EP39 First Antarctic Expedition


Show Notes for episode 39 of our Podcast – First Antarctic Expedition.

Story Notes

First Antarctic Expedition
Nobu Shirase

To start off it is best to talk a little about the man behind the expedition. His name was Nobu Shirase, born originally in Akita Prefecture (so I nice little tie in with last weeks episode), born June 13th 1861 at the temple of Jorenji. In fact his father even served there as a priest. 

He grew up during the end of Japan being a closed nation, seeing the Meiji Government replace the Shogunate when he was only seven years old. Japan having been closed off for so long, the whole idea of exploration was an almost entirely alien concept but as Shirase-san grew he heard of several storied of foreign explorers including stories of Sir John Franklin and his search for the Northwest Passage, and this all led to him being fascinated with polar exploration.  

However, for a time nothing came of this, he joined his father’s temple, but eventually left to enter into the military, and by 1881 he had received the rank of lieutenant within the Transport Corps.  

This all culminated into his first expedition, not to the polar ice but to the island of Chishima from 1893-1895, or the island of Kuril as it is known by in Russian.  

This all came about as he mentioned his ideas for exploration to his senior officer, a man by the name of Kodama Gentarō, who basically told him to not jump the gun and first try an island a little closer to home to make sure he could do it.  

An opportunity arose for this in 1893, when he was able to join an expedition led by Naritada Gunji, with an aim of establishing a permanent colony here in these northern island chains above Hokkaido. Now, this expedition went rather badly. Ill-equipped in the first winter 10 of the men died and then the Leader Naritada left to join the expedition, leaving Shirase-san incharge for a second winter in which more men died. Eventually they were relieved in 1895, and Shirase blamed the whole failure on poor organization, but it still hadn’t deterred him from his explorations. All of the failures and bad things that had occurred he had made note of, to ensure he was better prepared when his journey finally began.  

Though it would not occur for several more years yet. 

And that brings us all the way to 1910 when he approached the government with his plans to get Japan to the South Pole, as he had begun to hear of other countries who were also planning similar things to get to the pole. 

He declared, rather optimistically to the government, that the expedition was for science and he would have the flag of Japan raised at the south pole in merely three years time.  

Stating that: “The powers of the world ridicule the Empire of Japan, saying we Japanese are barbarians who are strong and brave in warfare, but cowardly when it comes to the realm of science. For the sake of bushido we must correct this regrettable situation”. 

In the end, the government said they would give money and a potential boat for the expedition, but in the end they broke this promise, and other societies were uninterested, saying it was a mere adventure and nothing to with science. This was also based on the fact that Shirase-san was neither a scholar or scientist, which I think is unfair, just because you don’t have the qualifications doesn’t mean you can’t still want to try for something. Even the Tokyo Geographic Society wrote nothing about the expedition in the end, though they wrote of other countries that did so. 

So where did Shirase-san find the money? Well funnily enough, the government may not have provided but the previous Prime Minister agreed to help. His name was Ōkuma Shigenobu and he established the Antarctic Expedition Supporters Association and the public began to contribute to the fund. Due to this Shirase-san also garnered the support of the Asahi Shimbun, an important newspaper at the time (and the same that wrote about Hachiko). 

He received many applications to join him for the expedition. None had polar experience, and only one had a scientific background, meaning (almost ironically) he had to scale down the scientific part of the exploration. Other for the expedition that were chosen included two Ainu People, due to their prowess with dogs and sleds, the transportation of choice back then for the snow and the captain of the ship was called Noakichi Nomura. 

The boat in question they used was known as the Kainan Maru, after it was renamed from the Hoko Maru. And this boat was originally a fishing vessel, and at merely 100ft long it was the smallest vessel for the time making expeditions to the south pole. The new name of the ship was chosen for its fitting meaning, that being ‘Southern Pioneer.’ 

The whole thing had a messy start unfortunately, on the day of leaving thousands came to see them off, but the ship wasn’t ready… and when it left 24 hours later, only a handful came to see it off, and so they left December 1st with 27 men and 28 Siberian dogs. 

The plan was to reprovision at Wellington in New Zealand, before heading again to the pole where they would set up and wait for winter to end. Shirase said then that on 15th September (1911) the party would proceed to the pole and return back to base by late February 1912. 

