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Japan: Is it wrong to climb Mount Fuji empty-handed?

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it matter if it made a sound or not when the tree was doing its own thing? Blogger Mojix ponders mountains, morals, and messages in a Japanese post titled “Is it wrong to climb Mount Fuji empty-handed?“.

Note: The post was translated in its entirety with permission from the blogger. All links were added by Tomomi Sasaki for reference.

Mount Fuji / 富士山(ふじさん)

Photo of Mount Fuji by Flickr user TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋) under a Creative Commons Attribution license

Excerpt from the Yomiuri Online article “Man climbs Mount Fuji empty-handed on a whim, needs help”, published July 3rd, 12:07: (Note: the article is no longer online)

July 2nd, 21:45 – A man called the police from the Eight Station on Mount Fuji [altitude: 3,250 meters], saying “I’m climbing Mount Fuji but didn’t come with a flashlight. It’s too dark to see the road and I’m scared. Please help me”.

Six mountain rescue workers from the Fujinomiya Precinct of Shizuoka Prefecture Police headed out around 23:30 and rescued the man who had climbed down to the Sixth Station [altitude: 2,490 meters] by himself. The man had no injuries. According to the Precinct, he is a 22 year old pachinko parlor worker from Nakano Ward in Tokyo. He had started climbing Mount Fuji from the Fifth Station on the Fujinomiya Course around 17:00. Upon reaching the Ninth Station [altitude: 3,460 meters], he gave up and began to descend before calling for help with his cell phone when it became dark.

The man was wearing a long sleeved shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He was empty-handed; he wasn’t carrying any food or equipment. The climbing season for Mount Fuji started on July 1st but the temperature around the Sixth Station is 2 degrees Celcius. The man had no climbing experience and was apologetic, saying “I started climbing on a whim”. The Precinct stated, “One wrong step and it would have been a matter of life and death. We’d like everyone to come fully prepared, even for summer mountains.”

View this graph for a visualization of the altitude of each Station in the article “A guide for climbing Mount Fuji and enjoying Mother Nature” from the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Mojix goes on to explain his viewpoint after the excerpt.

To an experienced climber, attempting Mount Fuji without any gear is ridiculous. They might say, “Don’t underestimate mountain climbing!”. Be it Mount Fuji or the South Pole however, I think that the decision is fundamentally one that should be left to the individual.

I bet there are lots of folks that climb Mount Fuji empty-handed. It becomes newsworthy like this when an incident occurs but many people probably return unharmed. Perhaps they even come back thinking, “Oh, that was much easier because I wasn’t carrying anything”.

Now, the problem is when a person gets lost or almost dies. They then require rescue, which incurs a cost to society in general. Even if a rescue attempt isn’t made and they perish, a dead body can’t just be left up in the mountains. It's a burden either way and society foots the bill.

The issue isn’t about climbing Mount Fuji without equipment. It’s about “not being able to take full responsibility of one’s actions” and “causing problems to society” when something happens.

On the other hand, if a person can take full responsibility and not cause problems, nothing should be prohibited, not even the most foolish undertaking.

The rescued man was purposely described as being “a 22 year old pachinko parlor worker from Nakano Ward”. The description of his outfit with the comment “not carrying neither food nor equipment” leaves the reader with the impression that he is a carefree, perhaps even reckless, fellow. Think about it, though! People will get lost when they get lost and die when they die… even powerful executives and high level bureaucrats, and even in full gear. In fact, it could be said that an experienced person might be more at risk because of false confidence.

What it boils down to is that this type of article is one form of “public service announcement”. If more people start climbing Mount Fuji without the proper equipment, the chance of trouble increases and the cost of rescue missions starts to pile up. So, they tell us to be properly equipped when climbing Mount Fuji. It’s like those Moral Education classes in elementary school, but all throughout the year and utilizing the mass media.

A prohibition to climb Mount Fuji without equipment doesn’t really affect our freedom. However, the influence is more widespread when the topic is restriction on Konjac jelly manufacturing, selling medicine online, hiring temp workers, or terminating employment contracts. The government’s position is usually to promote stricter restrictions for these kinds of topics. Therefore, any news with a “public service announcement” flavor takes the angle of “Disasters occur because there are no restrictions in place. If we make rules, we can prevent these disasters.” The disadvantages, cost, or unfairness that would arise from such rules do not receive any mention.

