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Fuji-san: reflections on Japan’s iconic mother mountain

by Stephen Mansfield

MOUNT FUJI: Icon of Japan, by H. Byron Earhart. The University of South Carolina Press, 2011, 238 pp., $40 (hardcover)

It is significant that in a country where nature has long been transfused with the numinous, that Japan’s most iconic image is neither a building nor a monument, but a mountain — Fuji-san.

The physicality of the peak is undeniable, but the true monumentality of Fuji lies in its symbolism. What the mountain stands for, as the author explains in this erudite but eminently readable book, is nothing less than the nation itself.

My first encounter with Fuji was in one of its countless representational forms in the precincts of a small shrine in the Tokyo district of Negishi, where ropes surrounded a mound of rocks covered in moss and lichen. Built of lava carried from the mother mountain, miniature Fuji replicas, known as fujizuka, were common in Edo, standing in as substitutes for people who, through infirmity or lack of funds, could not make the pilgrimage to the real mountain.

The writer has observed the mountain at close range for several decades, penetrating its core as both a climber and scholar. He divides his book into a geographical exploration, chronological journey, and conceptual inquiry. The mountain’s transition from a faintly menacing ash heap to a deity is only possible through the mediation of art, literature and devotion, subjects the author explores at length.

The conjunction of nature, religion and art in Japan are nowhere more manifest than in Fuji. Representations of the peak were often filtered through existing images, descriptions and oral accounts. Many paintings and scrolls were completed by artists who had never set eyes on the mountain. Like European painters, who created canvasses depicting empirically unproven images of paradise, these were visionary works.

The author outlines shifts of perception toward the mountain, reflected in poetry, as Chinese models, with their vision of nature as a setting for ascetic retreat and meditation, took hold of the imaginations of writers. Combined with Buddhist notions of spirituality, the mountain became the locus of a heady mix of beliefs and doctrines.

Earhart examines the special significance of the peak to cults and quasi-religions like Shugendo, or mountain asceticism, and the length to which its followers would go to demonstrate their devotion. One celebrated mountain ascetic, Jikigyo Miroku, a man of unassailable moral rectitude by all accounts, went as far as to undertake a ritual suicide, a dedicatory fast to the death on the slopes of the mountain.

Fuji’s transcendent quality, the notion that it was the most proximate peak to heaven, was never questioned, even when its destructive forces were unleashed. On Oct. 4,,1707, strange underground rumblings and intense tremors were felt in the city of Edo. Two days later Fuji, now enveloped in black smoke, began belching lava and ash from its cone. The sky above the city turned bright red and black cinders fell uninterruptedly on the city for the next two weeks, transforming the appearance of buildings and cityscapes. So dark was the city that people took to carrying lanterns during the daytime. Temples and shrines were crowded with people praying for divine intercession.

As the writer explains, Japan’s relationship to the mountain grew considerably more complicated in the Meiji Era, when it was co-opted as a symbol of nationalism, its matchless beauty and form endorsing the notion of a superior race. During the postwar Occupation, U.S. censors prevented filmmakers from including shots of the mountain, a recent symbol of Japanese imperialism.

The popularization of Fuji down the ages takes many forms, from serious depictions in art, as an object of worship and cultural icon, to the production of commercial kitsch, tiled bathhouse murals, cheesy trinkets and coffee table books. With a few exceptions, like “In the Shadow of Fuji,” Tim Street-Porter’s realist images of the peak, the majority of photo books remain tributes to the mountain’s beauty, papering over more pressing environmental concerns.

There is an irony in the mountain’s failure to gain World Heritage status because of the condition of its slopes. In the rusting toasters, coat hangers, bedsteads, and piles of yesterday’s abandoned technology that sully its beauty, we find evidence of the counter-spiritual values of a different age. Eyes may be more transfixed now on the Tokyo Sky Tree than Fuji, but the mountain, even when framed by housing estates, factory complexes, scrap heaps and amusement parks, retains the power to stop us in our tracks.

Earhart provides us with ample reasons to appreciate Japan’s mother mountain and, perhaps, in our own way, even revere it.