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Remembering A Forgotten Hero, Lt. Nobu Shirase
By Chet Ross
Lt. Nobu Shirase commanded the Japanese Antarctic Expedition (JAE) of 1910-1912
during the Heroic Era of exploration. He was on the ice during the same time, at generally the
same place, and seeking the same goal, as Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Shiraseâ€™s
expedition was the first from an Asian nation to undertake Antarctic exploration, he was
considered a hero in Japan, and Shirase is arguably recognized as Japanâ€™s most famous explorer.
Although there are several Antarctic land features named as a result of discoveries made by
various parties of the JAE, across the bibliographical landscape defining polar literature,
publications related to Nobu Shirase and the JAE are all but invisible. Given that his expedition
was significant, that he was afforded a heroâ€™s welcome by tens of thousands upon his return to
Japan, and that the expeditionâ€™s story is fascinating, why has it been overlooked for 100 years?
Trying to uncover an answer to that question was the beginning of my research that
eventually culminated in writing a bibliography of works published by and about Nobu Shirase
and his Japanese Antarctic Expedition. The bibliography concluded with almost 50 entries of
first person narratives, biographies, overviews, analyses and non-free standing publications
pertaining to Shirase and the JAE. During the year since publication, several more Shirase and
JAE related publications have been identified, so there exists a wealth of publications
originating from Japan, Australia, Germany, Scotland, France, England and the United States.
The expedition had received global attention early in the 20th century, but interest and
notoriety were fleeting, and Shirase was soon forgotten with few books or substantial works
being published for public consumption. There was a brief upsurge around the time of Shiraseâ€™s
death in 1946, but these books were all in Japanese. The Shirase bibliography, published in
October 2010, less than two months before the 100-year anniversary of the JAEâ€™s departure
from Tokyo Bay for Antarctica, became the first book written in English about Shirase and the
JAE in a century.
So why was Shirase overlooked and under-recognized for over 100 years? One possible
answer might be expressed in a simple statement: Shirase was a victim of bad timing, domestic
circumstances and international prejudices. That statement could provoke a great deal of
elaboration, but only certain factors will be touched upon here. An in-depth accounting of
many reasons for this short-lived recognition can be found in a recently completed doctoral
dissertation entitled â€śThe Forgetting of a Hero: The Antarctic Explorer Shirase Nobuâ€ť written
by Brendan McInnes. McInnesâ€™s 334-page work is an acute analysis and thought-provoking
document that discusses various reasons why Shirase has been overlooked and nearly forgotten
both in Japan and internationally. Regardless, McInnes and I agree that Shiraseâ€™s exclusion from
studies, particularly of the Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration, cannot be justified.
Much of the material published about the Japanese Antarctic Expedition was written in
Japanese, and several of the early narratives are in old-style kanji, the imported Chinese
character system. None of these publications have been translated into English in over 100
years. The exception to this would be McInnesâ€™s work as it provides numerous translations of
specific areas from several accounts resulting from the Japanese Antarctic Expedition. McInnes
points out that the two most significant publications, Shiraseâ€™s narrative Nankyoku Tanken
[Antarctic Expedition], and Nankyoku-ki [Records of Antarctica] produced by the Japanese
Antarctic Expedition Support Committee â€“ often termed the â€śofficial accountâ€ť â€“ had two very
different intents. The first printing of each account was produced in the same year, and Shirase
would not have wanted a conflict of interest. So Shiraseâ€™s narrative, Nankyoku Tanken, was a
dramatized narrative produced in an effort to raise money to help pay off the enormous debt
incurred as a result of the expedition. On the other hand, Nankyoku-ki was the factual record of
the expedition containing detailed reports of the scientific work. Nankyoku-ki was not intended
for general readership but instead geared to scientists and scholars. As a result, Nankyoku-ki had
a very limited audience and probably sold few copies. Nankyoku Tanken portrayed Shirase as
the â€śarchetypal adventure heroâ€ť (McInnes p.245), but unfortunately for Shirase, cultural
attitudes shifted shortly after the expeditionâ€™s return producing a mindset in Japan that did not
desire or require hero figures. The result was Shiraseâ€™s account drew much less interest than he
had hoped, resulting in low sales for the publication.
