By Kiri Falls / Japan News Staff Writer A tea set is the last thing one expects to see among a mountaineer’s possessions, but at an exhibition currently running about Junko Tabei — the first woman to summit Mt. Everest — not one but two sets for making matcha are on show, complete with light, durable cups made of an unusual material: horsehair.
Held in the serene grounds of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi’s residence in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, the exhibition opens a window onto the private and professional life of one of Japan’s great alpinists.
The red suit she wore on the historic expedition to the world’s highest peak is on show along with several items that reveal the penny-pinching necessary for the first group of “women alone to Everest” — trousers sewn from curtains and over-gloves made from car seat covers.
However, a lack of funds was not the first hurdle met by Tabei and her fellow climbers. Even before the Himalayas were on her radar, Tabei had faced the obstacle of society’s expectations.
She hid her climbing from her mother, who worried she wouldn’t find a husband, and upon graduating from university in 1962, found that many climbing clubs discouraged or even excluded female members.
Tabei’s determination to pursue her love of the mountains also shines through in the first English-language publication of her writings, “Honouring High Places.” The award-winning book traces her life from her first experience of climbing Nasu-dake peak on a school trip, to a dramatic brush with death when several tons of snow and ice slammed into the team’s camp on Everest.
Born in 1939 in Miharu, Fukushima Prefecture, the youngest of seven children, Tabei graduated university in an era when most girls in her hometown didn’t finish high school. While most of her peers were marrying and having children, she used all of her spare time to climb, having discovered the balm of nature after a breakdown during her university days.
Unusual as she may have been for her time, Tabei thought of herself primarily as a housewife, although her partnership with husband Masanobu, also an accomplished climber, was an equal one. Tabei describes him carrying their daughter on his back, with a shopping bag full of green onions, as he took on the bulk of household work during her hectic months of preparation for Everest. “Masanobu helped keep the chaos at bay, and I was lucky to have found a husband like him,” she wrote.
The exhibition includes letters she sent to him and two identical red shirts they wore when climbing together.
“When she traveled abroad and had to write her profession, she wrote ‘housewife,’” former Yomiuri Shimbun journalist, longtime friend and fellow climber Setsuko Kitamura told The Japan News recently. “I would tell her: ‘You earn so much money because of your alpinist work, you should write that.’ She said her identity was housewife, but I said her social identity was different. After that she started to write ‘mountaineer.’”
However, Tabei’s insistence on her family being the primary part of her identity may have been a boon for women’s expanding role in Japanese society. Before the team of women left for Nepal in 1975, Tabei was often criticized for leaving her husband and 3-year-old daughter for several months to climb a dangerous mountain. At the time, “many people said a woman should not separate from her family,” Kitamura explained.
All that changed when the team returned from Everest in 1975, and she was met by a media frenzy. Now she was celebrated. “One reason was because she was a very normal mother with a standard family life,” Kitamura said. People began to feel that “even a good mother” could leave her family for a time to pursue something that gave her joy.
As fate would have it, 1975 was designated International Women’s Year by the United Nations. The team of 13 women couldn’t have seen that coming — they had been planning and training for years, receiving their permit from the Nepali government in 1972 for a 1975 attempt.
“People said it was impossible for women to climb a giant summit in the Himalayas,” Kitamura said. As the first group of women to tackle the peak, the team faced low expectations.
But for Tabei, climbing mountains was essentially a simple matter — she never considered herself to be extraordinary. Her quiet but steady perseverance stemmed from the motto, “If you keep taking one step at a time, you can reach the summit.”
One step at a time, she also changed the landscape for women in Japan.
Junko Tabei Retrospective (Tabei Junko Kaikoten)
Feb. 6 to Feb. 25. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Entry fee: ¥300 or ¥150 for elementary and junior high school students (group discounts available).
Junko Tabei’s son Shinya Tabei will give a talk on Feb. 19, 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. Up to 50 people, ¥1,500 with specialty Toraya sweets.
Telephone: (0550) 83-0747, Fax: (0550) 83-0778
Access: Former Kishi Residence, Higashiyama, Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture. Take the Odakyu Romancecar from Shinjuku to Gotemba Station, or highway bus from Tokyo Station, then a taxi for 10 minutes from Gotemba Station.Speech