Photo: scene from the film by Arnold Fanck, Die Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü, 1929
on how the recent Chinese Mt. Everest expedition brought back memories of a meeting in 1992 with German “alpinist” Rose Lesser … about mountain peaks, borders and conflicts, China, Japan, science, propaganda & imperialism, Arnold Fanck, indifference and ignorance …
In May 2020, media around the world reported China had sent an expedition to the summit of Mt Everest with the aim of determining the correct height of the mountain. Mt Everest had been declared a no-go zone for foreign climbers after the Corona outbreak in China, and the governments of both Nepal and China no longer authorized climbs. Of course, that ban did not apply to the Chinese government itself. For the first time in years, a Chinese “scientific” expedition was able to proceed undisturbed on a totally deserted Everest.
Chinese expedition to Mt. Everest May 2020
The context in which this Chinese government expedition took place remained somewhat underexposed in the Western media. China and Nepal have for years disagreed about the exact height of Mt. Everest, the dividing line between the two countries: in Nepalese calculations the mountain is 4 meters higher (= 8848m) than in the Chinese … The two countries as well as India conducted several missions over the past decades, which unfortunately did not result in an unanimous conclusion. During a visit to Nepal in the fall of 2019, Chairman Xi Jinping reached an agreement with his Nepalese hosts that the 2 countries would finally conduct a joint research to settle this highly important matter once and for all…
This Spring’s expedition of 53 members coming from different scientific disciplines, led by the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was apparently part of this joint initiative, even though no Nepalese were on the team: the data collected by the Chinese expedition are reportedly going to be studied in collaboration with Nepalese scientists in the coming months. The aim is to settle the summit’s heigth question in unison … The expedition has also gathered data on snow depth, weather changes and wind speeds, which will be analyzed to map glacier degradation and other environmental impacts of climate change, according to statements by the Chinese press.
Chinese expedition May 1960
What remained unmentioned in the Western media is that the Chinese mission took place exactly 60 years after a Chinese team first set foot on the summit. In April 1960, Nepal and China settled a border dispute over Mt. Everest with the signing of an agreement, in which the mountain was divided into a southern part, belonging to Nepal, and a northern part falling under to the so-called autonomous region of Tibet of the PRC. Two Chinese, Wang Fuzhou and a Tibetan, Gongwu, reached the summit for the first time in history via the north side less than a month after the border agreement, on May 25, 1960. And three years before the first successful American ascent of the mountain …!
That very first Chinese ascent has gained mythical proportions in Chinese historiography. In the West, doubts still linger about the official Chinese readings of the event. Qu Yinhua is said to have conquered barefooted a vertical rock on a steep section known as the ‘second step’ , close to the top. The 3 Chinese climbers reportedly had to form a human ladder to get to the summit, forcing them to take off their mountain boots because of the attached sharp crampons… a heroic act that is still widely revered in China … see next clip, a few minutes worth your time …!
The recent Chinese expedition followed the same northern route to the summit, but was supported by the most advanced China-made technology, such as the Beidou satellite navigation system, a rival to the US GPS. Part of the expedition was dedicated to the installation of a 5G base station at 6500 meters altitude by Huawei and China Telecom, a fine example of Chinese craftsmanship. It is now the highest located 5G base station in the world!
While the rest of the globe was still heavily suffering from the Corona pandemic, China was busy pushing its boundaries! Who better to showcase than Huawei, the embattled Chinese telecom giant? Was China perhaps trying to drive home to Western leaders its point that their countries would fall technologically behind if Huawei would be completely banned from 5G? At the same time, India became extremely suspicious of the Chinese operation: was not this whole scientific enterprise just a disguised Chinese attempt to claim sovereignty over the Himalayas? Was Xi Jinping again attempting to exert greater control over the Kingdom of Nepal? India and China have both been making frantic efforts to extend their influence in the remote mountain state for many years. The borders between China (Tibet), Nepal and India are still disputed … as has been shown again just about a week ago: dozens of fatalities have occurred in skirmishes between Chinese and Indian border troops ….
