Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Meizan militant

When politicians tap into the prestige of pre-eminent peaks

As widely reported, Kim Jong Un made it to the top of the Korean peninsula's highest mountain last Sunday. His purpose was to meet and address a group of Korean People's Army fighter pilots. "Climbing Mt Paektu provides precious mental pabulum more powerful than any kind of nuclear weapon," the Supreme Commander told the assembled airmen, according to the DPRK's press release of April 19.

Rave review: Kim Jong Un addresses the troops
Of course, this is not the first time that political leaders have sought to arrogate to themselves the prestige of a "famous mountain". One only has to turn to Chapter 98 of Japan's most famous mountain book to find another example. Somewhat disingenuously, the Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyūya chose to entitle that chapter "Kirishima", which is the name of the surrounding national park, not the mountain that is actually Fukada's subject.

Commemorative stamp showing
Mt Takachiho
For the real focus here is Mt Takachiho, well known to anybody brought up in the pre-war school system. When singing the song that celebrated "the cloud-piercing peaks of Takachiho, the trees and herbs that deck its slopes", those pre-war pupils would have instantly recognized the reference to the spot where Ninigi-no-mikoto, a scion of the gods and ancestor of the imperial line, descended from heaven to earth.

Fukada climbed Takachiho at an inflection point in its modern history:-

I made my first visit in 1939, before the Pacific War but during the economic boom stimulated by the advances in China. A sumptuous path up the mountain was under construction for the following year, which would mark the 2,600th anniversary of the National Foundation. This was the time when slogans such as "Proclaim the majesty of the Emperor" and "Sacred dedication of Labour" greeted the eye at every corner.

As Fukada notes, Takachiho is mentioned in the Kojiki, Japan's oldest chronicle. But a lack of detail in this record of ancient matters led to embarrassment in the run-up to the 2,600th anniversary celebrations. When the Ministry of Education instructed the governors of ten prefectures to identify sites that could be associated with the Emperor Jimmu, the officials of Kagoshima and Miyazaki advanced the claims of two rival mountains as candidates for the anniversary celebrations.

In the end, the Ministry of Education never did decide in favour of one candidate or the other. This did not stop Takachiho playing a prominent part in the 2,600th anniversary celebrations. As Kenneth Ruoff records in his survey of that year, the mountain (or both of them) appeared on postcards, pamphlets, and posters. It even featured in the winning speech of a contest organized by a magazine for girls, when Matsuyama Fusako of Kagoshima Prefecture recounted her experience of having prayed atop sacred Takachiho on the morning of January 1, 1940.

Celebrations on November 11, 1940, of the
2,600th anniversary of the National Foundation
By 1964, when Fukada published Nihon Hyakumeizan, these celebrations were fading from memory. But the mountain's symbolic charge was still apparently strong enough to dissuade him from using its name as the chapter title. There is a sense, in the essay's concluding words, that Fukada is reclaiming Takachiho for ordinary mountaineers like himself:-

But times have changed. While it would have been unthinkable in pre-war Japan to climb the mountain in anything other than a spirit of deep reverence, the bonds of this repressive ethos have now fallen away. We can now climb this cheerful southern peak and enjoy this land of legends to our heart's content.

North Korean commemorative stamp showing
Kim Jong Il atop his native mountain
The parallels between the pre-war celebrations on Takachiho and last Sunday's performance atop Paektu hardly need pointing out. The Japanese mountain is linked with an imperial ancestor; Paektu is said to be the birthplace of Kim Jong-il, progenitor of the present Supreme Commander. But in case anybody should fail to appreciate the peak's significance, the DPRK's press release spells it out: "Mt Paektu is the ancestral mountain and the sacred mountain of revolution associated with the soul of the Korean nation."

The authors of the relevant Wikipedia article wouldn't disagree with that assessment: "Koreans consider Mount Baekdu as the place of their ancestral origin," they say. And the volcano is  one of Korea's three most sacred peaks, just as Hakusan is one of Japan's "Sanreizan". By every one of Fukada Kyūya's criteria, it would seem - stature, history and extraordinary distinctiveness - Mt Paektu has always qualified as a pre-eminent Meizan, or 'famous peak'. It is this prestige that the Kim dynasty has sought in recent decades to appropriate for itself.

It may be a while before anybody is able to reclaim Korea's "white-topped mountain" for the ordinary mountaineer.


More photos of Kim Jong Un atop Mt Paektu, courtesy of DPRK (I presume) via The Guardian.

Ruoff, Kenneth J., Imperial Japan at Its Zenith: The Wartime Celebration of the Empire's 2,600th Anniversary, Studies of the Weatherhead East Asia Institute, Columbia, 2010.

Translator's Introduction to One Hundred Mountains of Japan, the English version of Nihon Hyakumeizan.

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