Creating a Swiss Mountain Valley: The Transformation of the Kamikōchi Valley in the Japanese Alps

Kamikōchi is a picturesque high valley in the middle of Japan’s central mountain range. In the 1890s, Referend Walter Weston rediscovered the valley and reimagined it as an alpine landscape, popularizing the term ‹the Japanese Alps›, not only in the West but also in Japan itself. The advent of European-style mountaineering and the introduction of industrial practices changed how the Japanese mountains were perceived and its natural resources were used in the emerging Japanese empire.

The paper will trace how mountaineers from the upper class of the Japanese metropoles wanted to preserve the allegedly pristine wilderness of the valley for their own recreational activities. Meanwhile, Japanese entrepreneurs tried and failed to make use of the valley for industrial projects, such as sericulture, cattle farming, and generating hydroelectric power by flooding the entire valley. Of particular interest to this paper is the manner in which a new understanding of an ecological modernity of alpine landscapes was imported from Europe and discussed, adapted, and integrated into the moral ecology of Japanese actors.

The alpine landscape of Kamikōchi was ultimately protected against plans for a hydroelectric dam through the commercialization of the landscape into a «second Switzerland». In the 1930s, the valley was selected as one of the first Japanese national parks, and new roads and Swiss-style hotels were built to attract domestic and foreign tourists in order to generate enough income to justify the continued existence of the alpine landscape.

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