Small Country, Big Impact: A Short History of Japanese Alpinism

It is difficult to find mountains in the Himalaya or the Karakoram that do not have a route opened by Japanese climbers. Japan also has more first ascents in the Himalaya than any other nation. But do they get enough credit outside of Japan for their achievements? Here, we look at the fascinating history of Japanese alpinism.

Number of first ascents in the Himalaya, by country.

Number of first ascents in the Himalaya, by country. Table: Hume/The Himalayan Database


Big names, big awards

The prestigious Piolet d’Or, awarded annually since 1992, counts 11 Japanese mountaineers among its honorees. Notable names include Kazuya Hiraide (three times), Kenro Nakajima (twice), the late Kei Taniguchi (Hiraide’s climbing partner and the first woman to win the Piolet d’Or), and Yasushi Yamanoi. In 2021, Yamanoi received a Piolet d’Or Lifetime Career Award.

And it’s not just alpinists. There’s rock climber Yuji Hirayama, unstoppable since the 1980s, and sport-climbing champions Akiyo Noguchi and her husband, Tomoa Narasaki.

At ExplorersWeb, we have written about, or touched on, several exciting tales from Japanese mountaineering history. These include Trango, Gyachung Kang, Latok IV, K2, Gurans Himal, Namcha Barwa, Jitchu Drake, and Minya Konka.

Little information outside of Japan

However, outside of Japan, it is nearly impossible to find a book about Japanese mountaineering. Instead, we often rely on expedition reports from the American Alpine Journal and the American Alpine Club, as well as the memoirs of western mountaineers who recount their experiences with their Japanese colleagues.

Legendary Japanese climber Naomi Uemura stands in a fur hood with a pack of huskies and a sled.

Legendary Japanese climber and arctic adventurer Naomi Uemura. Uemura disappeared on Denali during a solo winter climb in 1984. Photo: Nippon


In Japan, climbing articles frequently appear in magazines and in the reports of mountaineering clubs. There are plenty of novels and biographies, too. The Japanese Alpine Club and Asian Alpine News work hard to publish accounts in English.

Japan also has a wealth of mountaineering historians, including Tamotsu Nakamura, Tsunemichi Ikeda, Yasuji Yamazaki, and Kinichi Yamamori. Their writings have eloquently probed the development of Japanese mountaineering.

A young shirtless man climbs on a sheer rockface, high above the trees.

Yuji Hirayama climbing ‘Seance tenante’ (8a) in Verdon, in 1988. Photo: Yuji Hirayama

Japan and its mountains

Approximately three-quarters of Japan is mountainous and there are 12,955 named mountains. None is higher than 4,000m and none have glaciers.

A map of the Japanese Alps showing the relative positions of the northern, central and southern alps.

The Japanese Alps. Photo: Alpico


Though low, the Japanese Alps have served as a training ground for generations of mountaineers. Often, the best move on to attempt bold lines on the world’s highest peaks. A few years ago, Hiroshi Hagiwara wrote for the American Alpine Club:

“The Japanese Northern Alps are not practically high, but winter presents formidable challenges. The proximity to the sea brings harsh, moist winds laden, and nighttime snow accumulations of a metre or more are common.”

He added that completing the Northern Alps’ Kurobe Traverse in winter “is like a graduation test for Japanese alpinists.”

The birth of Japanese alpinism

Culture, local traditions, and religion have all influenced Japanese mountaineering. The two major religions both prominently feature mountains.

The Shinto gods include kamis. These are sacred spirits that can take the form of wind, rain, mountains, or trees, among other things.

Buddhism, introduced into Japan from China in 538 AD, included such religious practices as placing statues of Buddha on the summits of Japan’s highest mountains.

Rocks surrounded by water and decorated with prayer flags.

Prominent rocks are worshipped as “kami”. Photo: Japan Guide


Enno Ozunu, a seventh-century Japanese Buddhist monk, may have been the first to climb a major mountain in his homeland when he summited Mount Fuji. There is no proof of his ascent, but Japanese historians consider it valid.

In 1907, when the first Japanese surveyors climbed Mount Tsurugi Dake in the Northern Alps, they found relics from eighth-century monks.

Mountaineering comes to Japan

In 1888, modern mountaineering reached Japan via English clergyman and missionary Walter Weston. Weston spent 15 years in Japan. During his stay, he started climbing its mountains. In 1896, Weston published Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps. Together with educator Edward Bramwell Clarke, he promoted recreational mountaineering in the Japanese Alps.

An aerial view of the Japanese Alps showing a few snowcapped peaks and a blue sky.

The Japanese Alps. Photo: Wikipedia


Soon after, in 1900, the first book on the Himalaya appeared in Japan. Une Parisienne Dans L’Himalaya was the work of Marie Ujfalvy-Bourdon, a French ethnographer, who had accompanied her husband, Hungarian linguist and ethnographer Karoly Jeno Ujfalvy on his research expeditions to the Himalaya and Central Asia. The translation of this book into Japanese introduced the people of Japan to the Himalaya.

