A Japanese mountaineer and environmental activist. The first woman to climb the peak of Mount Everest, and the first to ascend the Seven Summits - the highest peak on every continent.
Junko Tabei was born in Miharu, Japan, the fifth of seven children. Living in the countryside during WW2, they suffered from poverty, and due to lack of proper nutrition, she, like many other Japanese children of her generation, grew up frail and small. At the age of 10, she discovered the wonders of mountain climbing on a class trip to Mount Nasu. She wanted to develop the hobby, but her family could not afford it.
In 1958, at the age of 19, she attended Showa Women’s University, where she studied English and American literature, intended to become a teacher. On weekends, she climbed the mountains in the area, which rekindled her dream to be a mountaineer. After graduation, she worked as an editor at the Journal of the Physical Society of Japan and joined various men’s climbing clubs. Soon she climbed all the tallest mountains in Japan. At 27, she married Masanobu Tabei, a mountaineer she had met while climbing.
At the time, climbing was a male-dominated sport, especially in Japan, where women were expected to stay in the domestic sphere. Tabei, who often was the only woman on the climbing trips, encountered many forms of sexism. Sometimes men refused to climb with her, while others suspected her motives for climbing. She decided to create a safe space, and in 1969, at the age of 30, she founded the Women’s Mountaineering Club (Joshi-Tohan Club) under the slogan “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves.” It was the first all-women climbing club in Japan.
The club had its first expedition to Annapurna III in Nepal the following year. As not all members were able to reach the peak, two were selected to complete the mission. When Tabei and her fellow mountaineer, Hiroko Hirakawa, reached the top, they became the first two women and first-ever Japanese to ascent the mountain.
On their return, the club set their next goal – Mount Everest. They assembled a team of 15 women that became known as the Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition. After receiving the permit to climb the mountain, they had to wait four years for their scheduled date. Meanwhile, they fundraised for the expedition, being denied many times because of their gender. Eventually, they secured a small amount of funding, and each of the team members had to pay 1.5 million yen ($5,000). To cut expenses, Tabei made a lot of the equipment by herself, sewing trousers from curtains and gloves from the cover of her car.
In the spring of 1975, at 36 and having two children at home, Tabei, alongside her teammates, began her journey to Everest. Overnight at the 9,000 feet Camp II, an avalanche hit their location. She and four other climbers got buried under the snow. Their Sherpa guides rescued them. For two days, she could not walk, but once recovered, she had resumed the expedition. Initially, the team planned to send two teammates to the final climb, but because of the lack of oxygen bottles, only one could complete the mission, and Tabei was that one. On 16 May 1975, Tabei, accompanied by a Sherpa guide, reached the top of the mountain, becoming the first woman to climb to the summit of Everest.
On her return to Japan, Tabei was welcomed by both media and the public. Thousands of people waited for her at the Tokyo airport, receiving recognition from the Japanese government and the King of Nepal.
Afterward, she continued her mountaineering pursuits, financing her expeditions by giving speeches, guiding mountain-climbing tours, and teaching children music and English. By 1992, 53 years old Tabei climbed the highest mountain on each continent and became the first woman to ascend the Seven Summits– Kilimanjaro, Mt. Aconcagua, Denali, Mt. Elbrus, Mount Vinson, and Puncak Jaya. She also continued to lead all-female mountaineering expeditions around the world.
In 2000, at the age of 61, she completed her postgraduate studies at Kyushu University and became an environmental activist. She focused on the ecological damage in Mt. Everest by climbers’ waste. She led clean-up climbs in Japan and the Himalayas and served as the director of the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan – an organization dedicated to preserving mountain environments.
In 2012, Tabei was diagnosed with stomach cancer, but she continued to climb as long as her body enabled her. She died at the age of 77.
To Everest and Beyond The Life and Legacy of Junko Tabei- Regionals
NHD Senior Group Documentary 2020
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- She taught piano lessons to fund her expedition to Everest.
- She preferred to be recognized as the 36th person to summit Everest and not the first woman.
- She planned to climb the highest mountain in every country worldwide, completing 70 before she died.
- After the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, she led an annual expedition up Mount Fuji for children who had been affected by the disaster.
- She published seven books.
- The asteroid 6897 Tabei was named in her honor.
- The Tabei Montes mountain range on Pluto bears her name.
- There was a TV series about her and the expedition.
- On September 22nd, 2019, her 80th birthday was celebrated with a Google Doodle.
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To Everest and Beyond The Life and Legacy of Junko Tabei- RegionalsNHD Senior Group Documentary 2020
This post is also available in: Español