Friday, March 17, 2017

Putting Mt Fuji on the map

Who was the first Westerner to portray Japan's top mountain?

Some visitors to Japan are more productive than others. In a stay of just two years, the naturalist and physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) catalogued the country’s flora, discovered that the ginkgo tree was far from extinct, as then believed in Europe, made two visits to Edo, and presented himself to the Shogun.

"Fusino Jamma: een zeer hooge en Zonderlinge Berg"
Detail from a map in Engelbert Kaempfer's History of Japan (High Dutch edition)

On his way to and from the capital, Kaempfer passed close by the foot of Japan’s top mountain. In his History of Japan, published posthumously in English in 1727, he lauds "The famous Mount Fuji in the province of Suruga, which in height can be compared only to Mount Tenerife in the Canaries". Fuji, he continues, "is conical in shape and so even and beautiful that one may easily call it the most beautiful mountain in the world .... The poets and painters of this country never end praising and portraying the beauty of this mountain".

Map of Suruga Bay, showing Mt Fuji (top right)
The German doctor never got the chance to make the first gaijin ascent of the iconic volcano, leaving that honour to Rutherford Alcock a century later. Instead, according to Professor H Byron Earhart (see References), he may have made its first graphic depiction by a Westerner. A sketch appears within an engraving of the Tōkaidō route through Suruga Province that illustrates his book. Interestingly, the summit region is shown as divided into three peaklets.

Mt Fuji: the traditional view
Japanese artists had long depicted the mountain with three peaks – as shown in a famous ink painting of Mt Fuji and the Seiken temple once attributed to Sesshū (1420-1506). Yet this configuration had less to do with ground truth than with an artistic convention, probably rooted in Buddhist numerology, that sacred mountains should have triple crowns. It seems fitting, somehow, that Kaempfer's pioneering image of Mt Fuji should pay homage to this centuries-old tradition.


H. Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, University of South Carolina Press, 2011.

Map images: courtesy of the East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley

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