Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Death March on Mount Hakkōda

Timeless lessons on mountain leadership from a master of documentary fiction

Such was the prestige of the Imperial Army that civilians were once prohibited from owning books about the disaster. But thanks to a film made in 1977, almost everybody in Japan today knows of it - that, just over a century ago, almost 200 soldiers perished in a blizzard on Hakkōda, a mountain in northern Japan. The film took its cue from a deeply researched novel published in 1971 by the meteorologist-turned-writer Nitta Jirō.

The historical facts underlying Nitta's novel are simple. In preparation for the coming war against Russia, the Japanese army embarked on a series of winter exercises designed to train units for combat in Siberia or Japan's northern territories.

Two platoons, one each from the 31st of Hirosaki and the 5th Regiments, set out to traverse the Hakkōda massif in January 1902. The platoon from the 3lst completed the exercise as planned but a ferocious blizzard, probably the worst in the century, caught the men of the 5th out on the open mountain. Of the 210-strong platoon, 199 soldiers froze to death.

Men of the 31st Regiment
on winter manoeuvres
In Death March on Mount Hakkōda, these facts are woven into a story of epic quality. Epic here may be taken in both its mountaineering sense of a miserable time and its literary meaning of a narrative with universal significance.

Partly because the authorities did their best to suppress the facts at the time of the disaster, the author has taken certain liberties with history. The two exercises were, in fact, unrelated, on different dates and followed different routes. But for the purposes of the novel, the platoons are vying for the honour of the first winter crossing of the mountain and it is their rivalry that leads to the disaster.

So, on one level, the book is a study of The Platoon that Got It Right versus The Platoon that Got it Wrong. On one hand, we have good planning, competent leadership, adaptability, proper equipment, careful navigation.

On the other, there is a confused chain of command, inadequate preparation, inflexibility in the face of impossible conditions and the inevitable outcome. The lessons are trenchant and universal. So much so, that, when the novel was first published, one Japanese company bought fifty copies to distribute to their management to impress on them the danger of failing to communicate with their staff.

But there is more than a dry analysis of an accident to this book. Born in 1912 in Nagano, trained as a meteorologist and having survived the war in Manchuria, Nitta Jirō knew his army, weather and mountains. So his account of the 5th and the 31st has the force of personal experience behind it. The feeling of threat as the blizzard approaches, the growing confusion and personality clashes as the 5th's platoon loses its way - these are moments that will be familiar to many a mountaineering leader. Here is Lieutenant Kanda of the ill-fated 5th as he loses control of the situation:

When Kanda turned to Shindo to explain to him, map in hand, why he thought he had been mistaken, Yamada grabbed Shindo's lantern and shone its light on the stump of the branch. "Look, someone cut a branch off this beech to mark the road to Tashiro. Now, go quick and tell the platoon leaders that we've found the way there. That ought to cheer up the men." Kanda had been unable to get a word in. He stood still. A wave of despair washed over him.

The 5th and the 31st are history but the mountain is still there, the winter skies still loom menacingly dark over the snowy ridge, and the panda grass still flutters in the north wind where the gusts have stripped the snow from the crest (Nitta's eye for detail bespeaks long acquaintance with the winter mountains).

And the same mistakes are still made in the mountains, with consequences from which modern Gore-Tex and fibre-pile are sometimes not enough to save us. For these lessons alone, Death March on Mount Hakkōda is recommended reading for all summer, winter or armchair mountaineers.


Nitta Jirō, Death March on Mount Hakkoda, translated by James Westerhoven, The Stone Bridge Press, California.

Black-and-white photos are from 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)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Images and ink (16)

Image: Kodachrome view across Tanzawa mountains to Mt Fuji from Tō-no-dake

Ink: On Tanzawa, from Nihon Hyakumeizan (One Hundred Mountains of Japan) by Fukada Kyūya (1964):

Today's mountaineers, though, tend to shun places that are deeply associated with some historical personage. Instead, they favor untouched mountains, still in the state of nature. So leaving Ōyama somewhat in a class of its own, they prefer to take the ridge paths of Tō-no-dake, Tanzawa-yama, and Hiru-ga-dake or to follow the valleys that cut into these mountains. 

That said, people have been climbing Tō-no-dake from nearby villages for centuries. Until it collapsed in the Great Kantō Earthquake, they used to venerate a huge rock near the summit. Some sixty or more feet in height, this was known as the Black Buddha. 