The mess only continued initially, the boat set off in unfavorable condition arrived storm beaten in Wellington where they had not been told to expect a ship from Japan on February 7th. The boat to them, had arrived late in the season, looked unsuitable for a polar expedition, no navigation charts could be seen, they had unsuitable food and equipment and most of the dogs had already died just sailing to Wellington. So the New Zealanders they regarded this whole ship and crew with a large amount of suspicion and the New Zealand Times newspaper offended Shirase by saying they were ‘gorillas sailing about in a miserable whaler.’ 

Over the next few days, as if to prove the New Zealanders right, they Japanese crew spend the entire time desperately trying to find up to date charts for the ice conditions for their continued journey south, all they had chart wise for their southern journey was a copy of a chart dating back to 1907. Eventually they left February 11th, though some respect had been gained from the people, another newspaper (the Lyttleton Times) writing ‘Godspeed to the plucky little band of explorers from the Far East.’ 

Sailing south, there were many first for these people. On February 17th, they saw their first penguin, saying ‘it looked for all the world like a gentleman in an overcoat.’ February 26th they saw the first iceberg, and March 1st the witnessed their first aurora. 

However, it soon became apparent they had left far, far too late. There was too much ice now to make a landing of any kinds, and magnetic interference from the magnetic pole on made things harder to navigate by compass. They almost became trapped in March 12 by ice, and if that was to occur then ship was likely to be crushed. Almost defeated, they turned north, and left for Sydney to wait for winter to end and return again.  

By now, out of the 28 dogs, only one was left. They reached Sydney May 1st.  

Just like in New Zealand, they were treated with suspicion when they arrived, one newspaper even demanded they be immediately expelled. However, as if by luck, they gained support from a wealthy resident who allowed them to camp in a corner of his land whilst the boat underwent repairs. The captain of the ship returned to Japan to try and gain further funding for the expedition. Shirase-san soon formed a friendship with  Tannatt Edgeworth David, who had already been to the Antarctic, and been one of the three who had discovered the location of the South Magnetic Pole, his friendship with Shirase helped the local people to stop regarding the Japanese with suspicion and accept their presence. And Edgeworth helped Shirase by giving him his knowledge and experience of Antarctica. 

The ship captain finally returned, with more funding, more dogs, and two new members. Another scientist and a film cameraman. And so Shirase abandoned plans of conquering the Sotuth Pole, believing others who had already set out would be too far ahead of him. And so in a twist of fate, his expedition would actually become one of science. And they would head to the pole with the aim of surveying and exploring the area known as the King Edwards VII Land. 

Finally they left once again for the pole, November 19th 1911, but before they did so, Shirase-san gifted Edgeworth with his 17th Century Samurai Sword, in thanks for everything he had done for them. (You can find the sword now in the Australian Museum, donated there in 1979). 

They finally received the proper good bye they had wanted from Japan, and many people came to see the ship set sail with white handkerchiefs and black hats thrown into the air as they sailed away. 

It’s almost as it their luck had changed, they didn’t leave in a storm, the weather was fair and by January 4th 1912, they had reached the area which had sent them to Sydney the previous time. Now the sea was open and good progress was made, and by January 10th they had their first sight of the Ross Ice Shelf, Shirase saying it looked like a ‘gigantic white snake at rest’ as they saw it on the horizon. As they frew near, they made East, in an attempt to find a landing spot near King Edwards VII Land. 

Again, in a twist of irony there were attacked by killer whale, after sailing through the area known as the Bay of Whales, but they soon withdrew, the Ainu people praying throughout the ordeal. Finally they came to an area of suitable landing, however, the terrain here would have been impossible to traverse, and so quickly naming it the Kainan Bay, they sailed onwards.  

Shirase breaks the expedition now into two groups, and again the ship turns around heading back West. One group to make a ‘Dash Patrol’ to make a march south across the ice with the dogs, and another party which would go to explore King Edward VII Land. Shirase joined the ‘Dash Patrol’ when the ship could reached the ice back at the Ross Ice Shelf. After setting up camp, and seeing the Kainan Maru sail onwards. Shirase and six others prepared for the ‘Dash Patrol.’ Two stayed at base camp, to undertake meteorological observations, while the others marched south. Shirase, the two Ainu and two others, Takeda and Miisho. Their sole aim was the travel as far south as they could in their limited time frame. The first day only saw them travel 13 kilometers, the next day they remained in their tents due to weather and the day after, and travelling through blizzards the next few days, some of the dogs again died. By January 28th, they stopped, having covered 250 kilometers. Here they placed a canister with the names of the group, dubbed the area they were in as the Yamato Yukihara (Japanese Snow Plain), saluted the Emperor and then began their return to base. They made it back in a mere three days due to favorable conditions, which was likely to have been the quickest polar sled journey at the time. Exhausted from it all, they then slept for 36 hours.  

