Mount Fuji

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Podcast Transcript

Located on the island of Honshu, in the middle of the Japanese archipelago, lies one of the most important and iconic places in all of Japan, Mount Fuji.

Mount Fuji has held an important place in Japanese culture for centuries as both an important site in the native Japanese Shinto religion and as a subject for artists. 

Today Mount Fuji remains an important site for tourism and a subject for modern art forms such as manga comics.

Learn more about Mount Fuji, its history, and its significance on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Any discussion of Mount Fuji has to begin with geology because, without geology, there would be no Mount Fuji.

The Japanese archipelago is part of the Ring of Fire in the Pacific Ocean. It was created by the subduction of the Philippine Sea Plate beneath the continental Amurian and Okinawa Plates in the south of Japan and the subduction of the Pacific Plate under the Okhotsk Plate to the north.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous episode, these subduction zones often lead to the creation of volcanoes. 

Mount Fuji is located at a triple junction where the Amurian, Okhotsk, and Philippine Sea Plates meet. 

Mount Fuji is classified as a stratovolcano. A stratovolcano is a volcano that is built up over time with many layers. They tend to have very steep sides and are very symmetric.

Mount Fuji is the highest point in Japan at a height of 3,776 meters or 12,389 feet..

In fact, Mount Fuji is, in many ways, the archetype for a stratovolcano. If you wanted to show someone what a stratovolcano looked like, you could show them a picture of Mount Fuji.

If you remember back to my episode on Mount St. Helens, Mount St. Helens was considered to be Mount Fuji of North America because of its symmetric shape. 

Ever since humans inhabited Japan, they have had a relationship with Mount Fuji. At first, and for thousands of years, the relationship had to do with eruptions from the volcano.

In fact, what we see today as Mount Fuji is only about 10,000 years old. It was created when an earlier, smaller stratovolcano, known as Old Fuji, began erupting on the west side of the early mountain. The eruptions from the side of the old mountain eventually built up, covering the previous mountain, creating the Mount Fuji that we see today. 

The origin of the word Fuji is shrouded in mystery. Some claim it originates from early Japanese words for “without equal,” and some claim it comes from the word for “never-ending.”

Other scholars claim it comes from a word meaning “a mountain standing up shapely as an ear (?, ho) of a rice plant.”

The origins of the world has been speculated to have come from the Ainu or the Yamoto languages. 

The modern-day kanji characters used in Japanese for Fuji are the character for “wealth” and “man of status.” 

In Japanese, it will usually be referred to as Fujisan or Fujiyama. Both ‘san’ and ‘yama’ mean mountain. The use of “san” as a suffix is not the same as the use in Japanese names as an honorific. 

Since humans began keeping records in Japan, there have been ten to eighteen known eruptions of Mount Fuji over the last 1250 years, depending on how you define eruption.

The first recorded eruption took place on July 31, 781. The record of the eruption consists only of a mention of ash falling from the sky.

The most recent documented eruption took place in 1707. Known as the H?ei eruption, ashfall from the eruption was so severe that it reached as far as Edo, about 100 kilometers away, causing widespread damage to buildings and crops. 

The ash from the eruption caused a famine that year, as landslides and other blockages which prevented the movement of people, exacerbating the problem. 

While it has been 300 years since the last eruption of Fuji, it is not considered a dormant volcano. Many volcanos have erupted after centuries of inactivity. 

The religion which is native to Japan is known as Shinto. It is a religion that revolves around spirits and supernatural entities known as kami that inhabit places in nature. 

Mount Fuji holds a special place in Shintoism. 

At first, over 800 years ago, the mountain was only worshipped from afar. People were not allowed to approach it. The Asama shrine was established in the foothills near Mount Fuji to try to appease the spirits in the mountain from erupting. There are actually hundreds of Asama shrines in Japan, most of which are within line of sight of Mount Fuji. Those that don’t usually have some sort of depiction of Mount Fuji in the shrine.

In particular, Fuji was associated with the goddess Ko-no-ha-na-sakuya-hime.

In the early 12th century, people began to climb Mount Fuji as a religious act. Shines were built on the mountain during this period. 

During the Tokugawa Shogunate, samurai were trained at a remote camp on the slopes of Mount Fuji, and archery competitions were often held there.

One of the biggest changes in the Japanese perception of Mount Fuji took place in 1603 when the capital of Japan was moved from Kyoto to Edo, or as the city is known today, Tokyo. 