The picture of 2019
Mountaineer Nirmal Purja’s picture last Spring showing a long line of mountaineers, busily pushing their personal boundaries all the way to the top of Mt. Everest, was one of the most talked about photos of 2019. The traffic jam led to the death of several exhausted, in-experienced climbers who had to queue for hours at high altitude in thin air …. Over the past years more shocking news could be heard about throngs of poorly trained mountain climbers trying to reach the top, ignoring fellow climbers, sherpas or the environment…. Groundbreaking, indeed.
August 1992: Kawasaki, Japan
The recent Chinese expedition and that shocking photo from 2019 reminded me of a brief meeting I had about 28 years ago with Rose Lesser, an elderly German woman, who had lived in Japan for most of her life. I was introduced to her via an acquaintance, without too much background information. All I knew was she had lived in Japan for decades and taught German. In August 1992 I visited her at her home, in a small house under the smoke of the Saimyoji temple in Kawasaki. In a tiny, rather dark living room, with cupboards full of books and in a corner a simple desk with typewriter, I found a somewhat frail old lady, who received me most warmly. She was still very sharp, clear-minded and strong-willed: she observed me intently upon entering. When she learned that I had been able to study in China through a student exchange program, she nodded approvingly and said that with her “More Joy” foundation, she had devoted her life to cultural and educational exchanges to foster understanding between countries. In a raspy voice, she emphasized the importance of respect for people and nature. Lesser was a champion of environmental conservation and sustainability long before it became a hip and trendy topic.
The two enemies of the people
In our little conversation she also quoted her favorite life lesson: “mankind has only two enemies: ignorance and indifference, at home and overseas.” She said she was still busy translating classical Japanese writings using her old typewriter, though she had less energy than before. And she talked about how she had endured typhoons and earthquakes in Japan and spent a lot of time in the Japanese Alps around Nagano during her younger years.
I had often stayed myself in Matsumoto in 1992, not far from Nagano, which is why I think the Alps were mentioned in our conversation. The visit probably lasted no more than 30 minutes, and I can’t remember much more: when I said goodbye I received a business card and a signed booklet, published in 1957, entitled “Die Eigenart der Japanischen Alpen”, as a gift. It was the only and last time I would meet Rose Lesser: she passed away in 2002, several years after I had left Japan.
Why exactly did I think back to that meeting in 1992? I vaguely remembered ever hearing that Lesser’s Japanese husband had been a mountaineer during the interbellum period. Climbing in 2020 and a hundred years ago seemed two different worlds to me… The idea struck me that Lesser would turn in her grave seeing the traffic jams and garbage on the world’s highest mountain tops. I began to wonder who Rose Lesser was and how she had ended up in Japan. And had her husband indeed been a mountaineer? Time for some detective work …
The Young Rose Lesser
Rose Lesser was born in Berlin on March 24, 1908, and grew up in poor family circumstances. She had to give up her education in the 1920s in order to earn a living as a baby sitter. She later managed to get a job as a laboratory assistant at a microanalysis institute in Berlin Schmargendorf, led by Dr. Schoeller, and worked as a volunteer at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in the capital city during the weekends. There she met a Japanese student, who awoke her interest in the land of the rising sun. She took a chance and decided to travel alone to Japan by boat at the age of 21. In those days it was exceptional for a single Western woman to settle in far away, secluded Japan. The country hosted only a few Western communities around large cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nagasaki. Rose quickly found an office job, first at IG Farben in Kobe, then at the trading company Winkler & Co in Nagoya, the Japanese port city on the Pacific coast of southeast Honshu.
Office life offered little of interest to her, she was drawn to Japanese nature and mysticism, especially the mountains and the culture and folklore of the remote mountain communities. Rose began making trips to those isolated areas, including to Hokkaido and the Ainu living there.
