Junko Tabei - Reaching New Heights

Junko Tabei only became a mountaineer to find a husband - at least that is what many of the male mountaineers suggested. The first woman to climb Mount Everest, she proved that women were more than capable of the endurance and determination needed to reach new heights.

Junko Tabei - Reaching New Heights

'All women must be in want of a husband' is a common assumption faced by women. It was certainly faced by Junko Tabei when she was the only female mountaineer in a men's climbing club. Many of them believed she was only mountaineering because she wanted to find a husband.

Born September 22nd, 1939, in Fukushima, Junko Tabei (nee Ishibashi) refused to let the judgement of men separate her from her passion. She first discovered her love of mountaineering aged 10, when her class went on a climbing trip to Mount Nesu. Tabei fell in love with the non-competitive nature of the sport and the view from the top, which allowed her to see things she had never seen before. Unfortunately, Tabei was unable to climb much during her teenage years as mountaineering was an expensive hobby and her parents had seven children to provide for.

Nevertheless, Tabei didn't forget her love for mountaineering and following her graduation from Showa Women's University, where she studied English and American literature, she joined a number of men's climbing clubs. Here, her motives were questioned. Although some men welcomed her, others assumed she was just looking for a husband. Some men even refused to climb with her. Yet Tabei was not phased. Before long, she had climbed all the major mountains in Japan - including Mount Fuji. She proved her commitment to the sport and her determination to continue. Whilst climbing Mount Tanigawa, Junko met Masanobu Tabei, another mountaineer, whom she married when she was 27.

Famous Fuji
Mount Fuji, Japans tallest mountain. Photo by David Edelstein / Unsplash

Tabei had not forgotten the attitudes of many men regarding her interest in mountaineering and she was aware that many other women had faced similar judgement. In response, Tabei established the Joshi-Tohan (women's mountaineering) club in 1969. As a woman only club, Joshi-Tohan was the first club of its kind in Japan. Women now had a place where they could climb together without men. Their slogan, 'Let's go on an overseas expedition by ourselves', captures the club's spirit and ambition. In order to fund her climbing, Tabei worked as the editor for the Journal of the Physical Society of Japan. She was breaking the traditional Japanese expectations of womanhood - to be at home and raise children.

Junko Tabei facing harsh conditions in her pursuit of climbing to new heights

In 1970, the Joshi-Tohan club, after several attempts at gaining a permit, embarked on their first expedition. Their permit allowed them to climb the Nepalese mountain Annapurna III. This was not only the first female ascent of the mountain, but also the first Japanese ascent. The group used a new route on the south side of the mountain with their Sherpa guides. Near the summit it was decided that Tabei and Hiroko Hirakawa should be the two members of the team to climb the final distance to the summit. Although the team had brought a camera, the cold temperature cracked the film, so they were unable to take any photographs. Despite their successful summit, Tabei realised that she and other women struggled. They had overcome male judgement yet struggled to reconcile the quiet strength emphasised by Japanese values, with the practical needs of mountaineering. Their external challenge emphasised an internal struggle. Many of the women were reluctant to admit that they did not know something or that they needed assistance - opting for a stoic silence. The challenges of mountaineering forced the women to acknowledge their limits and accept help.

The following year, Tabei and the Joshi-Tohan club set their sights higher. They applied for a permit to climb Mount Everest - the highest peak in the world - but they had to wait 4 years for a place in the formal climbing schedule. Despite their prior achievement, there were still many men who did not believe it possible for women to reach the summit of Everest, many felt women should focus on raising children. The club create a new team of 15 women led by Eiko Hisano to face the challenge. The Japanese Women's Everest Expedition (JWEE) consisted mainly of working women from various professions including two mothers. The historic climb was scheduled for 1975, but the women were faced with financial obstacles. The expedition was expensive so Tabei search for sponsorship. Many companies were unwilling to sponsor such an endeavour, nevertheless last-minute funding was secured from Yomiuri Shimbun Newspaper and Nippon Television. Members of the team were still required to pay 1.5 million Yen ($5,000) towards the expedition cost. Tabei taught extra piano lessons alongside her job, to help raise funds, and kept costs down by making gloves from her car cover and trousers from curtains.

Despite the financial challenge and faced with much criticism, in May 1975 the expedition began, and it attracted much media attention. Guided by 6 Sherpas the team began their ascent but on 4th May, whilst camping at 6,300 meters, an avalanche struck the team. Tabei and 4 others were buried under snow. Fortunately, no casualties were sustained but Tabei was bruised and could barely walk. For 2 days the team recovered but they were determined to press on so as soon as they were able, they pressed onward and upward. Originally, the plan had involved sending 2 women up to the summit, however altitude sickness meant the Sherpas could only carry enough oxygen for one climber. Following much discussion, the team leader, Hisano, decided that Tabei should be the one to continue. Her climb to the summit included crossing a hazardous ridge of ice - which no previous accounts had mentioned. On May 16th, 1975, after years of criticism from men, constant determination, financial obstacles, and 12 days after the avalanche which could have ended the expedition with disaster, Junko Tabei reached the summit of Mount Everest, and in doing so, became the first woman to achieve the feat. Tabei was showered with attention. In Kathmandu, a parade was held in her honour and upon the teams' arrival at Tokyo airport they were greeted by thousands of cheering supporters. Tabei received personalized messages from both the King of Nepal and the Japanese Government. Nonetheless, Tabei was humble, and never felt comfortable with the fame. In one interview she said she preferred to be remembered as the 36th person to reach the summit as she 'did not intend to be the first woman on Everest'.

Although she had reached the top of the tallest mountain, Tabei did not consider her dream completed, her ambition knew no bounds. She continued mountaineering and successfully completed the 7 summits challenge, which involved reaching the summit of the tallest mountain on each continent. Throughout her life, she completed 44 all female expeditions around the world. Her personal goal was to climb the highest mountain in every country, of which she managed an impressive 70. Her work was not limited to climbing, she also highlighted ecological issues surrounding litter left by other climbers of Everest. In Japan and the Himalayas, she led 'clean-up climbs' accompanied by her husband and children. In May 2003, Tabei was honoured again in Kathmandu. A procession was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first successful climb of Everest. Both Sir Edmund Hillary and Junko Tabei were given special places in the procession to acknowledge their achievements.

Junko Tabei's life centred around mountaineering. In 2012 she was diagnosed with stomach cancer, yet she continued climbing. In July 2016 she led an expedition of youth up Mount Fuji. Three months later, on 20th October 2016, she died in hospital. Tabei proved that women were capable of any physical pursuit they set their mind to, they are capable of being more than just wives and mothers. The men who doubted her intentions or ability were reminded repeatedly that no mountain was too high for her, no terrain too difficult. Her name lives on 5.29 billion kilometres away where the Tabei Montes, a mountain range on Pluto, was named in her honour.