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Junko Istibashi was born in 1939 in a small agricultural town in the Fukushima prefecture. Growing up as one of seven children, Junko was a petite child and was reportedly considered weak and fragile.
In a country traumatised by war and poverty, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Junko found strength from nature. She fell in love with mountains after she was taken by a teacher to hike Mount Nasu in Nikko National Park at ten years old. Though the first climb had a striking psychological impact on her, she was aware of the need to pursue higher education and find a respectable job in impoverished, conservative Japan. She went on to study English and American literature at Showa’s Woman University, and climbed consistently through her studies.
After graduating in 1962, she joined several mountaineering groups, looking for climbing partners and opportunities to go on expeditions. These groups were largely male-dominated, and Junko’s enthusiasm was often met with judgment by the groups’ younger men, who believed her to be in fact looking for a husband, rather than teammates.
Undeterred, Junko kept on exploring Japan’s peaks while working long hours as editor of a scientific journal and occasionally tutoring piano and English to finance her expensive hobby. By the mid-sixties, she had scaled all of Japan’s highest mountains, including Mount Fuji.
At this time, she met her husband Masanobu Tabei, a renowned mountaineer, during a dangerous ascent on Mount Tanigawa. Even though her mother disapproved of her marriage to a man who had not gone to university, Junko had found a partner who both shared her passion and supported it when, years later, she decided to give up work in order to focus on climbing.
In 1969, Junko founded the Joshi-Tohan mountaineering club for women only, whose motto was “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves.” At the time, women in Japan were considered better suited to the domestic sphere and, even on the workplace, to secretarial and assisting roles. This, and the nature of a society which, according to Tabei, tended to hammer down into place any “nail that stuck out” made the Joshi-Tohan an unconventional group which was often criticised and struggled to find sponsors.
Never one to sacrifice her dreams for the sake of convention, Tabei led her club on a number of ascents, including the first woman-only ascent to Annapurna III, in Nepal. A number of factors had concurred to make the expedition particularly challenging – the temperatures were so low that film in the cameras broke, the gear was heavy and encumbering, and climbers were understandably hesitant in admitting to altitude sickness and the need for a slower pace. But, the group adapted, and eventually reached the mountaintop. The ascent had only been completed once before, and only through a different route. Junko and her team had made history.
Junko made history again when in 1975, at thirty-five and with a two-year old daughter at home, she became the first woman to climb Everest.
After Annapurna, Junko and her club had repeatedly applied to the Nepalese government for a permit to climb Everest. But policies, as well as difficulties in securing funding, meant that the club had to wait five years. The all woman group eventually set off in spring 1975 and were almost killed by an avalanche. However, they were rescued by their sherpas and even though she had to stop for a few days, Junko, and her sherpa Ang Tshering, eventually reached the mountain top on 16 May 1975.
Having secured last-minute sponsorship by a Japanese TV channel and newspaper, Junko became instantly famous. Modest and weary of the attention generated by her sponsors, she kept her head down and went on climbing. She established another record in 1992, when she became the first woman to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents – including Kilimanjaro, Denali, and Vinson in Antarctica.
In 2000, she went back to university for a postgraduate degree in Environmental Science. She was worried with the type of tourism that had developed around Everest and concerned with waste on the mountain. After graduation, she became head of the Himalayan Head Trust of Japan.
Junko was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, but this did not stop her from climbing and pursuing her dream of scaling mountains in every country. “I never felt like stopping climbing,” she said in an interview “and I never will.” In summer 2016, she led a group of young people affected by the Fukushima disaster on an expedition to Mount Fuji.
She died in November 2016.