Oddly, another cause for Shiraseâ€™s fading recognition was his association with Japanâ€™s
Count Okuma. Okuma was a former premier and founder of Wasada University, and he was
also the chairman of the Japanese Antarctic Support Committee. But according to McInnes,
Count Okuma was simply an opportunist with a known proclivity for discarding people once
they were no longer of service. â€śShirase benefited enormously from Okumaâ€™s patronage in the
public arena, and indeed it is more than possible that the expedition would not have gone ahead
were if not for Okumaâ€™s skill in courting both press and public. Nevertheless, this same
association with Okuma may have had negative consequences for Shirase and his expeditionâ€ť.
(McInnes p.194). Okuma attempted to manipulate the energy surrounding Shirase and the
JAE before the expedition in an effort used to regain his lost political standing. Okuma also
benefited from his association with the overwhelming enthusiasm surrounding Shirase upon his
return from the Antarctic. This association helped overshadow strong negative opinions
resulting from the embarrassing Japan-British Exhibition scandal that occurred during this time
period. But not long after his return, Shirase was abandoned by his supporters, leaving it up to
him to sustain interest in the JAE and pay the enormous debt owed as a result of the expedition.
Outside of Japan, Shirase and the JAE have often fallen victim to a selective use of
statistics. His achievements are frequently assessed using such metrics as how long he stayed,
how many men participated, how far they reached inland, how many new discoveries and
scientific reports were produced, whether or not they achieved all of their goals, how large,
small, or ill-equipped their ship may have been, etc. The metrics may be inherently unjust as no
explorer or expedition was equal, and each was unique in their own right. In actuality, three
expeditions were on the Antarctic continent at the same time, and each attempted to reach the
South Pole; two made it to the Pole, and one did not; one group of pole seekers died, and two
survived; one expedition lost several men, and two lost no men; two of the expeditions were
self-supported by their expedition leader, and one had its countryâ€™s monetary support; two
produced scientific research, and one did not; etc. A participant is a participant, and no country
or expedition should be excluded from receiving their due recognition. All expeditions during
the Heroic Era required years of effort to plan, large amounts of money to execute and varying
degrees of human and animal sacrifice to achieve whatever each ultimately accomplished.
Another reason for the lack of attention to the JAE was that internationally, there was
sometimes the delicate issue of wariness and prejudice toward the Japanese that threaded
through the early twentieth century and well past the Second World War. Biases permeated
several of the 1911 Australian and New Zealand newspaper articles about the expedition when
Shirase and his crew had to wait out the southern winter in Sydney Harbour. â€śThe appearance
of the vessel and what could be seen of the equipment leads one to believe that nothing so
serious as a dash for the Pole is part of the plan for the expedition,â€ť wrote one typically
suspicious Sydney reporter. Preconceptions certainly contributed toward foreign
misunderstanding and later ignorance of the expedition. Shirase was, in fact, interested only in
Antarctic science and exploration and in bringing the pride of accomplishment to the Japanese
people. In these respects, Shirase and his men were no different than the men of the Belgian,
British, Scottish, German, Swedish, French, Norwegian, and Australian Antarctic expeditions
of the same era.
One other obstacle to enduring recognition was bad timing. Shiraseâ€™s expedition began
shortly after the Russo-Japanese War and returned home just before the beginning of World
War I. Soon after Shiraseâ€™s return in 1912, Emperor Meiji died after reigning for over 45 years
â€” an event that captured the attention of the entire country, and also accelerated profound
cultural changes already underway in Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century. Shirase
died in 1946 shortly after Japanâ€™s defeat in World War II, so little recognition was afforded him
after his death. Finally, and in just over three months after the 100th year anniversary of the JAE
departure from Tokyo Bay, Japan suffered from a massive earthquake and resultant tsunami
leaving over 20,000 dead or missing. This was followed by the immediate and long-lasting
effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster â€” an event that will preoccupy the entire country for
years. So today, as after his return from the Antarctic, or after his death, any celebrations related
to Shirase and JAE are overshadowed by current events in Japan.