The town of Sagami was traditionally much given over to games of chance and it seems that every year on the fifteenth of May a procession of gamblers would wend their way up Tō-no-dake and hold a lively ceremony there.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Big White Peak

A forgotten photo collection reveals the Hyakumeizan author climbing in the Himalaya

Second-hand bookshops can be serendipitous. I recently emerged from one near Basel Station clutching, for a paltry five Swiss francs, a collection of faded colour photos of the Himalaya. The photographer's name - Kazami Takahide - had caught my eye. Needless to say, there was a connection with the author of Japan's most famous mountain book.

It happened like this. In the mid-1950s, Fukada Kyūya was a jobbing writer for mountaineering magazines. Perhaps inspired by the French ascent of Annapurna in 1950, he was increasingly interested in Himalayan topics. This led to a series of articles in the mountaineering journal Gakujin from June 1953, just after the first Japanese attempt on Manaslu, the world's eighth highest mountain.

Unfortunately, the income from these articles was substantially consumed by Fukada's almost compulsive purchases of books about the Himalaya, many imported expensively from abroad. To rid the house of tottering piles of alpine literature, his wife later took advantage of her husband's absence on a mountaineering trip to build a book-shed in the garden.

In 1956, the Japanese collected their own 8,000-metre trophy. The veteran climber Maki "Yukō" Aritsune led the Japanese Alpine Club's third expedition to Manaslu, enabling Imanishi Toshio and Sherpa Gyalzen Norbu to reach the summit on May 9. Their success helped to stoke a mountaineering and skiing boom in Japan.

It also fired Fukada's own Himalayan ambitions. A Japanese Alpine Club member himself, he was now well enough known in mountaineering circles to find generous corporate support for a private expedition, although it was organized several years before ordinary Japanese citizens could easily travel abroad.

With three companions, Fukada took ship for Calcutta in the spring of 1958, arriving in Kathmandu some forty-five days after leaving Kobe. With Fukada at the head of fifty porters, an experience that made him feel like Napoleon, the expedition then marched to its base camp in the Jugal Himal.

Their intended mountain, today known as Loengpo Gang (7,083m), had been named Big White Peak three years earlier by a party of Scottish lady alpinists who climbed one of its neighbours. It was a wildly ambitious objective. Three high camps would be necessary to reach the summit, the Japanese party judged.

The comforts of Camp Three were scant. By the time it was established at 5,000 meters, the party's lack of high-altitude climbing experience was starting to tell. Age too may have had something to do with it; as Fukada had put it to a journalist just before leaving Japan, he was "only" 54 years old. Just to clamber in and out of the high-altitude tent's round hatch during a blizzard was a torment that had to be repeated several times a night.

The expedition photographer did manage to reach the east ridge by taking turns to break trail with a Sherpa companion. There the brown plains of Tibet were glimpsed through the clouds. Honour satisfied, Fukada decided to abandon the peak, impressing one colleague with his Buddhist spirit of self-abnegation. The party then moved on to the Langtang Himalaya and, after two months under canvas, back to Kathmandu.

The high-climbing expedition photographer was none other than Kazami Takahide. In the blurb to the English-language edition of his photobook The Himalayas, he is introduced as follows:-

"The author . was born in 1914. In 1943 he joined the Japanese Navy, where he did a three-year tour of duty, after which he managed a Ginza camera shop and and then the Sanei photo library, both in Tokyo. He has made several journeys in India and Southeast Asia. His most absorbing interest has always been high-mountain photography, and he is author of several books on the subject."

In his preface to The Himalayas, Kazami is curiously reticent about his participation in Fukada's expedition. All he vouchsafes about that experience is this: "In 1958 I spent a couple of months in Nepal, where I fell in love - with Nepal." To be sure, most of the photos in the book were taken on a later trip, in 1964, which he undertook specifically to take photos of the land and people.

Yet a few images from the Fukada expedition do creep into The Himalayas. On page 112, for example, there is an image of a Camp 3 in the Jugal Himal (see picture left). The mountain is not identified but the height given - 23,240 feet - makes it clear that the peak in the background is Big White Peak or Loengpo Gang. One glance at those Big Bad Ridges shows why Team Fukada would never get anywhere near the top.

Looking again at the photo, my attention was drawn to the figure standing in the foreground. As there were only four Japanese mountaineers on this trip (or was it three?), this is likely to be Fukada himself. The comb-over hairstyle is also a giveaway. But there is no way of knowing for certain.

