Japanese Studies

The Japanese Alpine Empire

A Transnational Environmental History of Japan's "Alpine" Landscapes

DFG Emmy Noether Programme 2024-2030

Principal Investigator: Jun.-Prof. Dr. Fynn Holm



Project Description

The primary objective of this Emmy Noether project, funded by the German Research Council (DFG) and conducted by Jun.-Prof. Fynn Holm as the principial investigator, is to shed light on how the dissemination and adaptation of European “alpine” knowledge influenced mountainous regions throughout East Asia, facilitated not by a European colonial power but by the Japanese empire during the early twentieth century. The research addresses critical questions surrounding the creation of the “Japanese Alpine Empire,” the ecological and cultural repercussions of transforming the Japanese central mountain range into what is today known as the “Japanese Alps” (nihon arupusu), and how alpine knowledge contributed to colonial exploitation in Korea and Taiwan. By adopting a longue durée perspective, spanning from the Little Ice Age to the Anthropocene era, the research provides a comprehensive analysis of the evolution of East Asian mountains over time, exploring historical climate impacts and human responses to environmental transformations.

The research's groundbreaking nature lies in challenging established narratives by providing a transnational environmental history perspective, where European mountain concepts influenced East Asian mountains through an indigenous East-Asian power. The project aims to enhance our understanding of how social constructions of mountains impact physical environments, revealing the interconnectedness of global mountain discourses beyond Europe.

By taking an interdisciplinary approach, encompassing intellectual, environmental, and global history, the research offers a deeper analysis of the complex interactions between human societies, mountain ecosystems, and global knowledge exchange. Insights gained from historical ecological transformations and their consequences hold relevance in addressing the present-day impacts of climate change and human exploitation on mountain landscapes, paving the way for sustainable policies and conservation efforts.


This project aims to comprehend the role of “alpine” knowledge in the transformation of delicate mountain ecosystems in East Asia and to analyze the repercussions of these changes on the local mountain communities. The project takes a dual approach. Firstly, it adopts a comparative intellectual history lens to underline the commonalities and contrasts with European mountain notions, including those of colonial nature. Secondly, it follows a longue durée environmental history perspective by tracing the evolution of East Asian mountains over several epochs - the latter half of the Little Ice Age (1550-1850), the Age of Imperialism (1868-1945), and the Anthropocene era (1950-present).

The project proposes that Japan has a deep-rooted tradition of religious mountaineering, exemplified by Buddhist monks ascending mountain peaks for spiritual meditation, and of protoindustrial development like forestry and mining in its mountainous regions. However, at the dawn of Japan’s imperial era in the late 19th century, the mountain regions were initially overlooked, as they didn't seem to offer tangible benefits for empire-building. This attitude shifted when British mountaineers christened the Japanese central mountain range as the “Japanese Alps” (nihon arupusu) and Japanese explorers started visiting the European Alps, the Himalayas, and the Canadian Rockies. Inspired by Central Europe's industrialization of the Alps and by recontextualizing and reinventing their own mountain traditions, the Japanese empire forged its own variant of alpine knowledge. The research will delve into the following questions:

  • In what ways interacted older Japanese mountain traditions with emerging European alpine knowledge in the creation and forming of the “Japanese Alpine Empire”?
  • What were the ecological and cultural repercussions of transforming the Japanese central mountain range into the Japanese Alps?
  • How did the dissemination of alpine knowledge contribute, directly or indirectly, to the colonial exploitation of East Asian mountain regions?
  • How have Japanese/Korean/Taiwanese mountain communities perceived and responded to the challenges arising from the intersection of climate change and (colonial) exploitation of their mountain ecosystems?