Among Japan’s earliest emissaries to Europe, who was the first to see the Alps? Was it Kurimoto Jōun (1822-1897), who stayed in Bern and crossed the Mont Cenis Pass while travelling on a diplomatic mission in 1867. Or, as Ohmori Hisao
speculates, could it have been the four youths sent to Italy by a Christian daimyō in the tenth year of Tenshō (1582), who might just have glimpsed the distant Dolomites from some high tower in Venice?
|Men in black: Kaga Shotaro and his guide on the Jungfrau, 1910|
To mountaineers, the question is moot. For, alpinistically speaking, Japan’s discovery of the Alps had to await its first mountaineering boom
, which took off in the Taishō era (1912-1926). True, Kaga Shōtarō (1888-1954), had scraped in at the very end of Emperor Meiji’s reign, when he made his guided climb of the Jungfrau in 1910, but it took a few more years for real momentum to gather.
Although Kaga was the first of his countrymen to summit a Swiss four-thousander, he was more tourist than alpinist – while holidaying in Switzerland, he was supposed to be attending an international exhibition in London, and he dropped his newly purchased ice-axe into the river at Lucerne before he even got to the mountain. But his feat found a ready audience at home, and a report duly appeared in Sangaku
, the Japanese Alpine Club’s house journal.
|View of the Bernese Oberland by Tsujimura Isuke|
One who heard Kaga’s message, and at first hand, was the botanist and writer Tsujimura Isuke (1886-1923). In January 1914, Tsujimura made guided climbs of both the Mönch and the Jungfrau, thus making the first Japanese winter ascents of any Swiss four-thousanders. In an echo of Japan’s mountaineering past, Tsujimura’s party found Walter Weston’s
business card tucked into the guest book at the Bergli Hut.
On the heels of these triumphs, nemesis followed. On the way down the aptly named Schreckhorn, Tsujimura’s party was avalanched. But he got to marry Rosa, the kind nurse who had looked after him in hospital. And the accident also made good copy for his fluently penned Swiss Diary
(スウィス日記), which in turn promoted the Alps to the up-and-coming generation. “It was the Swiss Diary that taught me what the Alps were about,” wrote Matsukata Saburō (1899-1973), “and what beautiful realms of nature and human emotions are to be found there.”
In the event, it was Maki “Yūkō” Aritsune (1894-1989), the son of a newspaper proprietor, who got there first. Arriving in England, nominally to study, he wasted no time in heading for Switzerland and making the first Japanese ascent of the Matterhorn, in August 1921. In September, he and a trio of elite guides from Grindelwald followed this up with the first ascent – by anybody – of the Eiger’s Mittellegi ridge
In the same summer, the diplomat Hidaka Shinrokurō (1893-1976) danced on the summit of Mont Blanc, after making the first Japanese ascent. Later in his career, Hidaka was the last foreign diplomat to see Benito Mussolini alive.
It was the Mittellegi climb, though, that galvanised Japan’s mountaineering world. Coached at the Keio and Gakushūin universities by Maki, who’d brought back trunkloads of climbing gear from Europe, and inspired by his example elsewhere, student climbers rapidly upped their game, undaunted by the occasional casualty
One of Maki’s most fervent disciples was the above-quoted Matsukata Saburō. The son of a former prime minister (by his third concubine) and a graduate of Gakushūin’s High School, he went on to study economics at Kyoto University. While a student there, in July 1922, he took part in the first ascent of Yarigatake’s gnarly northern ridge, the Kitakama
|Prince Chichibu's party traverses the Matterhorn, August 1926|
In 1924, Matsukata moved to Europe to study and climb. In 1925, having picked up progressive ideas under Kawakami Hajime, his sensei at Kyoto, he published a book on Marx and Engels together with Kaji Ryūichi, another economist. In the same year, he joined the Swiss Alpine Club and, by basing himself at Grindelwald’s Hotel Adler, just like Maki before him, he positioned himself to team up with Matsukata in escorting Prince Chichibu – also notionally studying abroad – on his alpine climbs
in August 1926.
|Boot camp: Uramatsu Samitaro|
Uramatsu Samitarō (1901-1981) was another of the gilded youths who climbed in the Alps during the 1920s – for, in that era, it was very necessary to be one of the former in order to indulge in the latter. Like Matsukata, he went to Europe as a student, but ended up spending four summers and three winters (or possibly three summers and four winters) in the Alps, reaching about forty summits in all.