The Ainu were / are the native inhabitants of Hokkaido and the northeast of Honshu as well as of the Russian Sakhalin islands. They lived in small communities of fishermen and hunters, did not speak Japanese and adhered to an animistic religion. The men were known for their long beards, the women for their tattooed lips (apparently to expel evil spirits and as a symbol of maturity) and forearms. Rose was one of the first foreigners to study the culture of Ainu.
Dr. Kenji Takahashi
On one of her wanderings in 1932, she met Dr. Kenji Takahashi, a geobotanicist at Kyoto University and founder of the Kyoto Academic Alpine Club in 1931. Co-founders included Kinji Imanishi and Eizaburo Nishibori, pioneers of Japanese mountaineering. Mountain climbing had only really taken off in Japan after Matthew Perry, commander of the United States Navy, forced the Japanese to open their doors to the West with his “gunboat diplomacy” in the mid 19th century. Foreigners were then admitted to Japan in tiny numbers. Some of them ventured into climbing.
The ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786 by two adventurous Frenchmen is widely regarded as the start of the golden age of mountaineering. But in the 2nd half of the 19th century, the mountaineer was no longer merely an adventurer, but often also a vassal of the colonial powers to help map borders, study flora and http://morejoy.seesaa.netfauna and enhance his country’s national status. In Japan, the climbs were initially limited to Mt. Fuji and the surrounding peaks near Tokyo, often organized by more experienced foreigners (yatoi gaikakujin). It was especially missionary cum rock climber or “mountain pastor” Walter Weston (1860 – 1940) who drew the attention to the Japanese Alps, the imposing mountain range that divides the island of Honshu in two, with several peaks rising above 3000 meters.
Alpine clubs in Japan
Kenji Takahashi was born in 1903 (Meiji 36) as the second son of a wealthy timber merchant in Kyoto. From the 1920s Takahashi began to take an interest in mountaineering in the Japanese Alps, becoming a buddy of Imanishi and Nishibori, more experienced climbers. Kenji was also an adept skier. Alpine clubs sprouted all over Japan, for example in Tokyo and Hokkaido, often founded by adventurous young students and scientists. At the same time, mountain climbing became increasingly a prestige battle between the great world powers. In the militaristic Japan of the 1930s, climbers – consciously/willingly or not – became an extension of the state. The Japanese authorities encouraged Alpine clubs to explore remote mountain areas to learn more about borders, resources, ethnicity, religions, languages and customs in preparation for the creation of a new East Asian order.
In particular the German and English expeditions of 1932 (Nanga Parbat) and 1933 (Mt. Everest) motivated young Japanese mountaineers to set new, foreign goals. Among other things, the Kyoto Alpine Club stated as its top priority to conquer all 14 of the highest mountain peaks in the Himalayas (> 8000 meters), which no country or club had managed to accomplish. The Himalayas became the arena for mountaineers from all over the world, pushing their boundaries for the sake of their nation and homeland …
Meanwhile, Rose and Takahashi got married in 1933, despite his parents’ objections. After the marriage, the parents avoided the couple, who together undertook many climbing and hiking trips in the Japanese mountains. Rose came to places and remote mountain villages that few Japanese or foreigners, let alone a woman, had ever seen. Most likely, Lesser can be considered the first Alpinist in Japan, although she probably focused more on trekking than conquering steep peaks. During her expeditions, she began to study and archive the traditions and customs of the isolated mountain communities.
Takahashi and his friends tried out new climbing techniques in the various rugged mountain regions of Japan. In the winter of 1934/35 they organized the first overseas Japanese expedition to the mythical Paektu Mountains (2744m) on the border of China and (present-day) North Korea. (see also https://www.mijngroeve.nl/history/borderline-cases-4-mt-paektu-dancing-on-the-volcano), to get used to extremely low temperatures and rapidly changing weather conditions. Mt. Paektu, which had fallen under the Japanese colonial sphere of influence, was still completely unknown territory. In addition to Korea, the Japanese army had also occupied Manchuria, China’s northernmost region, controlling it through a puppet regime. The thorn in the side of the military was that this remote region had not yet made any profit.
