An outline history of mountaineering in Japan - the roads to Japan's eight-thousander and national federations
During the 1930s, military men such as Ishiwara Kanji envisaged a “national defence state” in which all economic and social activities would focus on achieving Japan’s strategic goals. As war approached, it was only a question of time before mountaineering too fell into the maw of this totalitarian machine.
|Japan's eight-thousander: Imanishi Toshio summits Manaslu in 1956
In January 1941, an umbrella organisation was set up to supervise all Japanese mountaineering activities and clubs. One purpose of this Nihon Sangaku Renmei was to promote a theory of mountaineering for the good of the imperial state (kōkoku tozandō).
Individual mountaineers were less easily regimented. Many kept silent, or simply gave up climbing. Among the clubs that faded from the scene during this period were the Kiri-no-tabi-kai, noted for its “contemplative” approach to the hills, and Club Edelweiss, one of Japan’s first alpine associations for women.
After hostilities ended, mountaineers made up for lost time. The pioneer of winter climbing on the Hodaka massif’s Byōbu-iwa, Shinmura Shōichi made a notable winter traverse between Tsurugi and Yari-ga-take in March-April 1947, snowholing all the way.
Two years later, attempting another long winter traverse, Matsunami Akira and Arimoto Katsumi came to grief on Yari-ga-take’s Kita-kama ridge. The diary and farewell message they left behind in their last bivouac has become a classic of Japan’s mountain literature, inspiring novels by Inoue Yasushi, Nitta Jirō and Yasukawa Shigeo.
Another Byōbu pioneer, the medical researcher and Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto member Itō Yōhei founded a new mountaineering magazine, Gakujin, in May 1947. To this day, the magazine remains the main rival to Japan’s first and most prominent mountain monthly, Yama to Keikoku, which issued its first postwar edition as early as January 1946.
In March 1948, Itō made the first winter ascent of a face route on Byōbu. For Itō, as for all his fellow AACK members, winter climbing was simply training for the Himalaya. In the midwinter of 1952/53, he led an expedition to Hokkaidō’s remote Shiretoko Peninsula and, in the autumn, joined the club’s attempt on Annapurna IV. They didn’t summit, but the AACK had made good on its pre-war commitment to Himalayan climbing.
Winter mountaineering was the natural preserve of the university clubs, notably Waseda’s, as the multi-day time commitment tended to exclude the salaryman climbers. These unfortunates had to make do with the cliffs of Tanigawa, which lay within weekend range. But one of them, Okuyama Akira, was determined to give the academicians a run for their money.
Frustrated by a seeming stagnation in technical climbing standards, Okuyama mused about creating an elite climbing association, drawing the best climbers from clubs all over Japan. In January 1958, the new group took shape as the RCCII, its name harking back to the original Rock Climbing Club of Kobe, the outfit founded in 1924 by Fujiki Kuzō. The RCCII made its first mark in June the same year when they climbed an overhanging face on Tanigawa-dake, using expansion bolts for the first time in Japan.
Meanwhile, the AACK was sniffing around the foot of Manaslu, an unclimbed Himalayan eight-thousander. In October 1952, Imanishi Kinji, one of the club’s founders, led a small party to walk clockwise around the mountain, seeking a way up. Two more expeditions, now under the auspices of the Japanese Alpine Club, were unsuccessful before Imanishi Toshio (no relation) was finally able to step onto the summit in May 1956.
This triumph touched off a “Manaslu boom” in domestic mountaineering. Inevitably, as more people surged into the mountains, the accident rate boomed too. The growing casualty rate – the annual death toll from accidents almost doubled between the late 1950s and early 1960s – threw the mountaineering world’s lack of cohesion into stark relief. In fact, no central organisation had existed since the war to represent Japan’s thousands of mountaineering clubs in their dealings with the government and the public.
What Japan needed was a European-style federation, along the lines of the Club alpin français. Or so argued Kondō Nobuyuki, a former Waseda man, mountain writer and Japanese Alpine Club member. But efforts by JAC-affiliated officers to gain influence within early attempts at a national federation met with resistance, particularly from folk who saw their club as elitist and unrepresentative.
When established in April 1960, the Japan Mountaineering Association (日本山岳協会) was conceived as the representative body for all Japan’s mountaineers. Nested within the Japan Sports Association (JSPO), it would concern itself with all domestic mountaineering matters, leaving the responsibility for overseas expeditions with the Japanese Alpine Club.
The new federation made its debut during a volatile spring. A few months after the JMA made its debut, the riots against the US-Japan Security Treaty reached their climax. Mountaineers of a left-wing persuasion felt that the new JMA was too reminiscent of the monolithic wartime Nihon Sangaku Renmei. So they countered it with an alternative structure of their own.
With support from a member of the Japanese Communist Party, as well as from the mountain writers Fukada Kyūya and Tanaka Sumie, the Japan Workers’ Alpine Federation (Nihon Kinrōsha Sangaku Renmei) was established in mid-1960. Its political affiliations aside, Rōsan would ultimately function very much like the larger JMA, representing its members in dealings with the authorities, providing them with accident insurance, and sponsoring expeditions to the Greater Ranges.
Thus, to this very day, Japanese climbers, or at least their clubs, can choose between two national mountaineering federations. Probably few reflect that this bifurcated structure freeze-frames the country’s political polarisation in the early 1960s.
Main sources are Wolfram Manzenreiter’s “Die soziale Konstruktion des Japanischen Alpinismus”, Beiträge zur Japanologie, Band 36, Vienna, 2000 – this is the first and so far only study of Japanese mountaineering history in any western language – and the 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), Tokyo 2005.