Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Nobu Shirase

Last Sunday was the annual Konoura town Nobu Shirase memorial snow walk.

Nobu Shirase was a man born in Konoura who led one of the expeditions to the South Pole in late 1911, early 1912. Everyone knows about Roald Amundsen, who got there in December 1911 and returned safely, and Robert Scott, who got there in January 1912 and died on the way back, but no one remembers Nobu Shirase. I just checked Encarta Encyclopedia. He has no entry.

Nobu Shirase, the virtually unknown Japanese polar explorer, had serious troubles with funding his expedition. He did a lot of fundraising, and yet did not manage to raise much money at all. Not one to give up, he borrowed a lot of money and then went anyway. His boat was made out of wood. It was a miracle it was not crushed by ice in the Southern Ocean. His equipment was primitive compared to Scott’s, but ultimately better, because he used arctic dog fur and other natural materials to make his party’s clothing, which was much better than anything man could make at the time.

Shirase did not lose a single man on his expedition. But he never made it to the South Pole. He ran into bad weather, and then heard that Amundsen had already reached the Pole. Not willing to risk his men’s lives for a dream that had already been crushed, he turned back, and that is why the world forgot about him.

When Shirase returned to Japan in defeat, he immediately set about paying back all the money he borrowed. It took him the rest of his life to do it. He toured Japan giving talks about his adventures and about Antarctica, but because no one knew who he was, no one ever gave him much money. His wife stayed here in Konoura raising all their children (I think there were six of them) alone. His descendants are among my students.

After Nobu Shirase died, some Norwegians (I think they were Norwegians) came to Japan to find out what had happened to the third contender for the pole, and through their efforts the story of Nobu Shirase was brought once more to light. This tiny town on the coast of Northern Japan heard all about the remarkable and disciplined man that had been born amongst them. Now there is a Shirase Memorial Museum in Konoura, and every year on January 28th (which I think is the day he turned back) the children of Konoura walk through the snow from the museum to the small shrine in Konoura where Nobu Shirase was born.

This year the walk was a bit strange. There was no snow, and it was sunny and warm, so it was not much of a snow walk really. But we went anyway and paid our homage to a man who was overlooked and forgotten for most of his life, but who really did not deserve to be.

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