So onto the King Edward VII exploration. The boat arrived on January 23rd in the Biscoe Bay thinking they were the first to explore here. Sadly they weren’t, however they were the first group to make a landing on King Edward VII Land from the sea. Here, they split into two smaller groups, one headed south but was unfortunately stopped by ice and the other reached the foothills of the Alexandra Mountains before being stopped, here they erected a sign, explored the local area a little and collected rock samples before returning to ship. 

So only a little bit of exploration had been undertaken, before they had to return to ship and make their way back east to pick up Shirase. They stopped at a bay on their way, calling it the Okuma Bay in honor of the ex-Priminister who had helped them and finally reaching the area once more where Shirase was, they were halted by the ice for two days in picking them up. In the hurried process of saving Shirase and the others, all the dogs were abandoned much to everyone apparent heartbreak. And it is said that Shirase remembered them everyday from then on in his daily prayers.  

They returned to Wellington, exhausted, Shirase and a few others transferring to a faster ship to reach Japan, so they could prepare for the return of the expedition. After all of these hardships, the Kainan Maru arrived back in Tokyo on June 19th, after sailing 31,000 miles (50,000km) to a large reception and celebration.  

So after all of this, it showed that the Japanese could mount an Antarctic Expedition, but its legacy was quiclly forgotten. Shirase and others were praised by the Emperor, but he sadly died six weeks after their return, and so the publics interest died. The government did not help him with the debts of the expedition, and there was little interest from people to buy Shirase’s book on his expedition. Even though money was made through a documentary film, Shirase gained none of the profts as he had sold off the rights to the film company. Around the world the expedition was little noticed, eclipsed by other explorers and only published in Japanese, which was still little known around the world then only hindered Shirase’s story being learnt. It wasn’t until 1933 in the first substantial account was made in English in the Geographical Journal. 

And so Shirase was left to settle his debts himself, he returned to the Kuril Island where he had his first expedition, making money through a fox-fur business and had paid everything off by 1935. In 1933 he received belated recognition for his exploits and was made honorary president of the Japanese Polar Research Institute, but sadly died in obscurity in 1946. 

His name did live on however, the current Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition has named their research vessel Shirase in his honor, and in his hometown of Nikaho, a statue in his memory and a museum to his expedition has been created. 

And that is the tale of Shirase-san. 

But one last thing, the boat that took them all that way. It was sold back to its owners, going back to its life as a fishing vessel, and we sadly don’t know what happened to it. We have records saying in 1944 a fishin vessel by the same name was sunk in a USAAF attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, but whether this was the same ship, we will never know. 

Poem Notes

Yosa Buson
Yosa Buson

Yosa Buson was a Japanese poet and painter. He was born in 1716 in Osaka, a child of the Taniguchi family.  

He moved from his home to Edo at the age of 20 to learn poetry from Hayano Haijin. A follower of Basho, he would eventually follow the same path as Basho as described in Oku no Hosomichi, and published his own work from this journey. The name he published under was Buson.  

He traveled further throughout Japan, but at age 42 settled in Kyoto and starting using the name Yosa.  Buson married soon after and had one daughter.  

Buson often talks about family in his poetry and he published Kushuu – (poem books) and Shufu bateikyoku. 

His poem today describes a samurai demanding to be put up for the night.


Yado kase to
katana nagedasu
fubuki kana

“Give me shelter!”
He threw the katana.
In the snow storm.

Today we also had a bonus poem for you by Buson, but for now we only have the English.

Over-ripe sushi, 
The Master 
Is full of regret. 

Featured Image: The Kainan Maru.

You can listen to the full podcast episodes here: Japan Archives, or wherever you listen to Podcasts.

Follow us on Social Media: Instagram: @japan_archives

We also started a Youtube channel for Japan Archives.

And another for other creative endeavours!

Heavenly Spear