The “conquest” of the volcanic mountain Paektu received enormous attention in newspapers of Japan and Korea. The sizeable expedition, consisting of scientists from different disciplines (see overview), marked the expansion of the Japanese empire and national pride. The climb itself went smoothly and without too much danger due to the absence of very steep slopes, although the newspapers described extremely harsh weather conditions and attacks by mysterious bandits, animals and soforth… Japanese science and technology had triumphed over nature in an area depicted as very inhospitable, strange and hostile. Any superstitious or skeptical Japanese citizen was left reassured by the messages from the media: Japan and modern Japanese sciences could compete with those of the West …
Next Kyoto’s Alpine club set its sights on the Himalayas, more specifically on the K2 and Kabru peaks. General Ito left for India to obtain permission for this Japanese operation. Yet it was not Kyoto, but an expedition from Rikkyou University from Tokyo, which was the first to conquer a peak in the Garhwal Himalaya (Nanda Kot, 6816 meters) in 1936. Kyoto club apparently did not get the permits in time and had to cancel planned expeditions twice: then the impending World War II threw a spanner in the works. More and more young men were drafted into the army …
In 1936, Rose received a telegram in her hometown Kyoto instructing her to hurry to Uzumasa, Japan’s Hollywood near Kyoto. Renowned German director Arnold Fanck, the pioneer in the genre of ski and mountain climbing documentaries and films in the 1920s, had moved to Japan. Fanck owed his fame to his spectacular sport and nature scenes on location, which were created under difficult circumstances using unusual camera positions. A novelty which stirred international awe and furore, see also http://www.polylogzentrum.at/weltprojekt-der-berge/dokumentation/realitaet-und-virtualitaet-der-berge/the-artistic-films-of-arnold-frank/
In the mid thirties after -reportedly- a fall-out with Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels, the filmmaker accepted an offer from the Japanese government to come and shoot movies in the Far East. Rose was appointed as Fanck’s secretary, her language skills and knowledge of Japanese culture helped the German director in making arrangements with the Japanese authorities and crew.
Fanck’s stay resulted in three films, “The Daughter of the Samurai” (1937), a German-Japanese co-production, “Winter Journey through South Manchuria” (1938), and “Imperial Buildings in the Far East”. This Japanese-German co-production also symbolized the rapprochement between Nazi Germany and the Japanese empire, although serious conflicts between Fanck and the emerging Japanese co-director Mansaku Itami produced 2 versions of “the daughter of the Samurai”.
The German version mainly shows how an European viewed Japan, and is full of clichés about traditional Japan and abash with pathetic melodrama. The camera work keeps the film upright. The German and international public only got to see the German version. It was very poorly received by the Japanese government, as Japan was insufficiently portrayed as a modern country and nation in the eyes of the Japanese military. Apparently, the Japanese edit “新 し き 土 (Atarashiki Tsuchi or New Earth)”, done by the apolitical liberal Itami, was disliked even more by the authorities. The film was banned by the Japanese government after a premiere in Tokyo in February 1937, during which Fanck begrudgingly had to accept that not his but Itami’s version was shown. It marked the end of the career of the talented Itami, who refused to talk about this propaganda film ever again ***.
Fanck utilized very modern and unusual film techniques for those times, which in the end he did not hesitate to put to use for the glorification of the Japanese and especially German regime and their ideals. Until his death in 1974, Fanck – like Leni Riefenstahl, one of his colleagues and debut actress in his films – remained extremely controversial for his work shortly before and during World War II.
