Tuesday, May 25, 2021

“Tozan-shi” (4) – war and restoration

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. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

“Tozan-shi” (3): parting of the ways

An outline history of mountaineering in Japan – divergent trends in early Shōwa

Some see the Great Kantō Earthquake of September 1923 as a cultural and political watershed, dividing the liberal Taishō years from the growing tribulations of the early Shōwa era. Its impact on the lives of individual mountaineers was devastating. It marked an end to the mountain holidays of Mr and Mrs Takeuchi, it tossed the prolific alpinist Matsukata Saburō out of his bedroom window, and it buried the writer-mountaineer Tsujimura Isuke and his family in the ruins of their house near Atami.

Climbers of the Rikkyo University expedition on Nanda Kot, 1936 

Yet it’s difficult to see any obvious inflection point in mountaineering developments. After the end of Taishō’s reign, in 1926, hard-core alpinists just kept on doing what they always do: tackling ever harder and steeper routes. As in Europe decades earlier, they now moved on from ridge- and gully-climbing to more demanding rock faces. 

The summer of 1930 showed how this drive for “variation routes” was shaping up. In July, Ogawa Tokio made his debut on the sheer cliffs of Tanigawa-dake The following summer, Ogawa went on to explore the even steeper terrain of Byōbu-iwa in the Hodaka massif. Winter climbers too made strides: between 1932 and 1934, a Waseda crew climbed several ridges in Takidani on Kita-Hodaka in the snow and ice season.

In the Southern Alps, a party from Kyoto University ventured onto the face of Kita-dake Buttress in July 1929. Ritsumeikan men put up some more new routes a few years later, but a direct ascent via the classic No. 4 Ridge had to await Oyabe Zensuke and his Tokyo Shōdai team in June 1935.

The emphasis on surmounting technical difficulties did not appeal to everybody. Some called for a more appreciative approach to mountain scenery. Itō Hidegoro, a pioneer of the Hokkaidō outback, sought to define this “contemplative mountaineering” as follows:

But, to avoid any misunderstanding, I’d like to make it clear that “contemplative” doesn’t mean walking just on low hills, or easy mountaineering, nor does it signify strolling about lost in thought or meditation like some poet or philosopher … Rather it is something that, as far as possible, should affect you to the depths of your being. Through the contemporary, specific experiences of mountaineering, we seek to approach the wider realm of nature.

The wider realm of nature was already attracting city dwellers in growing hordes. Acknowledging their needs, the government promulgated a law on national parks in 1931, later designating Unzen-dake and the Inland Sea as the first two. More significantly for mountaineers, though, the Shimizu railway tunnel was completed in the same year. This meant that time-pressed salaryman alpinists could do a climb on Tanigawa-dake at the weekend and still get back to Tokyo by Monday morning. 

The best-known salaryman climber was probably a young draughtsman who worked at the Mitsubishi marine diesel factory in Kobe. By the early 1930s, Katō Buntarō had made a nationwide name for himself as a winter soloist, mainly in the Northern Alps. In 1934, however, he started climbing with a partner. This, Fujiki Kuzō suggested, was because he had set his sights on a Himalayan expedition. 

If so, he was not the only one. After entering Kyoto University, the former stalwarts of the city’s Third High School set up the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto. Their aim was specifically to pursue Himalayan goals. To do so, they first had to master a new set of techniques – setting climbing camps progressively higher up the mountain until the summit was in reach. 

The AACK first tested this “polar method” on Mt Fuji over the 1931 year-end. But after Japan left the League of Nations two years later, the country’s growing international isolation got in the way of everybody’s Himalayan ambitions. In the end, it was not the AACK but a Rikkyō University expedition that bagged Nanda Kot in October 1936, Japan’s first and only pre-war Himalayan summit.

This was too late for Katō Buntarō. Together with his partner, he had fallen to his death from Yari-ga-take in January that year, while attempting a midwinter traverse of the mountain’s North Ridge.  One newspaper lamented Katō’s death as the loss of a “national treasure".  If this accident felt to some like the end of an era, subsequent events more than justified their forebodings. 


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. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

“Tozan-shi” (2): Taishō alpinism

An outline history of mountaineering in Japan – mountains for all

During the early years of Emperor Taishō’s reign (1912–26), the First World War helped Japan to triple its international trade. Rising prosperity fomented new ways of thinking. A professor at Tokyo Imperial University coined the phrase “Taishō democracy” to describe a new spirit of political liberalisation. 