As an expedition, the attempt on Big White Peak was somewhat of a fiasco. That's not to say that the effort was wasted. Sometimes it takes an overseas trip to make you appreciate your native land. The Himlayan trip may have done that for Fukada. On returning to Tokyo, he revived a project that he had been mulling for years - to portray one hundred of Japan's most eminent mountains. And the rest, as they say, is history.


Tazawa, Takuya, Hyakumeizan no Hito, TBS Britannica, 2003.

Photos from Kazami, Takahide, The Himalayas, Kodansha International, 1967.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Asahi Shinbun marks Hyakumeizan's jubilee

Tensei Jingo (“Vox Populi, Vox Dei”) is a daily column that runs on the front page of the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s most popular and revered newspapers. On July 26, the column wrote about Nihon Hyakumeizan, which was published fifty years ago this summer. Here is the article in full:-

Fukada Kyuya (Asahi Shinbun
file photo)
Many Japanese people have probably heard of the book "Nihon Hyaku Meizan" (Japan's 100 famous mountains), even if they are not familiar with the name of its author, Kyuya Fukada (1903-1971). Published in the month of July exactly 50 years ago, the book has remained a perennial favorite of mountain lovers, not a few of whom have made it a lifelong project to climb all the 100 mountains selected by Fukada.

On July 20, the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book was celebrated in Fukada's native city of Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture, with the unveiling of a commemorative monument.

Fukada is often dubbed "the man of letters of the mountain." Given his track record as a mountaineer, he was certainly not just a writer whose hobby was dabbling in mountain climbing. Even though he was born during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), he explored the Himalayas and called himself a "romantic pilgrim."

Fukada climbed every one of the 100 mountains he selected for his book, rating them by their history and his own standard of the mountain's "dignity" and "personality." In describing how he felt when he had to reject a mountain that fell slightly short of his "passing mark," he noted, "I felt the sort of agony a teacher would feel when he has to fail his beloved pupil."

Rereading the book, I was deeply impressed by his wealth of knowledge and perceptiveness. For instance, he describes iconic Mount Fuji as "one big simple entity that needs no cheap tricks" and adds, "Toddlers can draw Mount Fuji, but even the greatest artists struggle to capture its essence." His words hit the nail on the head

Out of curiosity, I counted the number of mountains I have scaled so far. The total is 51, the majority of which are "conquests" from my younger days. I was an avid mountaineer back then, and one mountain led to another. Unfortunately, I have since been reduced to only fantasizing about the refreshing mountain breeze while I bake in the city's brutal heat.

"There are 100 delights atop 100 mountains," Fukada once noted. He was probably referring to the 100 mountains he selected, but it can also be interpreted to mean that each mountain is delightful in its own way. The eagerly awaited summer holiday season is here. Challenging one of those famed peaks would be a great idea, but heading to any of the lesser known mountains could be just as nice. But one word of advice: Take every safety precaution if you want to have a delightful time.


Text and photo by courtesy of the Asahi Shimbun, July 26 edition. And many thanks to Taka for bringing the English version to my attention!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

People of the Lotus reprised

NHK revives an epic story of mid-winter survival atop Mt Fuji

“Meiji 28 (1895): Nonaka Chiyoko (Matsushita Nao) is praying for the safe return of her husband, Itaru (Satō Ryuta), who is attempting the first-ever mid-winter climb to the summit of Mt Fuji. If he succeeds, he’s determined to build a hut on the mountaintop and shut himself up there all through the next winter taking high-altitude weather observations. But Chiyoko is afraid that, if he goes up there alone, he’ll never come back…”

If this plot-line sounds familiar, that may be because you read it here first, on this very blog. This time, though, the true story of how Chiyoko saved her husband from sacrificing himself to science is being retold by NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster. Entitled Fuyō no Hito, the new six-part “Saturday drama” started on July 26.

This is not the first time that NHK has revived the Nonaka story. In April 1982, a two-part drama was aired with the aptly named Fuji Mariko playing Chiyoko. An English-language guide to Japanese TV notes that the NHK Children’s Division adapted the story “presumably as a means of introducing young viewers to the science of weather”.

Actually, that last remark may need to be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s true that, ever since Itaru and Chiyoko were rescued from their mountaintop ordeal in late December, their story has periodically played to packed houses. In fact, a stage drama about them was put on at the Tokyo Ichimuraza theatre as soon as February 1896. But it probably didn’t dwell much on the science of the weather.

Just before that play opened, Chiyoko finished publishing her own account of the adventure in the Hōchi Shinbun. Again, meteorological details are scant in Fuyō Nikki (Journal of the Lotus), which, as the title suggests, is written in the style of a traditional travel diary. The lotus, by the way, is a nod to the traditional perception of Mt Fuji’s crater as a sacred mandala in the form of a gigantic lotus blossom.

