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Mount Fuji: World Heritage Site

Alone in its Union of Grace and Majesty

Mount Fuji in art and culture


Mount Fuji and its environs have inspired poets, painters, artists and travelers for generations. One criterion required for UNESCO inscription is that Mt. Fuji must reflect outstanding universal values as a source of artistic inspiration. Since the earliest portrayal of Mt. Fuji in Japan's oldest written poetry anthology Man'yōshō (Collection of a Thousand Leaves) and oldest story Taketori Monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), the magnificent form of Mt. Fuji has inspired Japanese and foreigners alike across the ages and reflects upon the universal spirit of these artists and poets.

One of the first depictions of Mt. Fuji can be found in the Man'yōshū, an anthology of 4516 waka poems dating back to the 7th and 8th Centuries. "Tago no ura yu/ uchidete mireba/ Mashironi so/ Fuji no takane ni/ Yuki wa furikeru" (Passing through Tago Bay and coming to a clearing, I see snow falling, pure white, on Fuji's lofty peak). Other waka eulogize Mt. Fuji as a divine peak that has stood "since the parting of heaven and earth." Around this time, the image of Mt. Fuji began to appear in paintings, including the oldest example of an illustration on a paper screen from Shōtoku Taishi Eden (The Illustrated Biography of Prince Shōtoku) dating from the Heian period (794-1185).

When the political center of Japan shifted from Kyoto to Kamakura (Kanagawa Prefecture) in the latter half of the 12th Century, more people began to traverse the road linking the capital cities that ran to the south of Mt. Fuji. Hereafter, large numbers of people, including travelers and artists, began to record their impressions of Mt. Fuji and it consequently acquired an even greater symbolic meaning in the Japanese consciousness.

From the 14th Century onward, Mt. Fuji became a popular motif in painting, literature, crafts, gardens and other artistic fields to the extent that it was becoming a standard image of Japan. Of the many popular representations of Mt. Fuji in popular culture, the three best known are those produced by Hiroshige (1797-1858) in the ukiyo-e prints, Tōkaidō gojūsan-tsugi (Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road) and the Fuji sanjūrokkei (Thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji), as well as by Hokusai (ca. 1760-1849) in the 1834 publication of the ukiyo-e, Fugaku hyakkei (One-hundred Views of Mt. Fuji). The Tōkaidō Hiroshige Art Museum that houses many original Hiroshige works can be found in Shizuoka Prefecture. As pointed out by its curator, Mr. Katsunori Takahashi, "While Hokusai's woodblock prints place emphasis on form, Hiroshige's woodblock prints are faithful to the subject matter. The difference between the two lies in Hiroshige's depiction of scenery as it is. Hiroshige's depictions of Mt. Fuji leave a strong impression as landscape images, and many people have had a near life experience of viewing Mt. Fuji from different places through the woodblock prints of Hiroshige."

The vivid images displayed in these ukiyo-e were later a source of inspiration for many western artists who were part of a new "Japonisme" movement in Europe, whereby Mt. Fuji became well-known abroad as a symbol of Japan. The iconic mountain influenced the works of Impressionists and fin de si竪cle artists, such as Monet, Van Gogh and Henri Riviere.

As Japan began to accept greater numbers of foreign visitors in the 19th Century, overseas explorers, traders and diplomats began to transcribe their impressions of their outings to this 'holy' volcano. Perhaps best expressed by Henry Heusken, interpreter and secretary to US Ambassador Townsend Harris, "Glory forever to the mountain of mountains of the Pacific Sea, which alone raises its venerable brow covered with eternal snow amidst the verdant countryside of Nippon! Jealous of its beauty, it will not suffer a rival which might lessen its splendor. Its crown of snow stands out alone above the highest mountains of Nippon."

Nowadays, Mt. Fuji is closely associated with the "best in Japan" and "something auspicious." Thus it is often used as a standard when comparing the magnificence of other mountains (such as referring to Mt. Rainier in the United States as the "Tacoma Fuji") and the iconography of Mt. Fuji is still largely depicted in everything from high-class artwork to mass-produced goods and tourist trinkets. It is also a favorite choice of mural for Japan's sentō (public bath houses) and many replicas of Mt. Fuji are incorporated into garden landscapes, much as the Daimyō (lords) had done in the 18th Century.

The scenic grandeur of Mt. Fuji's nearly perfect, solitary volcanic cone inspires a sense of majesty, introspection and beauty that has been the subject of creative endeavors for centuries. As a volcano, it also evokes fear, respect and awe, which may be one of the reasons that it has become a widely understood symbol. When foreign travelers visit Japan from abroad, Mt. Fuji can be found not only in representations in vases and fans, but in the many portrayals displayed in popular advertisements, art posters, and murals. The UNESCO designation is an attempt to not only draw attention to this fount of inspiration, but to also provide the means to protect the high level of integrity associated with its grandeur.

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