One hundred and ten years ago this month, an extraordinary drama was playing out at the bottom of the world. In December, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had touched the South Pole for the first time in history, just weeks before Robert Falcon Scott arrived to find the Norwegian flag planted in the ice.
On January 6, 1912, as Amundsen slogged north toward a hero’s reception and the Briton Scott continued doggedly toward the pole, a third expedition reached the Antarctic coast in an undersized schooner, inexperienced, deeply in debt and roughly a year behind schedule. This was the Japanese Antarctic Expedition, conceived, organized and led by Lt. Nobu Shirase, a middle-aged Army reservist who had dreamt of polar conquest since boyhood.
After many setbacks, including seven months camped in Sydney Harbor waiting for the Antarctic sea ice to clear, even Shirase conceded the pole was out of reach. Instead he mounted a so-called “Dash Patrol” from the Bay of Whales to 80.5° South Latitude, at the time the fastest Antarctic sledge journey ever.
Almost no one outside Japan took notice. His expedition report wouldn’t be translated to English for another 99 years, while Scott and Amundsen’s epic race made headlines around the world. Not only had both reached the pole, but Scott and his men died stoically on the return, frozen and starving a mere 11 miles from a supply cache. Shirase could claim neither the pole nor a heroic tragedy. He brought his ship and all his men safely home to Japan, where his book flopped and he soon slipped into obscurity.
Exploring was a tough gig in Meiji Japan. At a time when Europe and America was enthralled with larger-than-life tales of intrepid explorers, Japan was focused on more practical matters. The nation had transitioned almost overnight from inward-focused feudalism to 20th Century imperialism, and was busy playing catch-up in the Great Game of nations. Its heroes were military men who made their names in wars with China and Russia, while explorers like Shirase found that gaining recognition, and especially funding, to be an uphill fight.
After all, when Shirase was born in 1861, just leaving the Japanese home islands was punishable by death. Shirase was seven when the last Shogun was overthrown, and a family friend began to share stories of great explorers with him. He was particularly taken by John Franklin’s heroically disastrous expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, and when he was 10 years old Shirase vowed to be the first to reach the North Pole. Half a world away in Norway, 15-year-old Roald Amundsen was similarly inspired by Franklin’s epic suffering, and set the same goal for himself.
Crossing the ice to a distant pole was a natural ambition for a bold and restless Norwegian youth, but for the son of a Buddhist monk in a country emerging from centuries of isolation, exploring the earth’s far frozen reaches was an unlikely dream indeed. Undeterred, Shirase set about preparing himself. Groomed from boyhood for the priesthood, he joined the Army instead, judging it a better springboard to a life of exploration. He prepared himself physically as well. He didn’t drink or smoke, and according to Stephanie Pain in the New Scientist, “He spurned the warmth of a fire in winter and refused hot food and drinks.”
He got the chance to test his mettle in true Franklinian fashion when he joined Captain Shigetada Gunji’s 1893 expedition to the Kuril Islands, a desolate archipelago north of Japan. The expedition spent most of the first winter hunkered in a cave, and 10 of the party died. When a relief boat arrived with five new members Shirase volunteered to stay another year, while Gunji left to seek glory in the new Sino-Japanese War. Three more men died before the settlement was abandoned in August 1895.
The experience left Shirase embittered, but no less committed to his goal of reaching the North Pole. What finally changed his destination, if not his mind, was the news in 1909 that American Robert Peary had claimed the prize. Shirase immediately shifted focus to the Antarctic, as did Amundsen. Scott had been seeking the South Pole for years.
In 1910, all three converged on Antarctica in wooden sailing ships, with plans to establish their camps on the coast during the Antarctic summer. Timing was critical, because any ship arriving too late in the season risked becoming trapped in the sea ice and crushed, as Shackleton’s Endurance would be in 1915. The expeditions planned to overwinter on the coast and strike out for the pole as soon as conditions allowed—September 1911 if all went well.
As Scott and Amundsen sailed south, Shirase was still scrambling to raise the necessary funds. He pitched the Japanese parliament with a mix of nationalism, economic interest and scientific imperative, but the government turned him down. Shirase’s dream seemed to founder until a samurai count and former prime minister intervened on his behalf. Shigenobu Okuma created the Shirase Antarctic Expedition Supporters’ Association and proclaimed himself its president. With this powerful ally Shirase managed to scrape together enough money to purchase a small schooner, which he reinforced with steel cladding and fitted with an 18-horsepower steam engine. Renamed the Kainan-maru, or Southern Pioneer, it would be the smallest ship ever to venture into Antarctic waters.
A crowd of some 50,000 gathered to cheer Shirase’s announced departure from Tokyo on November 29, 1910, but the Kainan-maru was not quite ready. The schooner left quietly the next day with a complement of 27 men and 28 Karafuto dogs from northern Japan and Sakhalin. They reached Wellington, New Zealand on February 8 and stayed three days, just long enough to top off their provisions and earn the scorn of the local press. Critics questioned the team’s bamboo sledges and exotic provisions. While Europeans marched on fat-rich pemmican, the Japanese had brought rice, pickled plums and dried squid. In a piece dripping with racist disdain, The New Zealand Times noted the expedition’s only guide to Antarctic waters was an 8-by-10-inch photograph of a British admiralty chart marked with the route of Ernest Shackleton’s 1907–1909 Nimrod expedition. Most of the dogs had died of ringworm en route, and besides that, they were running out of time. “Even with their determination and daring,” wrote The Press of Christchurch, “our Japanese friends are running it rather fine.”
