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. 

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