Japan's first mountaineering boom took place in the Taisho years
(Photo by courtesy of Hakuba Guides)

The academicians also took a leading role in what might be called “Taishō alpinism”. Kyoto’s Third High School established a mountaineering club in 1913, and other national high schools followed suit within the next few years.  
Among the first universities to do so, Kyoto Imperial University and Keio both formed alpine clubs in 1915. 

It was a Keio man, Maki “Yūkō” Aritsune, who instigated the first ascent of the Eiger’s Mittelegi Ridge in Switzerland in September 1921. Four years later, he went on to make the first ascent of Mt Alberta in the Canadian Rockies, accompanied by five Japanese companions and three Swiss guides.

Galvanised by Maki’s example, student climbers were quick to explore steep terrain.
 Yari-ga-take’s rugged Kitakama ridge was first climbed in July 1922, by rival parties from the Waseda and Gakushūin university clubs, both founded two years previously. Practically every institute of higher education had a mountaineering club by the reign’s end.

Soon the students had company in the mountains. Regional mountaineering clubs for ordinary citizens were springing up all over Japan. Among the earliest was the Kobe Waraji (Straw Sandal) Club, founded in 1910, which later morphed into the Kobe Walking Society or KWS (神戸徒歩会). Its journal went by the name of “Pedestrian”, spelling out the English word in katakana.

Pedestrianism was not enough for Fujiki Kuzō. Inspired possibly by watching foreign friends scrambling on outcrops of Mt Rokko, the Kobe-based journalist set out to pursue steep, technical climbing. In 1924, he and other colleagues from the KWS founded the Rock Climbing Club. The concept was so new in Japan that it could only be rendered in katakana English. Thus the club’s name in Japanese is, quite simply, the ロック・クライミング・クラブ or RCC.

The following year, Fujiki published a manual on climbing techniques and, in August 1925, led an epoch-making trip to Takidani, a system of cliffs and gullies in the Hodaka massif. Symbolic of an emerging rivalry between town and gown, his party vied with a Waseda team for the honour of this first ascent. 

Meanwhile, the winter mountains beckoned. The first skis in Japan may have been imported by Matsukawa Toshitane, an army captain, as early as 1895. However, few of his countrymen learned how to use them until 1911, when Major Theodor von Lerch, an exchange officer from Austria, started to teach modern skiing techniques to his host army regiment up in snowy Tohoku.

After that, progress was rapid: the army’s first ski-tour, on Nambuyama (1,700 metres) near Takada, took place on 12 February 1911. And a week later, the country’s first ski club for civilians was founded, with von Lerch and Field Marshal Nogi Maresuke as honorary members. By the following year, the club had attracted 6,000 members.

Student climbers started to ski into winter climbs. A notable pioneer was Itakura Katsunobu, who melded skiing, rock- and ice-climbing into a new style of “dynamic mountaineering” – which he demonstrated in 1919 with a solo winter ascent of Yarigatake. His meteoric career burned out in January 1924, when he perished on a winter expedition on Tateyama led by Maki Yūkō.

Accidents were inevitable as more people pushed into the mountains. When four Tokyo University students died of exposure in the Chichibu mountains in July 1916, the ensuing media ruckus prompted a government agency to issue a forty-page leaflet of advice to tyro mountaineers. 

Better infrastructure and training were on the way. Now that maps for all of Honshū’s high mountains were available, guidebooks followed, some of them issued by hotel associations, railway companies and even the railway ministry itself. Climbing kit and clothing started to be manufactured in Japan, for sale in specialised outfitters.

Guiding too became a profession. As early as 1906, Kojima Usui had called for guides to be certified on the European model. In 1917, the first guiding association was founded, in Shinano Ōmachi, albeit not quite on the European model. More associations followed in the next few years, covering both the Northern and Southern Alps.

The first mountain huts opened, one in Yarizawa in 1917 and another under Jōnen-dake in 1918. As huts proliferated, so did properly made-up mountain paths. In 1916, the new trail that led upriver from Kamikōchi was deemed significant enough to be opened by a member of the imperial house.
After presiding over that ceremony, Prince Higashikuni then took the chance to climb Yari-ga-take. In doing so, he set the ultimate seal of approval on the new sport of alpinism, as first promulgated by Kojima Usui on the same peak just fourteen years earlier. 