Fuji is only about 60 miles or 100 kilometers from Tokyo, and it can be easily seen in the distance on a clear day. 

When the emperor and the capital moved to Edo, Fuji became an even more important part of Japanese culture. Mount Fuji was something that the elite of Japanese society experienced on a daily basis. People traveling to the capital would pass by Mount Fuji on the T?kaid? road.

During the Edo period, a Shinto cult developed around the mountain known as Fuji-k?. The origins of Fuji-k? came from the Asama shrine located near Mount Fuji. 

Fuji-k? did exist prior to the Edo period, but shoguns suppressed it.  Likewise, it was also suppressed with the start of the Meiji period in the 19th century by mainstream Shintoism. 

There were three guiding principles of Fuji-k?: 

  1. If you do good, you are good; if you do bad, you are bad. 
  2. If you earn, you will be blessed and noble, and your life will be long without disease. 
  3. If you are idle, you will be poor, have sickness, and your life will be short.

One of the most important religious observances in Fuji-k? was the climbing of Mount Fuji. Even common people or those who didn’t follow Fuji-k? would climb Fuji. 

The most common practice, which is still often done today, is to climb the mountain at night so you reach the summit in time for sunrise. This is called Goraiko, which is the Japanese for “arrival of light.” 

At its peak, there were believed to be about 800,000 practitioners of Fuji-k?.

However, climbing Mount Fuji, for centuries, was forbidden to women. It wasn’t until the Meiji Restoration that women were allowed to climb the mountain. On May 4, 1872, the government issued the following proclamation that said, 

“Any remaining practices of female exclusion on shrine and temple lands shall be immediately abolished, and mountain climbing for the purpose of worship, etc., shall be permitted.”

The first woman to climb Mount Fuji, Tatsu Takayama, actually did it forty years earlier, technically violating the law.

Mount Fuji has played an outsize role in Japanese art. Some of the most significant Japanese paintings and woodblock art use depictions of Mount Fuji. 

The artist Katsushika Hokusai, usually just known as Hokusai, created a collection of prints titled Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji which he released from 1830 to 1832. Perhaps the most famous Japanese work of art, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, comes from this collection. He also published One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji from 1834 to 1835.

After the Meiji Restoration, the religious significance of Mount Fuji decreased, and it was seen more as a national symbol for Japan. Shintos still hold the mountain as sacred, but it is not to the degree that it was 200 years ago when Fuji-k? was still tolerated.

One fact about Mount Fuji that most people don’t know is that the peak of Mount Fuji is actually private property. With the Meiji Restoration, the government nationalized private Shinto shrines.

After the war in 1949, these lands were returned to the shrines…except for Mount Fuji. 

The Sengen Shrine, which used to own the peak of Mount Fuji, filed a lawsuit to get their land back, and they won the lawsuit in 1974. However, it took another 30 years for the land to finally be transferred.

Mount Fuji was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013, and today there are about 300,000 people who climb to the summit every year. The climb is more like a strenuous walk, and people of most ages can do it. The climb usually takes 5 to 10 hours going up and another 3 to four going down.

80 year old Jitsukawa Yoshinobu holds the record for the most ascents of Mount Fuji. He has summited the mountain over 2,100 times. After he retired, he began walking up to the summit twice a day to keep busy. His first trip to the summit didn’t occur until he was 42 years old.

At the start of this episode, I talked about the geology of Mount Fuji and mentioned that it hasn’t had an eruption in 300 years. One big question hanging over the mountain is if it could possibly erupt again.

Well, you can’t rule it out, and some geologists think that activity inside the mountain might be increasing. 

The massive earthquake that struck Japan in 2011 might have induced activity in the volcano. Modeling done by Japanese researchers indicates that the pressure inside Fuji today may be significantly greater than it was before its last eruption in 1707.

If a future eruption of Mount Fuji were to take place, we might only have a few months or weeks’ notice from when activity starts to take place to when an eruption occurs. 

If a major eruption were to take place, on par with the Mount Saint Helens eruption of 1980, it could potentially cause an enormous amount of damage in Tokyo, including shutting down transportation systems, communication networks, and the electrical grid. 

Estimates by Japanese emergency planners say that it could take three days for emergency vehicles to enter the city. 

Mount Fuji isn’t just an iconic symbol of Japan, it is arguably one of the most well-known and iconic mountains in the entire world. Despite its incredible beauty, it holds the potential for terrible destruction in the future.