In the autumn of the same year, the poet and author Ochiai Naobumi published a book-length account of the Nonaka story, Takane no yuki (High mountain snows), drawing heavily on Chiyoko’s diary. Then, a few years later, Itaru came out with his own guide to Mt Fuji (Fuji Annai). As you would expect, this account does make ample reference to the science of weather but, by that time, most people had lost interest.

After that, Mr and Mrs Nonaka were largely forgotten until 1948, when Hashimoto Eikichi published a novelistic rendition of their adventure. According to Andrew Bernstein, whose account I rely on here, the timing was not fortuitous: the novel was clearly meant to inspire people during the hard post-war years "by celebrating a Japanese man and woman who had endured the unendurable”.

Be that as it may, the meteorologist and novelist Nitta Jirō thought that Hashimoto had underplayed Chiyoko’s role in the couple’s survival. And so, in 1971, he published his own novel, Fuyō no Hito (People of the Lotus), in which the story is told mainly from Chiyoko’s viewpoint.

It is Nitta’s version that has won out, providing both NHK dramas with their storylines and title. You can watch the second episode of the current NHK Fuyō no Hito this Saturday, August 2. (Sorry for failing to publish this post in time for you to catch the first.)

Judging from the trailer, the series will make the most of a human drama set amid a landscape of almost inhuman severity. But brace yourself for a disappointment if you expect to be introduced to the science of weather.


Andrew Bernstein, Weathering Fuji: Marriage, Meteorology, and the Meiji Bodyscape, in Japan at nature's edge : the environmental context of a global power, edited by Ian Jared Miller; Julia Adeney Thomas; Brett L Walker.

The Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese TV Drama Since 1953, Jonathan Clements, ‎Motoko Tamamuro

Thursday, July 24, 2014

In praise of shadows

When mountains, and literary speculations, project themselves to far horizons

I must fess up – the sonorous title for this post was borrowed from no less an author than Tanizaki Junichirō. Or rather from the English translation of his famous essay on Japanese aesthetics, In'ei Raisan (陰翳礼讃).

The shadow of Kaimon-dake

But the shadows we praise here are those that stretch away from mountain summits at dawn or dusk, like pyramids of twilight reaching out to infinity. All great summits – Mt Blanc, the Matterhorn – trail their attendant cones of darkness, and the famous mountains of Japan are no exception.

The shadow of Mt Blanc at dawn

As you’d expect, some set-piece shadows show up in Japan’s most famous mountain book. Here for example is the sunrise as seen from the top of Asahi-dake, a Meizan of Tōhoku:-

Thirty-four years before, we had saluted a peerless dawn there under a cloudless sky. Then, deeply impressed, we watched as Ō-Asahi unfurled its pyramidal shadow far across the Sea of Japan.

When the poet Yūki Aisōka, a native of Yamagata, climbed Ō-Asahi in his sixtieth year, he left to posterity these magnificent lines:

All my life I will treasure this memory
How the sun rose from the Pacific and touched the Ōu mountains
And, as it rose, how Asahi’s huge shadow settled over the Japanese Sea.

Having witnessed the scene for myself, I find this poem strikes a deep chord. (Nihon Hyakumeizan)

Shadow to infinity

And, at the other end of Honshū, there is a spectacular sunrise on Daisen:-

It was in the Renjō-in, a cloister attached to this temple, that the author Shiga Naoya stayed while he was writing his masterpiece, A dark night's passing (Anya koro). At the end of this book, the hero Tokitō Kensaku sets off to climb Daisen but gives up from exhaustion. A strange feeling of rapture overtakes him. In a masterly piece of description, he watches as the dawn breaks below him and Daisen's shadow slowly retreats over the land. "And so Kensaku watched with emotion this rare sight – the shadow of the proud mountain, the greatest in central Japan, etched boldly across the land." (Nihon Hyakumeizan)

To make amends for stealing Tanizaki’s title, I leafed through Nihon Hyakumeizan to see if the novelist gets a mention. Alas, he is cited but once in the book, and that is in the chapter on Ōdai-ga-hara-yama, which is at least a Kansai mountain. But the context has nothing to do with shadows.

