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 Otenshō-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 erectedtwo 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.