ASCJ 2009
Session 47: Room 11-305

Explored, Exploited, and Exposed: Mapping Histories and Traditions of Mountaineering in Japan 

Organizer: David Fedman, Hokkaido University of Education 
Chair: Takehiro Watanabe, Sophia University 

Japan's mountain regions are usually understood to be intensely parochial and outside the flow of modern time. In recent years, however, scholars have acknowledged that these seemingly local engagements with alpine regions are part of a broader world history and have generated imaginaries that extend from region to nation to globe. Using a multi-disciplinary framework, this panel seeks to identify human interactions with local alpine environments as linked to state building, industrial capitalism, and modern regimes of knowledge. Each of the panelists will focus on a local mountainous region in an effort to survey the cultural, intellectual, and political mappings that have, over time, informed Japan's montane engagements. In turn the papers will also examine the natural environment's role in structuring human activity by attending to the severe demands that Japan's highlands place on human bodies, material infrastructures, and the production of knowledge. The panel contends that through the exploration of their topography, the exploitation of their resources, and the exposing of their wild beauty to the public, the alpine regions became sites through which Japanese society came to a modern understanding of politics, capital, and the natural environment. 

1) Takehiro Watanabe, Sophia University 
Trails of History: Corporate Mountaineering and the Ecological Imagination in Postindustrial Japan

What happened to "nature" as Japan began shifting out of the postwar economic high growth era? How was space re-historicized in postindustrial Japan, especially those lands on which once stood the industrial engines of the nation's economic rise? This paper will  examine how young mountaineers in the 1960s and 70s helped re-code a Japanese copper mine into a depository of regional, corporate, and environmental history. From the early Tokugawa period until the 1970s, the Besshi Mountain, located in Shikoku, had been mined by the Osaka-based Izumiya merchant house, which later became the Sumitomo zaibatsu. In those three centuries of extracting and refining copper, humans blasted rocks, logged trees, polluted air, dammed rivers, and built entire towns on the craggy terrain – all without recognizing the area as a recreational zone. This began to change in the 1960s, as young elite engineers of Sumitomo Chemical, with the help of mineworkers with local roots and academic geologists surveying the area's unique tectonic formations, began reclaiming old abandoned footpaths. Coinciding with the eventual closing of the mine in 1973, these mountaineers made history available to the present by "discovering" ghost towns, industrial ruins, and forgotten place names, while making possible access to the past by maintaining trails. The paper, based on oral history, in-house magazines of the mountaineering club, and the naturalist writings of a former mineworker who operated a hut for climbers, will highlight a local emergence of an ecological consciousness in postwar Japan. 

2) Scott Schnell, University of Iowa 
Reverence or Recreation: Differing Perspectives on the Japanese Alps 

The most celebrated figure in the history of Japanese mountaineering, ironically, is an Englishman named Walter Weston. During the 1890s, Weston succeeded in scaling most of the major peaks in a range of lofty mountains popularly known as the Japanese Alps, and he is widely attributed with having “opened” the area to mountaineering as a recreational activity. Despite his status as an Anglican minister, Weston seems to have been driven more by ego than religious inspiration. It was important for him to be first to climb a mountain, to conquer or claim it in the language of European mountaineering at the time. This paper will present a differing perspective—a special reverence for the mountains exemplified by a Buddhist priest and ascetic practitioner named Banryu (1786-1840), who preceded Weston in reaching many of the same summits by nearly seventy years. Banryu’s aim was to establish regular climbing routes and thereby afford others the kind of numinous experience that he himself had had, most notably a visionary encounter with Amida Buddha in the upper mountain reaches. Banryu has recently emerged as something of a local folk hero among mountaineering enthusiasts. His memory might well have been lost, however, were it not for the efforts of a few dedicated activists. The paper will describe how the image of Banryu is being resurrected and redeployed as a more culturally compatible icon for the Japanese public. 

3) David Fedman, Hokkaido University of Education 
Sights to the Summit: The Hokkaido University Mountaineering Club and Alpinism in Pre-war Japan 

Opening its doors in 1926, the Hokkaido University Mountaineering Club (Hokudai Sangakubu) was the first university club of its kind. As a new generation of Japanese mountaineers set their sights on Hokkaido’s peaks, pioneering new routes and swiftly establishing Hokkaido as an alpine laboratory, the Sangakubu soon found itself on the cutting edge of new trends in Japanese mountaineering that fundamentally altered the cultural landscape of Hokkaido’s alpine terrain. Organizing and executing ambitious and unprecedented expeditions throughout Hokkaido, the Sangakubu quickly rose to prominence as one of Japan’s premier mountaineering institutions. Seeking new thrills, its members became students of German- and British-style alpinism, forever transforming the style, equipment, and attendant philosophy that defined mainstream 20th century mountaineering. Often abandoning traditional Japanese routes, opting instead for more challenging first ascents and dangerous winter condition climbs, these men took to the mountains as a part of a quiet revolution taking place in the Japanese hillsides: the ongoing effort by modern explorers to triumph over nature, placing alpine exploration within the creation of the modern nation-state and an ideology of what Kären Wigen calls “geographical enlightenment.” Using the numerous accounts of this alpine revolution—including maps, photos, and climbing diaries—still preserved in the Sangakubu library, this paper seeks to provide a window into pre-war modernity and the cultural landscape of the early 20th century that, quite literally, pushed Japanese climbers to new heights. 

Discussant: Ian Miller, Harvard University