A drawing of Marie Ujfalvy Bourdon and her dog, drawn standing in the wilderness.

Marie Ujfalvy Bourdon. Illustration: Gaston Vuillier


Ekai Kawaguchi explores the Himalaya

Buddhist monk Ekai Kawaguchi traveled to Tibet and Nepal in the late 19th century. He dedicated his time to studying Buddhist books and wanted to translate Chinese texts into Japanese. In 1897, at the age of 31, he decided to leave for Tibet.

First, he headed to Darjeeling in India. Here, he stayed for several months and learned the Tibetan language. Kawaguchi then crossed Nepal to Tibet, thus becoming the first Japanese person to enter that forbidden country, long closed to foreigners. He disguised himself as a Tibetan monk and traveled along less frequented routes.

The route of Ekai Kawaguchi

The route of Ekai Kawaguchi. Map: Asian Alpine News


During his long trip, he gained a reputation as a doctor. He finally reached Lhasa in 1900 and was even received by the Dalai Lama. He crossed numerous high Himalayan passes with poor equipment and almost zero knowledge of the terrain. After his trip, he published Three Years in Tibet.

Ekai Kawaguchi statue at Shichidou-station in Osaka, Japan, showing a man in Tibetan dress hiking.

A statue of Ekai Kawaguchi in Osaka, Japan. Photo: Tsem Rimpoche

The birth of the Japanese Alpine Club

A snow covered Mount Hotaka in the Northern Alps.

Mount Hotaka (3,190m) in the Northern Alps. Photo: Wikimedia


The Alpine Club began in 1857 in London. It was the first club of its kind in the world. In 1902, the American Alpine Club was founded. Three years later, in 1905, the Japanese Alpine Club was born. Inspired by the Alpine Club, Walter Weston helped create this Japanese counterpart.

From the Japanese Alps to other ranges

Three years after the founding of the Japanese Alpine Club, the country’s mountaineers began to carry out the first winter expeditions in the Japanese Alps. It was an ideal staging ground to develop their skills, adopt new ideas, and try new equipment.

Around the country, students founded university climbing clubs, and Japanese mountaineers started to look abroad. One of the first to climb overseas was Yuko Maki, founder of the Alpine Club of Keio University.

Japanese climber Kinji Imanishi sits on the summit of Mount Meru, Tanzania between two local guides.

Kinji Imanishi (1902-1992) on the summit of Mount Meru, Tanzania in 1958. Photo: Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto


Yuko Maki made the first ascent of the Mittellegi Ridge (east ridge) of the Eiger (3,967m) on September 10, 1921. After a difficult 13-hour ascent, he reached the summit with three Swiss guides, before descending via the west flank. This achievement had a huge impact on Japanese mountaineering.

The Mittellegi Ridge of the Eiger with two climbers picking their way along the edge.

The Mittellegi Ridge of the Eiger. Photo: Cosley Houston


In 1925, the first overseas Japanese expedition went to the Canadian Rockies. Again, Maki played an important role. Six Japanese climbers and three Swiss guides made the first ascent of Mount Alberta (3,619m) on July 21, 1925.

During the ascent, they had to deal with steep ledges for more than 16 hours. On the summit, they left an ice ax to mark their success. Twenty-three years later, climbers making the second ascent of Mount Alberta found part of the ice ax.

Mount Alberta in the Canadian Rockies covered in snow.

Mount Alberta (3,619m) in the Canadian Rockies. Photo: Alpine Club of Canada


The first Japanese Himalayan successes

A five-man Japanese team, led by Yaichi Hotta, made the first ascent of Nanda Kot (6,861m) in the Indian Garhwal Himalaya in 1936, via the northeast ridge.

Nanda Kot in the Garhwal Himalaya on a clear day.

Nanda Kot, Garhwal Himalaya. Photo: John Patton


On June 3, 1950, French climbers Louis Lachenal and Maurice Herzog famously made the first ascent of an 8,000m peak, topping out on Annapurna. The news spread quickly. It spurred Japanese climbers to follow in their footsteps. After climbing Aconcagua and reconnoitering Annapurna IV, Japanese teams set their sights on Manaslu for their first 8,000m peak.

In 1952, a Japanese team led by Kinji Imanishi scouted the West Side, the North Col, and the East Ridge. Then, in the spring of 1953, 15 Japanese climbers and two Sherpas reached the North Col at 7,750m. Because of the difficulty of the route, they did not reach the summit.

One year later, another team of 14 climbers wanted to attempt Manaslu again. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of the nearby village of Samagaon would not let them climb. The villagers were angry, believing that the previous expedition had displeased the gods, who had then punished the area with strong avalanches. One avalanche destroyed a monastery and killed 18 people.

