Junko Tabei

Junko Tabei, who was born on September 22nd in 1939 was a Japanese mountaineer, author, and teacher. She started climbing at the age of 10. Tabei enjoyed the non competitive sport and beautiful sights she´d see when reaching the top of the mountains she climbed. Even though her family did not have enough money for the expensive hobby she still enjoyed the hobby, doing only a few climbs during her high school years. Ishibashi studied English and American literature at Showa Women’s University from 1958 until 1962. Initially, she had planned on teaching as her career choice but after her graduation she went back to her early passion of mountain climbing. 

Junko Tabei´s Mountaineering Career

Tabei joined a number of men’s climbing clubs, and while some men welcomed her as a fellow climber, others questioned her motives for pursuing a typically male-dominated sport. Soon, Ishibashi had climbed all of the major mountains in Japan, including Mount Fuji. When Ishibashi was 27, she married Masanobu Tabei, another mountaineer she´d met during a climbing excursion on Mount Tanigawa. Eventually, they had two children, their daughter, Noriko and their son, Shinya.

In 1969, Junko Tabei had established the Joshi-Tohan Club (Mountain Mountaineering Club), which was a club for only women. The slogan for the club was “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves”. The group was the first of its kind in Japan. Later, Tabei stated that she´d founded the club as a result of how she was treated by male mountaineers at the time. Some men refused to climb with her while other men thought she was only interested in climbing so she could find a husband. Tabei helped to fund all her climbing activities by working as an editor for the Journal of the Physical Society of Japan.

In 1970, The Joshi-Tohan Club had embarked on their first expedition. They climbed the Nepalese mountain Annapurna III . Successfully, they had reached the summit using a new route on the south side, achieving the first female and first Japanese ascent of the mountain. Tabei and another member, Hiroko Hirakawa, were chosen to complete the final climb to the top, accompanied by two sherpa guides. The climbers brought a camera with them but it was so cold that the cameras film ended up being cracked.

From her experience in the Annapurna III ascent, Tabei had realized that she and the other Japanese women had sometimes struggled reconciling traditional Japanese values of quiet strength with more immediate practical needs of mountaineering. Many Joshi-Tohan Club members were initially reluctant to admit they didn’t know something or that they needed assistance. They preferred to keep stoic silence, but mountain climbing had forced the women to acknowledge their personal limits and accept help from one another.

The 1975 Everest expedition

After Tabei and Hirakawa had successfully summited Annapurna III on May 19th, 1970, the Joshi-Tohan Club decided to tackle Mount Everest. The club created the team known as the Japanese Womens Everest Expedition (JWEE). The team was led by Eiko Hisano, which would attempt to summit Mount Everest. JWEE had 15 members, most of them were working women who came from a range of professions. Two of the women, including Tabei, were mothers. They applied for a climbing permit for Mount Everest in 1971 but had to wait four years to receive a place in the formal climbing schedule. 

Tabei helped find sponsors for the expedition, although she was frequently told that ¨women should be raising children instead¨. She was able to obtain last-minute funding from the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and Nippon Television, but each group member still needed to pay 1.5 million yen ($5,000USD). Tabei taught piano lessons to help raise the necessary funds. Tabei used much of her own equipment from scratch to save up on money, creating waterproof gloves out of the cover of her car and sewing trousers from old curtains.

After going through a long training period, the team had finally mad the expedition in May 1975. The group attracted a lot of media attention with their plans, and initially the 15 women were accompanied by journalists and a television camera crew as they began their climb. They used the same route to ascend the mountain that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had taken in 1953. Six sherpa guides assisted the team for the full span of the expedition. On May 4th, the team was camping at 6,000 meters (20,700 ft) when an avalanche had struck their camp. Tabei and four of her fellow climbers were buried under the snow. Tabei had lost consciousness until sherpa guides dug her out, luckily though, there had been no casualties. Tabei could barely walk and she was forced to spend two days recovering, she had been bruised and injured by the incident that had happened. When she recovered, however, she continued the expedition and continued to lead her team up the mountain. 

Originally, the team planned to send only two women up to the peak of Everest (accompanied by a sherpa, of course), but altitude sickness meant that the teams sherpas wouldn’t be able to carry enough oxygen bottles required for only two climbers. Only one woman could continue, and after much discussion, Hisano nominated Tabei to complete the climb. As Tabei neared the peak, she was furious to find out that she had to cross a thin and hazardous ridge of ice that was not ever mentioned to her in accounts of previous expeditions. She crawled along it sideways, later describing it as the most tense experience she ever had. May 16th, 1975, which was 12 days after the avalanche happened, Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Everest, with her sherpa guide, Ang Tsering.

Tabei was showered with attention as a result of her achievement. In Kathmandu, a parade was held in her honor. On her return to Japan, she was received by thousands of cheering supporters at the Tokyo airport. Tabei had even received messages from the King of Nepal, as well as the Japanese government, and even a television miniseries was made about the Everest expedition. Tabei made personal appearances across Japan, however she still remained uncomfortable with the level of fame she had gotten. Later, she told media that she preferred to be remembered as the 36th person to summit to Everest. 

Tabeis Later Activities

Tabei went on with her mountaineering pursuits, in which she eventually climbed the highest mountain in each continent: Kilimanjaro in 1980, Mt. Aconcagua in 1987, Denali in 1988, Mt. Elbrus in 1989, Mount Vinson in 1991, and Puncak Jaya in 1992. Upon her successful climb of Puncak Jaya, she became the first woman to complete the Seven Summits challenge. By 2005, Tabei had taken part in 44 all-female mountaineering expeditions around the world. She had a personal life goal of climbing the highest mountain in every country in the world, and by the end of her lifetime she had completed at least 70 of these mountains.

She never accepted corporate sponsorship after Mount Everest, As she preferred to remain financially independent. She saved money so that she could fund her expeditions. She made paid public appearances, she guided mountain climbing tours, and she also tutored local children in both music and English. Along-side her climbing, Tabei also worked on ecological concerns. In 2000, she had completed post-graduate studies at Kyushu University, focusing on the environmental degradation of Everest caused by waste left behind by climbing groups. Tabei was also the director of the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan, an organization working at a global level to preserve mountain environments. One of the trusts projects was to build an incinerator to burn climbers´ trash. Tabei also led and participated in “clean-up” climbs in both Japan and in the Himalayas alongside her husband and children.

In May 2003, a celebration was held in Kathmandu to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first successful summit of Mount Everest. Crowds of Nepalese people gathered to cheer a procession of the past Everest climbers. Tabei and Sir Edmund Hillary were given a special place in the festivities for their respective achievements.

Between the years of 1996 and 2008, Tabei had written and published seven books. Following the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, Tabei started to organize annual guided excursions up Mount Fuji for school children who were affected by the natural disaster.

Tabei´s death and legacy

In 2012, Tabei had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, yet she still continued with many of her mountaineering activities. In July 2016, despite her advancing illness, she led a youth expedition up Mount Fuji. She died in a hospital in Kawagoe on October 20th, 2016.

Before Tabei had died, an astronomer named asteroid 6897 Tabei after her.

On September 22nd, 2019, Google commemorated the 80th anniversary of Tabei´s birth with a Doodle. With her motivation slogan adding to the Doodle ¨Do not give up, Keep on your quest.¨. Later in 2019, on November 19th, a mountain range on pluto was named Tabei Montes in honor of Tabei´s mountaineering accomplishments. The theme for naming mountains on Pluto is ¨Historic pioneers who crossed new horizons in the exploration of Earth, sea, and sky.