Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan

Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan

Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan

Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan


Illustrated with color and black-and-white images of the mountain and its associated religious practices, H. Byron Earhart's study utilizes his decades of fieldwork--including climbing Fuji with three pilgrimage groups--and his research into Japanese and Western sources to offer a comprehensive overview of the evolving imagery of Mount Fuji from ancient times to the present day. Included in the book is a link to his twenty-eight-minute streaming video documentary of Fuji pilgrimage and practice, Fuji: Sacred Mountain of Japan.Beginning with early reflections on the beauty and power associated with the mountain in medieval Japanese literature, Earhart examines how these qualities fostered spiritual practices such as Shugendo, which established rituals and a temple complex at the mountain as a portal to an ascetic otherworld. As a focus of worship, the mountain became a source of spiritual insight, rebirth, and prophecy through the practitioners Kakugyo and Jikigyo, whose teachings led to social movements such as Fujido (the way of Fuji) and to a variety of pilgrimage confraternities making images and replicas of the mountain for use in local rituals.Earhart shows how the seventeenth-century commodification of Mount Fuji inspired powerful interpretive renderings of the "peerless" mountain of Japan, such as those of the nineteenth-century print masters Hiroshige and Hokusai, which were largely responsible for creating the international reputation of Mount Fuji. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, images of Fuji served as an expression of a unique and superior Japanese culture. With its distinctive shape firmly embedded in Japanese culture but its ethical, ritual, and spiritual associations made malleable over time, Mount Fuji came to symbolize ultranationalistic ambitions in the 1930s and early 1940s, peacetime democracy as early as 1946, and a host of artistic, naturalistic, and commercial causes, even the exotic and erotic, in the decades since.


The gracefully sloping, symmetrical silhouette of Mount Fuji is immediately recognizable throughout the world as an icon for the land and nation of Japan. For Japanese and non-Japanese alike, Fuji is so closely associated with the very idea of Japan that the two are nearly inseparable. My first glimpse of the image of Fuji is blended imperceptibly with my earliest memories of Japan—the cheap folding fans and book illustrations of the snow-capped peak that were in vogue during my childhood and can still be seen today.

Conversations with Japanese people provide sharper memories. A well-known painter remembers distinctly when a primary-school teacher had the students in his class draw Fuji: without looking at Fuji or a picture of the mountain, he portrayed it in the classic fashion with three small peaks and steep slope. Elderly Japanese recollect singing in school the familiar children’s song praising Mount Fuji; while humming the tune, they recall the words about this incomparable peak.

A number of man-made monuments—the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty—have taken on the role of national icon. Much rarer is the case of a natural object becoming universally accepted, both domestically and internationally, as the hallmark of a country. This book is an exploration of Fuji as a symbol of Japan and the Japanese. Like any tale worth its salt, this story insists that there is much more to Fuji than meets the eye. Three of the less obvious aspects of Fuji may be previewed here, as preparation for approaching the peak.

In the first place, Fuji’s significance within Japan is only partly due to its being a natural formation (actually a dormant volcano). Throughout history Fuji has been celebrated more as a religious or sacred site and as a cultural and aesthetic ideal than as a physical mountain. Second, Fuji’s preeminence as Japan’s premier mountain and most important landmark is a relatively recent affair, a phenomenon of the past two centuries. Third, the history of Fuji within Japanese culture displays a remarkably diverse repertoire of images.

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