While there’s no denying that the man took a foolhardy action, making a point of mentioning that he was “a 22 year old pachinko parlor worker” gives off the air of a carefully designed public service announcement. Had the man been an executive or high ranking bureaucrat, I very much doubt that this would have hit the news at all.

Thanks to Ziggy Okugawa for helping with the translation.

7 comments

  • charles

    “In fact, it could be said that an experienced person might be more at risk because of false confidence.”

    This statement is completely absurd, regardless of one’s stance on the issue. Try telling this to someone climbing Mt. Everest. Would the author suggest a climber leave behind his or her sherpas and guides, because they would instill a false sense of security/confidence? This statement reflects an attitude of an armchair general/quarterback.

    To address the main question of the article, whether people should be free to do idiotic things, my response is “Yes, as long as it will only bring harm to the individual performing the action.” If someone is permitted to sell “medicine” online, and that “medicine” is actually harmful to people’s health, then that is an example of an idiotic action that affects a large number of people. On the other hand, if it is stated outright that the “medicine” being sold may be harmful, and people buy and use it anyway, that is an idiotic decision being made by the consumer, and they should be free to do so. It’s not government’s responsibility to be our nannies.

    On the other hand, sometimes the issue is more complicated – what if the individual is a single mother raising 3 children? So my response is simplistic and doesn’t apply to most cases.

    • Hi charles,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Yes, it’s very difficult, maybe even impossible, to define the boundaries of “harm” and “only to the individual”… even more so when it involves death. A complex balance of maximizing freedom and protection.

      Regarding the statement about experience, I think it’s an exaggerated comment meant to stress that experience will help but sometimes, bad things will happen no matter what!

  • Hi Tomomi,

    Thanks for the information about climbing Mt. Fuji. (I might try it this year or next year!)

    I heard there are people selling food and water in these stations on the way, and I guess that is why so many people climb Mt. Fuji empty-handed.

    I do not understand the management of Mt. Fuji. In addition to the vendors in the stations, Mt. Fuji is only open for two months in a year, and there is no serious capacity restriction during the two months.

    Although we talk about personal responsibility here, I think the management department for Mt. Fuji should discuss their responsibility as well. (I do not refer to the fuzzy idea of a ‘government.’ The specified job for the management department is managing the tourism.) For example, they may install a lot of signs on the gates and on the way up, reminding us that we should be careful about the weather and time, as well as we should have enough clothes, raincoats, food, water, and flash lights.–If they already did these, we should think if there are more efficient ways to warn the climbers.

    Because of the education and advertisement, Mt. Fuji becomes something other than a mountain, and I think this is why people do not prepare well for it. I believe everyone knows that we should prepare well for climbing a high mountain. The problem here might be that people consider Mt. Fuji as something like a temple instead a very high mountain. If we are aware that Mt. Fuji is a high mountain, we would be more careful.

    Hopefully the information I provided here is correct. Please do not hesitate to correct me.

    • Hi I-fan Lin,

      Nice, let me know when you’re in Japan!
      You’re correct that the mountain is only open for two months and everyone that wants to climb it is free to do so, resulting in a very crowded mountain during the summer vacation period.

      > The problem here might be that people consider Mt. Fuji as something like a temple instead a very high mountain.

      This is a very interesting point. I think for Japanese people, the image of “Mount Fuji = the highest mountain in Japan” is very strong but on the other hand, it’s something that is very close to our hearts. The familiarity definitely makes it less scary.

  • Question: Why is being a pachinko parlor worker significant?
    I’m referring to the last few sentences of the post, including: “Had the man been an executive or high ranking bureaucrat, I very much doubt that this would have hit the news at all.”

    • Hello Prabhas,

      This is a matter of perceived social standing. The image would be that the man is a transitory worker in an unsavory gambling place, and not a “respectable” citizen with a stable job.

      Tomomi

  • […] The changing values of an increasingly inward-looking society manifested in different ways – bigger trends such as decline of students studying overseas, or individual articles, as a blogger contemplated over slow suicide in an ageing society and another pondered over morals in the context of climbing Mount Fuji. […]

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