February 1, 2004
February 1, 2007
Japan is one of the world’s most mountainous countries, so it’s not surprising that mountain worship is an historic element of Japanese culture. And of all the mountains in Japan, Mount Fuji stands out as a unique cultural symbol. At 12,388 feet, Fuji is Japan’s tallest mountain. It’s easily recognized and greatly admired for its perfect volcanic-cone shape, which many liken to an inverted fan. Japan’s two major religions, Shinto and Buddhism, regard Fuji as sacred, and Japanese from all walks of life attest to the power of this natural symbol so deeply inscribed in the national psyche. Unlike many other sacred mountains, belief dictates that this one should be climbed, and hundreds of thousands of people, both religious adherents and tourists, climb Fuji every year. This popularity has caused a pollution problem so severe that it has prevented Mount Fuji from being a candidate for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site. As Japanese citizens and nonprofits work to clean up their beloved mountain and obtain World Heritage status, scientists and government agencies are tackling another challenge. For the first time in 300 years, this active volcano may soon blow its top—and Japan must be prepared to handle this potential disaster. Japan’s sacred history and national identity are tied to this mountain, which, as author Edwin Bernbaum explains, “symbolizes the quest for beauty and perfection that has shaped so much of Japanese culture, both secular and sacred.”
The Land and Its People
Mount Fuji is a composite volcano, growing larger as layer upon layer of lava and ash built up on its slopes. Like its geologic history, Mount Fuji’s sacred history has also developed over time as different religions, beliefs and myths have added new layers. Since ancient times, the mountains of Japan have been revered as sacred places, giving rise to a tradition of beliefs and rituals that scholars call sangaku shinko, meaning “mountain creed.” When Shinto, the native religion of Japan, emerged sometime before the sixth century A.D., it wove this mountain creed into a wider veneration of nature. According to Shinto belief, natural features such as trees, lakes, streams, rocks and mountains are the dwelling places of spirits called kami, which hold influence over human affairs and respond to human prayer and ritual. Kami are believed to be concentrated in mountain areas, and shrines have been erected to mark sacred spots. The introduction of Buddhism from China in the sixth century further developed the practice of mountain worship as Buddhists, who viewed mountain climbing as a metaphor for the spiritual ascent to enlightenment, adopted Shinto sacred mountains as pilgrimage destinations. In the ninth century, a religious sect called Shugendo arose that based its doctrine and practice on mountain climbing itself, believing that practitioners could commune with deities on mountain summits and thereby obtain supernatural powers.
The name “Fuji” most likely came from an indigenous Ainu word meaning “deity of fire”—not surprising for a volcano that erupted often. In about 800 A.D., a shrine was built near the base of the mountain with the hope of placating the god that caused the volcano’s eruptions. Fuji later became regarded as the dwelling of the Shinto goddess Konohana Sakuya Hime, “the Goddess of the Flowering Trees.” Today, she is still the principal deity of the sacred mountain, revered in Shinto shrines at Fuji’s base and summit, including the one originally built for the older fire god, and honored in a fire ceremony at the end of each year’s climbing season. Buddhists found in Fuji an inspiring symbol of meditation and called its summit zenjo, a Buddhist term describing a perfect meditative state. Buddhists also came to regard Fuji as the abode of the Buddha of All-Illuminating Wisdom. In the 14th century, Shugendo practitioners established the first climbing route to lead pilgrims to Fuji’s summit. Four centuries later, Fuji-ko, societies devoted to the worship of Fuji, became a major religious movement and inspired thousands of people to embark on annual pilgrimages. Those unable to make the climb used lava sand from the mountain to create miniature Fujis in home gardens and Shinto shrines.
Today, pilgrims, including members of Fuji-ko, still climb Mount Fuji. Some stop to worship at the shrine of Konohana Sakuya Hime, pray at the summit altars or ritually circumambulate the volcano’s crater. Others make the climb out a sense of tradition rather than genuine Fuji worship, but the mountain’s strong mystical appeal continues. Mount Fuji is also an important religious center: nearly 2,000 religious organizations are based around the mountain, including one of Japan’s largest Buddhist sects. Although visitors climb Fuji year-round, the official climbing season runs from July 1 to August 31. During this time, Japanese and international tourists far outnumber pilgrims, and restaurants and lodging huts open at the summit and at stations along the route to cater to these visitors. Some 200,000 people climb Mount Fuji every year during the high season.
Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts
Since hundreds of thousands of visitors climb Mount Fuji each year, pollution, caused primarily by tourism, has been an issue of great concern for those who revere the mountain. In the 1960s, Japan built a highway halfway up the peak, unleashing a tourism boom that over the course of decades has fouled Fuji and its environs. Trash—from food wrappers left behind by visitors to tires and old washing machines dumped by locals—is evident from Fuji’s base to its summit. And with thousands of people spending an average of 10 hours a day on the mountain during the climbing season, Fuji requires a significant waste-management system. Unfortunately, that system has consisted of collecting human waste in storage tanks and dumping it down the mountain when the climbing season closes, leaving “white rivers” of toilet paper and a horrible stench.