The “daughter of the Samurai” tells the story of Yamato Teruo, who returns to Japan after 6 years of study in Germany. Teruo is the adopted son of an an old samurai family, who is expected to marry the eldest daughter (played by Setsuko Hara). But Teruo falls in love with a German journalist Gerda (Alice Ludwig) whom he meets on the boat trip to Japan. He reveals this secret to his adoptive father. Gerda, the prototype Aryan blonde averse to mixed marriages, convinces Tetsuo of his duty to Japanese culture and tradition and forces him to reconcile with his adoptive family. A suicide attempt by the eldest daughter on the edge of a volcano can thus barely be prevented, and the reunited couple, together with their baby, settle in Manchuria, under the watchful eye of the glorious Japanese army, which bravely defends the territory against the approaching Russian Bolsheviks.
World War II
Rose and her husband Takahashi must (perhaps?) have considered the German film a bit odd or uncomfortable in view of their own choice for a mixed marriage and subsequent breakup in the relationship with Kenji’s parents. For lack of information it’s difficult to judge how Rose and Kenji thought about current developments in Germany and Japan and how they viewed the fascist ideology at that time. The few writings of Rosse Lesser that I own do not provide many insights.
Her book, “Japan, die Fremde, Japan die Heimat” from 1976, containing a collection of poems that she wrote from the late 1920s, confirms that she did see both film versions. In the afterword of the same book, she accuses the Japanese director Itami of sabotaging the film premiere in Tokyo in 1937, by putting forward his own, “less artistic” Japanese version, at the cost of Fanck’s version. On the other hand she praises Fanck’s artistic craftsmanship (she dedicates a poem to Fank’s return to Germany in 1937 as well), who introduced Japan to a large Western audience, which was up to that time largely unfamiliar with the rising power in Asia. In 1976 Rose wrote: “how this film, which was made in the time of militarism, should be judged remains an open question..”
Her poems from the 1930s are mainly characterized by a “Heimatlosigkeitsgefühl”, by the confusion of living between two worlds and cultures, the German and Japanese. Only sporadically a few signs of the impending doom can be read between the romantic, sentimental lines . In a poem written in honor of a German youth gathering in Nagoya in 1939, she urged visitors not to speak about things that pleased the Fuehrer, and above all not about things that Hitler didn’t like. In other words, political discussion was taboo that evening. .
It seems plausible that Lesser, like so many, held a fairly a-political attitude and philosophy of life in the 1930s, without fully realizing what disastrous consequences excessive nationalism and imperialism could have. If she was worried about the future, she -like most ordinary citizens- may have felt powerless to change the course of events, being sucked up into a chain of incidents and happenings beyond her control.
It is easy to assume that the aforementioned life lessons of Lesser mainly grew out of her personal experiences from the mid-1930s till the end of the World War II: it is hard to seperate her relentless drive after the war to increase understanding between (Asian) countries from the black page in German and Japanese history and the related worldwide devastation. Perhaps that urge also stemmed from a feeling of guilt, of considering herself to have been too indifferent and ignorant to what was really happening in “die heimat” as well as her new homecountry in the 1930’s.
Move to Tokyo
Shortly after their daughter Elizabeth was born in 1940, Takahashi contracted tuberculosis. Eventually he was confined to his bed in their Kyoto home. He escaped military service as a consequence, although that might have been of little comfort. His daughter was kept away from him as much as possible while his health continued to decline. Immediately after the war, Rose started a job teaching German from home, as she urgently needed money to look after her husband, daughter, and a Japanese foster child, Erika, whom she adopted into the family. In 1947, Kenji finally died after his grueling illness: Rose decided to move to Tokyo, where she had a better chance finding a well-paid job. She became a German teacher at Hosei University, as the only woman and foreigner. In addition, she was appointed to Nihon University, where she remained active until the late 1970s. She taught numerous Japanese and foreign students in her long career.