The men sighted Antarctica in March but ice blocked every approach. After playing a bold and dangerous game with the fast-accumulating sea ice, Kainan-maru escaped north to Sydney, Australia. There Shirase’s men unloaded a prefabricated cabin and set it among the Eucalyptus trees in Parsley Bay, together with a couple of tents and a bath hut. As the expedition settled into these winter quarters, the dumbfounded Australians wondered what they were really up to. Newspapers ran stories suggesting the Japanese were scouting new sealing grounds, or perhaps casing Sydney Harbor for invasion.
The suspicion created difficulties for Shirase, who needed to repair his ice-scarred ship and resupply the expedition. Fortunately, a kindred spirit stepped in on his behalf. Edgeworth David was a Sydney geology professor recently returned from Antarctica, where as part of Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition he had led the first party to reach the magnetic south pole. Soon after the Japanese arrived, David spoke out publicly in their defense. “To raise an outcry against them on the purely imaginary grounds that they are spies is worse than inhospitable, it is sheer nervous stupidity,” said David, who also helped Shirase plan his expedition’s return to Antarctica.
While he and most of the crew stayed in Sydney, Shirase sent the Kainan-maru’s captain Naokichi Nomura and the expedition secretary back to Japan to continue fundraising and procure a new pack of dogs. There they met with Count Okuma and the supporters association, who agreed to the obvious: With Scott and Amundsen already established in Antarctica, any attempt to beat them to the pole was a fool’s errand. The supporters agreed to a new pair of goals, the fast-and-light Dash Patrol and an overland exploration of King Edward VII Land, an Antarctic peninsula whose steep cliffs and icy shores had thus far repelled all landing attempts.
From Japan, Count Okuma telegraphed Shirase with news that he’d secured sufficient funding to continue the expedition. “Go forth,” he added. “Set sail anew. Though you perish in the attempt, do not return until you have achieved your aims.” As the refitted Kainan-maru prepared to leave Sydney in November, 1911, David and other Australian supporters came aboard to wish the expedition well on their new mission. On this occasion Shirase presented the Australian with a letter of thanks and his sword, a katana forged in the 1640s.
The expedition reached Antarctica on January 6, 1911, some 14 months after leaving Tokyo. They weren’t alone; as they coasted westward they spotted a three-masted schooner in the distance. It was Amundsen’s ship, Fram, awaiting the Norwegian’s return from the Pole.
Kainan-maru dropped anchor at a respectful distance, and as Shirase set about bringing the dogs and sledges to the top of the Ross Ice Shelf in preparation for the Dash Patrol, he sent Captain Nomura and his second mate Yukihiko Miyake over the ice for a visit. The crews exchanged pleasantries, but neither had more than a few words of shared language, according to Susan Barr, a polar historian with the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage. “Nomura and Miyake were probably the first people outside the Norwegian group to hear that Amundsen and his men had reached the South Pole, but they do not seem to have grasped this important news.”
Shirase and his men spent the next days cutting a route up the nearly vertical Ross Ice Shelf. On January 20, Shirase began his southward dash with a team of four including two Ainu men from northern Japan, renowned for their dog-driving skills. In eight days, they covered 237 kilometers, a remarkable pace in comparison to earlier Antarctic expeditions. They were traveling light of course, and their food supplies were nearly exhausted. At 80°05′ South Latitude they raised the Japanese flag on a bamboo pole, and set a copper box containing the names of all the expedition sponsors in the snow. Then, according to Shirase’s official account, they cheered the emperor with hearty cries of banzai, and turned north for the coast. The return trip took just three days.
The Kainan-maru meanwhile sailed farther east than any ship had gone before on the Antarctic coast, and made what they believed to be the first landing in King Edward VII Land, where Scott and Shackleton had failed. (According to Barr, the Fram visited the area earlier the same summer, and three of Amundsen’s men scaled the cliffs and fetched the first rocks from the area.) Three of the Japanese managed to clamber up from the sea ice and two of them, Genzo Nishikawa and Chikasaburo Watanabe, marched south toward the Alexandra Mountains with nothing but the food they could fit in their pockets and a geological hammer to collect specimens. They travelled 60 kilometers in 30 hours, and returned to the ship exhausted but triumphant.
The Kainan-maru fetched the Dash Patrol and started for home on February 4, 1912. Shirase and the Japanese Antarctic Expedition arrived in Tokyo on June 20th, completing a voyage of 19 months. After a lifetime of trying, Nobu Shirase had mounted his successful polar expedition. Though he didn’t reach the pole, his was only the fourth expedition to travel beyond 80° South. He accomplished this with no prior experience or government backing, and made modest but significant scientific contributions. All that was let to do was pay for it.
Though he and his supporters had never stopped fundraising, the expedition was deeper in debt than ever, and Shirase himself was left holding the bag. After a welcome parade and brief flurry of publicity, he slipped into relative anonymity. He would spend most of his life repaying the debt. He sold his home, gave lectures and eventually returned to the Kuril Islands to manage a successful fur farm, finally managing to clear his accounts in 1935. He died in 1946.