In the early 1990s, the situation compelled local citizens and environmental groups to seek protection for Fuji by petitioning to have the volcano declared a World Heritage site of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). But after a visit in 1995, UNESCO representatives concluded that although Mount Fuji was worthy of World Heritage listing, Japan first would have to solve the pollution problems and implement an effective management plan.
Japanese citizens and organizations responded by launching clean-up campaigns. Each year thousands of people—Japanese families, students, environmental groups and corporate employees, along with foreign volunteers—converge on Mount Fuji to pick up trash. In 1998, environmentalist and mountain climber Toyohiro Watanabe founded the Fujisan Club to combat Mount Fuji’s pollution problem by organizing cleanup efforts, raising public awareness and building alliances with “sister mountains” in other countries. The club sponsors clean-up days throughout the year; in 2006 volunteers picked up nearly 80 tons of trash. It is also working to clean up and curb the dumping of industrial and household wastes in the forests at the base of Mount Fuji. In 2003, club members began using global positioning system devices and cell phone cameras to assemble a detailed computer map of the waste sites to aid clean-up. The “Mount Fuji Environmental Rubbish Map,” which includes photos of dump sites, is posted on the club’s Web site with the idea that dumping might be deterred if people know these activities are being monitored.
In response to the sewage problems, the Fujisan Club has set up bio-toilets along the route to the summit. The toilets use cedar chips and microorganisms to break down human waste, and since 2002 several have been installed. The Japanese government is also taking steps to clean up Mount Fuji’s human waste-management problem. In 2004 it introduced incinerator-type toilets at Fuji’s summit. These toilets convert a large volume of human waste into a small quantity of ash—about 25 grams for every thousand people—which can then be easily disposed of. More bio-toilets are also being installed. Both toilets require a small fee for use, which helps fund upkeep. It is expected that all 48 of the mountain’s toilet sites will be eco-friendly by March 2007. Observers say the new toilets will boost Mount Fuji’s bid for World Heritage site recognition.
Watanabe spearheaded the 1990s campaign to designate Fuji as a World Heritage site, and the Fujisan Club continues those efforts. Through the Sister Mountains program, launched in 2003, the club has linked with the national parks of Mount Rainier in the United States, Mount Ngauruhoe in New Zealand, and Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia. The Ngauruhoe and Kinabalu parks are both on the World Heritage list, and Rainier is known for its well-preserved environment. Beyond building public awareness, Watanabe hopes that his group will be able to learn from the management practices of these national parks and help the Japanese government apply them to Mount Fuji, ultimately enabling the mountain to obtain World Heritage site protection.
While the challenge of cleaning up Mount Fuji has been at the forefront of public attention and action, the possibility of a near-future volcanic eruption is a threat that poses far greater consequences. In fall 2000, Japanese scientists began detecting a surge in activity inside the volcano: a significant increase in small tremors—more than 200 a month compared to prior averages of 10 per month—and the movement of magma, possibly toward the surface. This activity, the scientists said, indicated that the volcano could possibly erupt sometime soon. Mount Fuji’s last eruption, in 1707, lasted 16 days and produced a 6-mile-wide cloud of smoke and ash that blocked out the sun in some areas. A government report issued in 2002 said a new eruption could spew lava, debris and ash over hundreds of square miles—threatening nearby villages, cutting off electricity and water supplies, and disrupting road, rail and air travel. Resulting damage could cost up to $21 billion. Experts cannot predict when the next eruption will occur. They do say, however, that it is a question of “when,” not “if.” Although eliminating the threat of volcanic eruption is outside human control, scientists and government authorities are taking steps to mitigate the potential effects of such a disaster. Teams of earthquake experts and volcanologists have conducted tests—including detonating explosions below Fuji’s surface—to map the volcano’s internal structure and determine the paths that magma might take if an eruption occurs. Based on current research, as well as data from the 1707 eruption, experts have been able to create potential hazard maps, and local governments are using this information to develop detailed evacuation and emergency response plans.
What You Can Do
If you visit Mount Fuji, lend your help to the clean-up efforts: pick up any trash you see and use only the environment-friendly toilets. There are currently no active international campaigns for Mount Fuji, but check back here periodically for updates.
Bernbaum, Edwin. Sacred Mountains of the World. University of California Press, 1998.
Frid, Martin. Kurashi—News from Japan. (Offers excellent updates on environmental issues in Japan in English, including a video post of a news clip of Fujisan Club cleaning up Mt. Fuji, October 30, 2006.)
Jones, Nick. “Look closer and ‘Fuji-san’ is less than sanitary.” The Age (Australia), Aug. 6, 2005.