Rose published articles in Japanese and German on the Japanese mountains, culture and folklore, and translated classic Japanese works on beliefs and superstition in rural and mountain areas of Japan. In 1955 she created the “More Joy” foundation, to promote cooperation and understanding between young people in Asia, also focusing on combating environmental pollution and preserving nature. She traveled extensively to South Korea, China and Southeast Asia, working to improve Japan’s heavily clouded relations with its neighbors. She moved mountains to blur boundaries between people and bring teenagers from different countries and cultures closer together.
At my meeting in 1992, Rose Lesser had already had an eventful life and career, which I (unfortunately!) knew little about. One of her last notable achievements in the 1980s was the organization of an anti-smoking campaign that led to the non-smoking carriages on Japanese trains/subways. That feat was perhaps minor compared to all the work she had done at the university and through her foundation for Japan and the world at large. In 1999 she was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz by the German government in recognition of all her achievements and contribution to the Japanese-German cultural relations and the international understanding between countries and peoples.
Nowadays mountaineering is predominantly a sport for men and women who are keen to push their own limits. Fortunately, nationalistic sentiments play a less important role, for most people it is mainly about the thrill of climbing. Unfortunately, that kick often threatens to degenerate into a kind of exhibitionistic and self-centered mountain tourism, with little respect for nature, surroundings and even fellow climbers. Today’s mountaineering is heavily suffering from an overdose of indifference.
Xi Jinping, on the other hand, still sees mountaineering as an ideal opportunity to promote China’s technical prowess and to enforce its sovereignty claims over various remote border areas: it sort of resembles what the colonial West and militaristic Japan did in the past … Ironically, Xi Jinping’s China is indeed having quite a bit in common with the so much despised Japan of the 1930s-1940s, which combined technological advancement with nationalist sentiments, expansionist urges, and a plan for a new Asian order. While there still was some (overt) domestic Japanese criticism of the regime in Japan until the war with the US broke out in 1941, in the PRC Xi barely tolerates to be contradicted on his rather megalomaniacal political and economic ambitions such as the Belt & Road initiative. Worryingly, a large part of the Chinese population often seems/is indifferent to or ignorant of the deeper motives and intentions of its supreme leader.
Suffice it to say, to really explore or push boundaries you certainly do not have to stand in a traffic jam on a mountain ridge nor plant a national flag in a mountain peak, that much the life story of Rose Lesser at least tells us…
*** there are two versions of Tochter des Samurai: Arnold Fanck’s version in German, mainly intended for the German and international market. The melodrama caught on internationally and turned actress Setsuko Hara into a star. Itami’s Japanese version “Atarashiki Tsuchi (new earth)” disappeared from circulation very quickly and can be found – fully restored – in the national Japanese film archive. Itami died in 1946 and felt pressured by the government in 1936 to co-produce the film. He refused to say anything about this movie until his last day. Itami’s son, Juzo Itami, is the Japanese director of the beautiful film Tampopo, the best movie ever about (preparing) noodles!
PS: In 1899, the Japanese government classified the Ainu as “former aborigines” and appropriated their country with the instruction that the Ainu should fully assimilate into Japanese culture. The government also granted Japanese citizenship to Ainu, which meant that it no longer had the status of an indigenous people or culture. The Ainu had to learn Japanese and give up their animistic beliefs and habits such as tattooing. Modern farming methods and activity were imposed on the Ainu, traditionally fishermen and hunters. The Ainu culture became increasingly marginalized. Only in 2008 (!) did the Japanese government find the courage to recognize the Ainu as the native inhabitants of Japan. An Ainu political party has existed since 2012, and the opening of an Ainu museum on Hokkaido was originally planned for April 2020 (see https://ainu-upopoy.jp/) shortly before the start of the now-postponed Olympic Games in Japan.
Little is known about the role of the Ainu in the first Japanese mountaineering expeditions on Hokkaido in the 1st half of the last century. The Ainu are most likely the uncrowned and unsung heroes of climbing like the Sherpas of the Himalayas , but have never received the attention and respect they deserve.