SI Vault
 
No Mountain Too High for Her
Robert Horn
April 29, 1996
Junko Tabei defied Japanese views of women to become an expert climber
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 29, 1996

No Mountain Too High For Her

Junko Tabei defied Japanese views of women to become an expert climber

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

"I was shocked," Tabei says, recalling the upper levels of the mountain. "It wasn't green." The volcanic landscape and the freezing temperatures in summer appealed to her. Climbing also seemed to suit her physical condition and her temperament. "It wasn't like a competition," she says. "Even if you go slow, you can make it to the top. Or, if you must, you can quit at the middle."

If Tabei was captivated, she was not consumed. "Japan was very poor at that time," she says. "I couldn't think about climbing mountains, or any kind of leisure. We had to worry about what we would eat."

Despite Japan's tradition of explorers and adventurers, many of those who dared to strike out on their own paths—especially women—risked the fate foreseen in the Japanese adage, "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down." An adventurer's dreams were often not considered appropriate for a young Japanese woman.

Tabei made a few climbs in high school, but her goal was to go into teaching, an acceptable career for a woman. In 1958 she enrolled in Tokyo's Showa Women's University. After graduating in 1962 she joined several clubs that were primarily for men.

"Some of the men wouldn't climb with me, but a few older ones were more supportive," says the 4'9" Tabei. "Some thought I was there to meet men, but I was only interested in climbing."

It wasn't long before she had scaled all of Japan's major peaks, the highest of which is Mount Fuji, 12,388 feet above sea level. In 1965, around the time she climbed Tanigawa-Dake, near Tokyo, she met 25-year-old Masanobu Tabei, who was well-known in Japanese mountaineering circles. They were married when Junko was 27, despite the objections of her tradition-bound mother, who disapproved because Masanobu wasn't a college graduate.

In 1969 Junko formed the Joshi-Tohan (Women's Mountaineering) Club, the first of its kind in Japan. Her dream, like that of most climbers, was to scale the big peaks, but money and time—the Japanese get only about two weeks of vacation each year—held her back. Still, by 1970 she and her club felt ready to tackle Annapurna III. As group leader she was in charge of logistics, a daunting task for someone who had never been outside of Japan. Her shock at seeing the extremes of wealth and poverty, first in Calcutta, then in Nepal, was enormous.

She funded her passion for climbing by working as an editor on the staff of the journal of the Physical Society of Japan. Her job as group leader required asking a lot of questions, but many people in Japan consider this—to admit you don't know something—a sign of weakness. The image of the woman whose strength is her ability to remain silent is still powerful in Japan.

"When we began the climb we were determined to only show each other our strong sides," Tabei says. "When you are climbing a mountain, your life depends on the exact opposite. You can't be reserved and not say what you think or feel."

Several of the women on the Annapurna III ascent became sick from the altitude. Yet no one wanted to admit to weakness. Tabei was responsible for her fellow climbers, and she needed to know the truth about their conditions and capabilities. "You need to have a relationship where, when you're climbing, you can say, I need to go slower,' " she says.

Continue Story
1 2 3
Related Topics
  ARTICLES GALLERIES COVERS
Junko Tabei 1 0 0
Japan 507 0 3
Tokyo 195 0 2
Nepal 26 0 0
Mount Everest 27 0 1