When you think about it, allusions to Tanizaki were always going to be sparse in Nihon Hyakumeizan. If Fukada Kyūya was one of Japan’s best-loved outdoor authors, then the great chronicler of Kansai life was all about interiors. Tanizaki's most famous essay is a disquisition on the charms of shade and gloom within the traditional Japanese house:-

And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows—it has nothing else. Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows. (In praise of shadows)

At a deeper level, though, Tanizaki’s theme is the clash of old and new, tradition and modernity, Western brashness and Japanese taste. In short, it is an elegy for Japan as it once was. And that is a platform that the Hyakumeizan author would probably have endorsed wholeheartedly.

After all, Fukada was no fan of modernity when it came to the new roads, resorts and ski pistes that were even then gnawing into his beloved mountains. Here he is on Kita-dake, for example:-

In recent years, a tunnel for road traffic has been driven from the village of Ashiyasu under the Yashajin pass to Hirogawara in the Noro river valley. Its seclusion stripped away, Kita-dake is now easily accessible, a fact that some applaud and others bewail. You will find me in the latter party.

Before putting up this post, I took one more look at Tanizaki’s essay and found the following on the very last page:-

The author of “Vox Populi Vox Dei” column in the Osaka Asahi recently castigated city officials who quite needlessly cut a swath through a forest and leveled a hill in order to build a highway through Minō Park. I was somewhat encouraged; for to snatch away from us even the darkness beneath trees that stand deep in the forest is the most heartless of crimes.

So it may have been overhasty to categorise Tanizaki as entirely an indoor writer. Indeed, when it comes to eulogising the shadows beneath old trees, there’s very little daylight, so to speak, between his standpoint and Fukada’s. Perhaps the two authors had more in common than might appear at first sight.

Shadow of sunrise from the Aletschhorn

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mt Fuji at war

How Japan's mountain-top meteorologists rode out the dark years of early Shōwa

War comes to Mt Fuji 
War came to Mt Fuji on July 30, 1945. For months, the meteorologists at the summit station had watched streams of enemy aircraft drone overhead. And so they saw nothing unusual about the six-ship formation that roared past just after 8am. Until two planes peeled off from the main swarm and came howling in towards them. Seconds later, the spent cartridges came spilling from the fighters’ wings and the air was filled with noise, shattering glass and flying splinters…

In retrospect, one might say that the road to war started in the previous decade, on another fine summer's day. It was on August 1, 1932 that Japan’s Central Meteorological Office commissioned its first officially funded observatory on Mt Fuji. Gathered round the small summit hut almost four kilometres above sea-level – yes, that’s Satō Junichi in the photo below, standing in the hut's doorway – the weathermen must have felt themselves as far above the era’s murky politics and foreign policy as “clouds from mud”.

Inaugurating the Mt Fuji observatory on August 1, 1932
Yet the events then unfolding in China would one day embroil these men too. Ten months earlier, the Japanese army had invaded Manchuria. In an act of insubordination that was swiftly termed “gekokujō” (下克上), the local army officers made their move without getting authorization from either the government or, indeed, their own general staff.

Whether or not the military had inspired them, the meteorologists were soon moved to stage an act of gekokujō for themselves. This was because the government had seen fit to approve just one year of continuous weather observations atop Mt Fuji, as part of Japan’s contribution to the Second International Polar Year in 1932-33.

As a single year’s weather readings would be scientifically of little worth, the government’s stinginess made no sense to the weathermen. So, in mid-December 1933, when the last approved summit crew were ordered to bring down the portable gear when they finished their month-long shift, they fell to plotting. How would it be, they mused, if they just sat out the winter in the summit hut, continuing their work in a kind of high-altitude sit-in strike.

No excuses were necessary
The team leader – not to say ring leader – in this enterprise was Fujimura Ikuo, who later went on to head up the observatory in a meteorological career spanning three decades. At first, he and his crew cast about for some plausible-sounding pretexts for disobeying their orders – for instance, the slopes would be too icy to let them bring down delicate instruments, and so they’d have to stay on at the summit to look after the kit.

In the event, they made no such excuses. On arriving at the summit, they simply told the outgoing shift that they would stay until summer and keep up the observations. With that, Fujimura handed over a missive to the Meteorological Office’s directors and, together with his rebel crew, shut himself up for the winter. Fortunately, his resolve wasn’t put to the test. On New Year’s Eve, a telegram arrived from Fujimura’s superiors: “Observations temporarily extended; you are instructed to descend when relief crew arrives.”

The following September, the funding crisis was eased when a foundation set up by the Mitsui zaibatsu stumped up seven thousand yen. A year later, in October 1935, the government switched the summit station’s funding to the regular budget, so that it could continue operating indefinitely. To mark this promotion, the adjective “Provisional” was removed from the observatory’s designation.