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. 

Saturday, May 8, 2021

“Tozan-shi” (1): the golden age

An outline history of mountaineering in Japan – the early years

Japanese alpinism was born on 17 August 1902. This was the day when two Tokyo salarymen scrambled to the top of Yari-ga-take, a 3,180-metre peak in what one of them would soon rebrand as the “Northern Japanese Alps”. 

Kojima Usui, founder of the Japanese Alpine Club

Nothing much was novel about climbing a high mountain in Japan – pilgrims, hunters and even tourists had been doing that for centuries. Only the motivation was unusual. One of the salarymen, a young bank clerk named Kojima Usui, put it like this: 

I had long thought of climbing Yari-ga-take.

Why was this?

Because Yari is high, Yari is sharp, and Yari is steep.

These were the words with which Kojima started his “Inspection of Yari-ga-take” (鎗ヶ嶽探検記), a nine-part write-up that ran in Bunko, a literary journal he helped to edit. Readers may have sensed a modern vibe – to climb a mountain simply because it is there. 

A year later, Kojima and his climbing companion, Okano Kinjirō, were invited to tea with Walter Weston, an English missionary who had also climbed Yari. This meeting sowed in Kojima’s mind the idea of forming a Japanese alpine club. With help from his growing circle of friends, this association came into existence as the Sangaku-kai (“Alpine Club”) in October 1905 – it added “Japanese” to its name some years later.

Japan’s newly affluent middle classes had already started fanning out into the mountains for recreation. As early as 1898, for example, Kanazawa’s Fourth High School established a “travel club” (ryokō-bu) to organise excursions into the nearby hills. And in the same year, Kōno Toshizō and Okada Kunimatsu made the first recorded Japanese ascent of Shirouma-dake (2,933 metres). 

Like any mountaineering club, the Japanese Alpine Club brought like-minded people together, some hundreds of them in just its first year. And like many another new institution in Meiji Japan, it sought to imbue its members with a sense of modernising purpose: 

The poets Byron and Wordsworth, and other great scholars such as Tyndall and Humboldt, went climbing in the Alps, and forty-nine years ago, the British Alpine Club was founded. In this way, the mountains have become a new frontier, a place to exercise noble spirits, firmness of will, and strength of body and mind.

These words appeared in the first edition of Sangaku, the new club’s journal. This too was patterned on an English model, that of the Alpine Club’s Alpine Journal, a copy of which Weston had shown to Kojima at their fateful tea party.

Now opened what Kojima termed “Japan’s golden age of mountain exploration”. In 1906, the year after the Sangakukai was formed, Kojima led a party over the ridges between Tsubakuro, Jōnen and Chō-ga-dake in the Northern Alps. One of their aims was to verify that a mountain called Otensh
ō-dake really existed. 

For accurate maps had yet to be published, although the Army surveyors were busy doing the groundwork. Thus, mountain travel was still spiced with the tang of exploration. In writing up this trip, Kojima was the first to use the word “jūsō” (縦走) to describe a long traverse across high ridges, now a standard term in the Japanese hiking lexicon.

There was even a golden year within the golden age. According to Kojima, this was the exceptionally productive season of 1909. In July, Sangaku-kai members climbed rugged Tsurugi, a first for amateur mountaineers. On the summit, they found the survey marker erected 
two years previously by the Army surveyors.

Such encounters were frequent, given that all of Japan’s high mountains had been climbed before. So there was base alloy in this golden age. Kojima had borrowed the term from the early European alpinists, who’d fought their way to the top of icy unclimbed peaks. In Japan’s golden age, by contrast, there were no first ascents left to do. 

Still a golden age is what you make of it. In the same memorable summer, Udono Masao, a civil servant on leave from Korea, achieved what was almost certainly the first crossing of the Dai-Kiretto. No monk or Army surveyor had ever ventured onto this bracingly exposed ridge between Kita-Hodaka and Minami-dake in the Northern Alps.

This age of exploration lasted until the century’s mid-teens. That was when the Army surveyors finished publishing their 1:50,000-scale maps of Honshū’s remotest mountains, stripping them of their mystery. Kojima’s very own golden age ended in 1915, when his bank posted him to its Los Angeles office. By the time he returned, in 1927, Japanese mountaineering would be utterly transformed.


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.