What did Shirase the JAE achieve during their time in the Antarctic? In addition to that
already mentioned, Captain Nomura of the expedition demonstrated an extraordinary feat of
seamanship as he sailed an underpowered, meagerly equipped vessel more than thirty thousand
miles without sustaining any crippling damage or losing a single crewman. The official report
on the expedition, compiled by Shirase and the Antarctic Support Committee in 1913, listed
ten summary accomplishments, including scientific research, discovery of new lands, experience
in navigating Antarctic waters and land, and demonstrating Japanese seamanship to the world.
One item in the list particularly stands out: â€śSuch a determined expedition in peace-time
encouraged the morale of the nationâ€ť. Shirase had provided Japan with a new kind of national
hero and role modelâ€”one who was not a warrior or conqueror or political figure, but an
ordinary man who had accomplished the extraordinary through relentless determination and
courage â€” a description that could be applied to any other explorer who ventured to Antarctica
during the Heroic Era of exploration.
Nankyoku Tankentai Taika
The Song of the Antarctic Expedition Team
by Keiichi Tada, JAE secretary and flutist
So, our destination is the great ice field in the South at the end of the earthâ€™s axis.
Our ship is the famous â€śKainanâ€ť (Southern Explorer), loaded with an important mission.
There is no need to fear the many hardships that may come to us in moving through the ocean.
Many difficulties will come to us as we follow the mountains and rivers, but we need not worry.
Our team bears the hopes of seventy million of our compatriots.
Our team will go forward with the eyes of our country on us.
Letâ€™s go bravely and put the sails up in the sunrise.
Letâ€™s move forward without looking back, with our sleek dogs in attendance.
- Crew of the Kainan Maru
References and Acknowledgements
Âş McInnes, Brendan Neil, â€śThe Forgetting of a Hero: The Antarctic Explorer Shirase Nobuâ€ť,
The University of New England, Armidale, October 2009.
Âş â€śFrom the Antarctic Japanese Expedition,â€ť Morning Herald, Sydney, May 2, 1911.
Âş Shirase, Nobu, â€śThe First Japanese Polar Expedition,â€ť The Independent, New York, October 3, 1912.
Âş Hamre, Ivar, â€śThe Japanese South Polar Expedition of 1911-1912: A Little-known Episode in
Antarctic Exploration,â€ť The Geographical Journal, London, November 1933.
Âş Shirase, Nobu, et al, Nankyoku-Ki, Tokyo: SeikĂ´ Zasshisha, December 1913, Appendix 5.
Translation by Dr. Seiya Ueda
Âş Shirase, Nobu, Nankyoku Tanken, Tokyo: Hakubunkan, January 1913
Translations from â€śThe Forgetting of a Hero: The Antarctic Explorer Shirase Nobuâ€ť
by Brendan McInnes, October 2009.
Âş Shirase, Kyoko, Yukihara e yuku: Watashi no Shirase Nobu. Konoura, Akita, Japan:
Nankyoku Tanken Taicho Shirase Nobu Tsuishoukai., 1986
Translations from â€śThe Forgetting of a Hero: The Antarctic Explorer Shirase Nobuâ€ť
by Brendan McInnes, October 2009.
Âş Kenjo, Tsunabuchi, Shirase Choi Nankyoku tankenki, Shinchosha, Tokyo, 1983
The Song of the Antarctic Expedition Team by Keiichi Tada
Translation by Rupert Summerson, Moko Eade and Noriko Sakai of Canberra, Australia.
Âş Ross, Chet, Lieutenant Nobu Shirase and the Japanese Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1912 â€”
A Bibliography. AdĂ©lie Books, Santa Monica, CA, October 2010