Mitsui comes up
with the cash
The government also granted funds to build a new and improved hut close to Ken-ga-mine, Mt Fuji’s highest point – the buffeting airflow at the old site had interfered with pressure readings. There was even talk of a cable car to waft the relief crews effortlessly to the summit, although these plans came to nothing. But the new hut was duly opened in 1937 and one more building in 1940.

By 1944, Japan’s early successes in the war had become a liability. Lines of supply were overstretched. In fact, even keeping in touch with far-flung units of the Imperial forces had become problematic. Thus, the summit of Mt Fuji was the natural place for the military to look when seeking a better way to communicate with the radio relay station on Hachijō-jima, an island about 300 kilometres south of Tokyo. Better still, there was no need to build a new shed for the radio gear – they could house it in the meteorologists’ old hut at Yasu-no-kawara.

Furnishing a power supply was the biggest challenge. The plan was to sling a high-tension cable on poles between the city of Gotemba and the mountain’s 1,600-metre contour. After that, the cable would run underground all the way to the summit. The work of laying the cable was assigned to a squad of five hundred soldiers, who used ‘human wave’ tactics to complete the job in a blistering two weeks.

The new power supply brought more than one benefit – it put an end to the worst job at the summit station; cranking up the generator in winter. When the frigid temperatures had congealed the lubricating oil to candy-like stiffness, the duty man might be spitting blood by the time he got the motor started. Or, if the generator refused to start, the batteries would run flat, forcing the weathermen to cook by the light of candles. Once at least, the candles ran out too and rush-lights were rigged to burn the cooking oil, all this in temperatures of minus 30°C.

Soon the summit crews had more to worry about than scanty provisions and the icicles that formed in their sleeping quarters. Yajima Hiroshi had only just joined them on the mountain when he was called up for military service. On December 3, 1944, in a ferocious blizzard – the wind was gusting at a hundred kilometres an hour – Yajima set off with two colleagues to fight his way down to Gotemba. After that, he shipped out to Io-jima and was never seen again.

On March 13, 1945, one of the weathermen climbed the observation tower above the hut and, looking westwards in the direction of Nagoya, saw a reddish glow in the sky, beyond the shoulder of Akaishi-dake. Soon the spectacle would be repeated, and in almost all quadrants of the compass. Feelings of despair overcame the summit crews as, night after night, they watched these false dawns.

On July 18, five men from the army’s own meteorological service came up to the summit to launch weather balloons. Their brief was to check if the incendiary balloons then being launched by the military were flying high enough to ride the jet stream all the way to America. In fact, the balloons were already doing enough damage for the US authorities to impose a news blackout. One device even cut the power supply to the Hanford plutonium plant in Washington State.

Hacking ice from the instrument tower
By chance, it was at the end of the same month that the two enemy fighters made their strafing attack on the summit observatory. By a miracle, nobody was killed although some of the weathermen suffered bruises and scratches from ricocheting debris. And, although the 50-calibre bullets riddled the observation towers and smashed an instrument box, most of the precious equipment was unscathed.

In the end, Mt Fuji itself was a far more dangerous adversary than anything the Americans could launch at the meteorologists. The first casualty came in a snowstorm in April 1944, when 19 year-old Imamura Ichirō lost the way during a routine ascent as a member of the monthly relief crew. He stumbled blindly down the mountain before succumbing to exposure near the fourth-station level. The rescuers found him propped against a rock, as if he’d sat down to rest and never woken up.

The next mishap occurred in December 1946, when Koide Mutsurō slipped and fell from the ninth station. He was just 28. It is surely no coincidence that, of the four fatalities during the summit station’s six decades of operation, these two accidents closely bracketed the war’s end. As if climbing the mountain in winter was not already dangerous enough, the deck would have been stacked higher still against the weathermen by short rations, the blunted ice-axes and crampons, the lack of proper winter mountaineering kit.

Were these sacrifices worth it? This blogger cannot say what the Mt Fuji station might have added to the sum of meteorological knowledge. But by proving that men could survive and work in the extreme conditions of the summit, the summit crew did pave the way for a yet more ambitious project than year-round weather observations – the mountaintop radar that went into service in 1965 with the aim of saving thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of Japanese lives. This, though, is another story.


Fuji-san: oinaru shizen no kensho, Yomiuri Shinbunsha, 1992; also for images of summit hut, ice clearance and radar station.

Timeline for Mt Fuji's modern history, from the project to re-utilise the summit station.