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How occupying US military demands for a ski lift led to central Japan ski resort's birth

A ski slope and lift that Occupation Forces forced the Japanese to build. (Photo taken from "Shiga Kogen Ski shi" (Shiga Kogen ski history))
A ski lift at Mount Moiwa in Sapporo, Hokkaido. Skiers sit with their backs against each other. (Photo courtesy of Anzen Sakudo Co.)

NAGANO -- In October 1946, during the U.S. military's occupation of Japan after the Pacific War, it demanded that Japan build a ski slope and lift as a recreational facility for its troops on land it had confiscated in Shiga Kogen, Nagano Prefecture.

    This lift, along with another the U.S. military made Japan build in the city of Sapporo in northernmost prefecture Hokkaido around the same time, are believed to be the first ski lifts installed in Japan. But the country's citizens were banned from using them. Residents of Shiga Kogen had to face that they had lost the war as they watched U.S. troops easily reach the mountaintops and enjoy themselves skiing down their slopes.

    Local authorities instructed to build the ski slope and lift began searching for a site on Oct. 27, and decided to build an about 300-meter lift near Maruike pond in the highlands' center. On Nov. 6, the U.S. military ordered that the ski slope and lift be completed before the end of 1946, but no one on the construction crew had even seen a lift before. Ultimately, it was decided the head of construction company Kajima Gumi (present-day Kajima Corp.)'s Karuizawa field office, who had extensive experience building freight ropeways for mines, would oversee the lift construction.

    According to records on the history of skiing in Shiga Kogen, the Kajima Gumi's Karuizawa field office head expressed surprise at how convenient the ski lifts were after a briefing on them and seeing their photos in magazines. The U.S. military said a converted freight ropeway would suffice, but Kajima Gumi opposed the idea as too dangerous. The Karuizawa chief got the U.S. military to guarantee the Japanese side would not be liable for compensation if there were any accidents, and decided to build lifts with chairs instead of the baskets used in freight ropeways. Building materials' transporting began around Nov. 20.

    But not long after, the area was hit by two major snowstorms forcing road closures. To meet the project deadline, equipment and wire rope were carried by hand to the mountaintop -- an 800-meter elevation difference. Among those mobilized were not only men from the local village of Hirao (part of the present-day town of Yamanouchi), but also from youth associations and fire companies in neighboring towns and villages.

    Wooden posts were installed onto the mountainside, and a hut built as a base. Wire ropes were hung on the posts. Trees that would obstruct skiers were chopped down, and boulders jutting out of the mountainside blasted with dynamite. The skiing facility was handed to the U.S. military on Jan. 24, 1947 -- after the deadline.

    A journal released by the Shiga Kogen inn union recalled that the situation could not be left as it was, because if locals were forced to watch Occupation Forces members ski gracefully down the mountain, bitterness toward them would rise. As a result, local authorities built and ran a small tow rope on a neighboring slope from 1948. Still, the record said, "It was humiliating for local people."

    But one day, Susumu Sugiyama, a skier from the nearby village of Toyosato (part of the present-day village of Nozawaonsen) who competed in the 1956 Cortina d'Ampezzo Olympics in Italy, found himself on this lift closed off to Japanese citizens. He was a second-year junior high schooler in February 1947, when a competition held at Shiga Kogen allowed Japanese nationals temporary access to the slope and lift. "I gather it was to mollify the bitterness of local residents," Sugiyama, now 89, recalled. "Just sitting on it, it took you all the way up. I was shocked at how convenient it was."

    Kunio Igaya (1890-1986), a pioneer in Japanese skiing, was also blown away by the ski lift's convenience. In a book he wrote, he describes knowing lifts had been built abroad, and feeling strongly that they were necessary for skiers in Japan. He argued for the construction of lifts, but said he was criticized by people who couldn't let go of the way things were already done in Japan. In March 1947, when a competition was held in Nozawaonsen, he took a detour to Shiga Kogen, where he got special permission to ride the lift. "The effect was just as I had predicted," he wrote. Igaya believed in lifts so fervently that he subsequently went to Sapporo to check out its lift, too.

    Igaya consulted with local authorities to ask if his son Chiharu, now 90, could use the lifts. He was told that if he became a skiing facility caretaker, his son could. In October 1948, he and his family moved from Mount Akagi in neighboring Gunma Prefecture to Shiga Kogen. Sugiyama, who was close to Igaya, said, "(Igaya) seemed to think that because they would encounter Americans, it would help Chiharu learn English, too."

    Chiharu later reflected on his experiences, saying, "The surprise I felt seeing the Occupation Forces use the lift and ski down the slope left me speechless. There was an astronomical difference in the amount of training foreign athletes using machine power to practice could do compared to Japanese athletes walking up mountains. We had no way of winning against foreign skiers."

    The 1952 Oslo Winter Olympics in Norway were the first Winter Games for Japan after World War II. Chiharu came 11th in its alpine skiing slalom event. At the 1956 Olympics, he won Japan's first silver medal. "If I hadn't been practicing while patrolling the slope, there never would've been a medal," he said.

    After the confiscated land was returned and the lift abandoned in October 1952, Nagano Electric Railway Co. got new wire rope and the lift back up and running in December. It was so popular that people formed 100-meter lines just to ride it. This generated the momentum to develop the area into a ski resort. Historical records kept by an organization that owns the land around the resort reads, "Confiscation by the U.S. military was not just negative, it also had a big positive effect on tourism."

    (Japanese original by Shinichi Sariishi, Nagano Bureau)

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