "conquests" from my younger days. I was an avid mountaineer back then, and one mountain led to another. Unfortunately, I have since been reduced to only fantasizing about the refreshing mountain breeze while I bake in the city's brutal heat.

"There are 100 delights atop 100 mountains," Fukada once noted. He was probably referring to the 100 mountains he selected, but it can also be interpreted to mean that each mountain is delightful in its own way. The eagerly awaited summer holiday season is here. Challenging one of those famed peaks would be a great idea, but heading to any of the lesser known mountains could be just as nice. But one word of advice: Take every safety precaution if you want to have a delightful time.


Text and photo by courtesy of the Asahi Shimbun, July 26 edition. And many thanks to Taka for bringing the English version to my attention!