To traverse the Meije, one of the more difficult peaks, Uramatsu teamed up with Matsukata. They were guided by Sam Brawand, who'd climbed with Maki on the Mittellegi, and Emil Steuri from Grindelwald. An epic ensued
when a thunderstorm assailed the party on the summit ridge. Unfrazzled, Uramatsu went on with Brawand and Steuri to make the first ascent of the Wetterhorn’s South-West Ridge on 24 August 1928. The route is still graded D+. This time, the weather gave them an easier time on the summit ridge. As Uramatsu recorded in the Alpine Journal
We lighted our pipes. I felt my thought was melting away into the endless Alpine sky. The valley of Grindelwald was flooded with the midday light. Eiger, Monch and Schreckhorn were sleeping under the blue sky. I was happy to be a mountaineer.
Matsukata could not share in this adventure, as he’d already gone home to Japan, where he took up a post with the South Manchurian Railway Company. But he and Uramatsu were still willing to stick their necks out. When the League of Nations came out with its Lytton Report in 1931, criticising Japan as the aggressor in Manchuria, the climbing duo, with a cousin of Matsukata’s, hastily translated the report into Japanese, hoping to produce a version that was less likely to inflame public opinion than the official one. Alas, their efforts to change the course of history proved far more evanescent than their mountain writings, some of which have become classics.
|Kagami Yoshiyuki in full flight|
Then there was Kagami Yoshiyuki, who went up to Cambridge University at the age of 18. Relatively unknown in the Japanese climbing world, he engaged the Swiss guide Gottfried Perren in 1929 to put a new line up on the southeast face of Mont Maudit. This the Alpine Journal
recognised as the “Kagami Route”. A few years before, he’d traversed from the Dent d’Herens to the Matterhorn in record time, and climbed two-thirds of the way up the Matterhorn north face, more than half a decade before the Schmid brothers got there. He was equally proficient in skiing and, on the ice rink, he is said to have partnered both Sonja Henie, a top skater, and the singer Josephine Baker.
As Kagami’s record suggests, the leading Japanese climbers were now as proficient as the top alpine guides. Kagami climbed without guides too, as when he teamed up with Frank Smythe, a professional mountaineer, on a cold and dangerous attempt on the Eiger’s Southwest Ridge in January 1929. “I have seldom imbibed any fluid more gratefully than the hot tea from Kagami’s thermos flask,” recorded Smythe in his account of the adventure, “A winter tussle with the ‘Ogre’”.
By this time, of course, the Alps were almost passé in the minds of the next generation of Japan’s student climbers. Inspired by the first European expeditions to the Himalaya, they were now mulling ways to follow suit. But this is another story…References
The prime source for this post is Ohmori Hisao’s chapter “Nihonjin to Yoroppa-Arupusu” in Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka
, volume 103, Taiyō Bessatsu: Nihon no kokoro, Heibonsha 1998
Uramatsu wrote up his Wetterhorn climb in the Alpine Journal, 1930 edition, pp 260 ff
F S Smythe describes his Eiger winter attempt with “Y Kagami” in Climbs and Ski Runs: Mountaineering and Ski-ing in the Alps, Great Britain and Corsica
, William Blackwood and Sons Ltd, 1931
For Matsutaka and the Lytton Report, see Ian Nish, Japan's Struggle with Internationalism
, Kegan Paul, October 2000, p 182. Matsukata is quoted as follows:
Around the beginning of October 1932, we were shut up in a room in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, absorbed in the task of translating the newly-published report of the League of Nations Lytton Commission on the Manchurian Question. The nature of the report was a matter of great concern for Japan at the time, and for three days we concentrated on the work from morning to night without once leaving the hotel, feeling that it was necessary to translate the document into Japanese as accurately and speedily as possible and to publish it.
Images are from Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka 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)