A man sits in front of a stupa in the village of Samagaon, Nepal. Mountains rise up behind.

Samagaon. Photo: Sajid Ali Sadpara

Finally, the summit

Undeterred, a Japanese team returned in 1955 to negotiate with the inhabitants. They donated money to rebuild the monastery, and their diplomacy bore fruit. Finally, in the spring of 1956, a 12-man team under the leadership of Yuko Maki was able to attempt the first ascent of the Spirit Mountain.

Seven Sherpas accompanied this 1956 group. Going up the northeast face, Toshio Imanishi and Gyaltsen Norbu Sherpa reached the true summit of Manaslu on May 9, 1956, using supplemental oxygen. Two days later, Minoru Higeta and Kiichiro Kato also summited.

Toshio Imanishi on the summit of Manaslu in 1956 with his ice ax in the air.

Toshio Imanishi on the summit of Manaslu in 1956.


In 1974, nearly two decades later, a Japanese women’s team led by Tsune Kuroishi summited Manaslu. Naoko Nakaseko, Masako Uchida, and Mieko Mori topped out on the true summit using O2, while Nepali Jangbu Sherpa climbed without bottled oxygen.

In an article written for The Himalayan Club after their climb, they explained that there was some dispute between Jangbu Sherpa and the rest of the team as to which peak was the true summit. “We, [the] Japanese members, had seen that true peak many times in the photos taken by the Japanese party 18 years ago,” they wrote.

More great feats

Numerous Japanese expeditions to the Himalaya, Karakoram, and the Hindu Kush have made many first ascents of 7000’ers and high 6,000’ers since the late 1950s. Building on their success on Manaslu, they opened tough new routes on several 8,000’ers, too.

On May 16, 1975, Junko Tabei became the first woman to climb Everest, accompanied by Ang Tshering Sherpa.

The southwest face of Everest against a clear blue sky.

The Southwest Face of Everest. Taken at 5,300m from Gokyo Ri. Photo: Wikimedia


There was also a serious Japanese attempt on the Southwest Face of Everest in 1970 (reaching 8,050m). On K2, the 1990 Japanese route along the Northwest Face/Northwest Ridge has not been repeated to this day.

Other important routes opened by Japanese teams include the second ascent of Makalu by a new route on the Southeast Ridge in 1970; a new route on Manaslu on the Northwest Spur in 1971; the first ascent of the South Pillar on Dhaulagiri I in 1978 and the first ascent of the Southeast Ridge of Dhaulagiri I the same year; and the first ascent of the West Ridge of K2 in 1981. On that last climb, Eiho Otani of Japan and Nazir Ahmad Sabir of Pakistan topped out simultaneously, hand in hand.

There were many first ascents of dangerous 7,000’ers too, including Chamlang, Dhaulagiri IV and V, Gyachung Kang, Api, Himalchuli, Baltoro Kangri, Langtang Lirung, Latok I, and Latok III.

The south ridge of Langtang Lirung wrapped in wisps of cloud.

The south ridge of Langtang Lirung (7,234m). Photo: Summitpost


Tragedy as well as glory

But it wasn’t all summits and glory. Japanese alpinists also suffered several tragedies on the giant peaks.

Dhaulagiri’s Southeast Ridge is extraordinarily difficult. It had first been attempted by an American party in 1973 but was not completed. Seven members of a Japanese team (six Japanese and one Sherpa) made its first ascent in October 1978. Led by Seiko Tanaka, the team consisted of 18 Japanese members and three Sherpas.

On September 23, an avalanche killed Yujiro Fukasawa, Hiroshi Akuzawa, and Kiyoshi Kobajashi between Camp 4 (6,450m) and Camp 5 (6,900m). On October 20, the climbing leader, Katsuyoshi Kogure, fell on a fixed rope while ferrying loads between Camp 4 and Camp 5. With no way to mount a rescue, he hung there until he died.

In 1989, a Japanese team from Hosei University, led by Yasuo Katsuyama, attempted to climb Langtang Lirung (7,227m) via the southeast ridge. The peak was first climbed on October 24, 1978, by Japanese climber Seishi Wada and Nepali Pemba Tshering Sherpa via the Langtang Glacier-East Ridge route.

The 1989 team consisted of 13 members but soon lost three climbers. On March 21, a slab avalanche hit four of the team at 4,900m. It pushed them 600m down the slope. One climber miraculously survived, but the other three perished. The team only found two of the bodies.

Kris Annapurna

KrisAnnapurna is a writer with ExplorersWeb.

Kris has been writing about history and tales in alpinism, news, mountaineering, and news updates in the Himalaya, Karakoram, etc., for the past year with ExplorersWeb. Prior to that, Kris worked as a real estate agent, interpreter, and translator in criminal law. Now based in Madrid, Spain, she was born and raised in Hungary.