KineSophy Hall of Fame: Junko Tabei

This month, KineSophy adds another member to its Hall of Fame: mountain climber, activist and author Junko Tabei. Tabei was the first woman to climb Mount Everest and the Seven Summits, and she did so in the 1970s despite social pressures against women living active lifestyles and pursuing lofty goals. Combined with her activism in support of environmental and humanitarian causes, Tabei’s life offers another real-life example of the ethics of human movement.

Childhood and Early Career

Junko Tabei was born in Miharu, Fukushima, Japan in 1939. “I was stamped as a weak child,” she told Sports Illustrated in a 1996 interview. But a school field trip to climb Mount Asahi and Mount Chausu, each a little more than 6,000 feet high, stoked Tabei’s lifelong passion for climbing.

Junko Tabei
Junko Tabei

She joined a mountain climbing club while attending Showa Women’s University. At 4’9” tall and just ninety-two pounds, the diminutive Tabei was often the only woman on climbing trips and at club meetings. Some of the men in the club refused to climb with her. Others accused her of participating just to find a husband. After graduating with a degree in English literature, Tabei abandoned her plans to teach. Instead, she worked at several jobs to support her climbing and then devoted herself full time to mountaineering. In 1969, she founded the Ladies Climbing Club based on the idea that women could and should lead their own mountaineering expeditions. Their slogan: “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves.” The following year, Tabei led the club on a successful expedition to the 24,787-foot-tall Annapurna III in Nepal. 

The Climb Before the Climb

After that climb, Tabei set her sights to Everest, the highest peak in the world. There was a four-year waiting list, but she and a team from her Ladies Climbing Club registered for a slot and began preparations. They struggled to find funding for their trip. Many prospective sponsors told the women they should be rearing children instead. Tabei raised money by giving piano and English lessons. The group made their own sleeping bags, collected leftover jam packets from school lunches and made goods from recycled materials to sell at fundraisers. When their finances still fell short, they received last-minute sponsorships from the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and Nippon Television. Even with these contributions, the group members each had to pay a sum close to the average yearly salary in Japan. 

Tabei faced additional backlash when she left her three-year-old daughter with her husband—also a mountaineer—and relatives in order to train for the expedition. “Back in 1970s Japan, it was still widely considered that men were the ones to work outside and women would stay at home,” Tabei told the Japan Times in 2012. “Even women who had jobs—they were asked just to serve tea. So it was unthinkable for them to be promoted in their workplaces.” But Tabei was willing to stick out in pursuit of her goal, knowingly defying the Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.”

“There was never a question in my mind that I wanted to climb [Mount Everest], no matter what other people said.”

Mount Everest

In the spring of 1975, Tabei and her all-female team began their ascent of Everest, accompanied by six male Sherpas. But at Camp II, 21,326 feet above sea level, an avalanche struck the team’s tents as they slept. The snow buried Tabei and knocked her unconscious. Fortunately, her team’s Sherpas managed to pull her from the debris, and her entire team survived. However, Tabei’s injuries left her unable to walk for the next two days. But Tabei pressed on.

Closer to the summit, she encountered a narrow icy ridge that formed the boundary between Nepal and Tibet with sheer 15,000-foot drops on either side. “I had no idea I would have to face that, even though I’d read all the accounts of previous expeditions,” Tabei said in an interview with the Japan Times. “I got so angry at the previous climbers who hadn’t warned me about that knife-edge traverse in their expedition records.” She crawled sideways, her body straddling the ridge. “I had never felt that tense in my entire life,” she said afterward. “I felt all my hair standing on end.”

Twelve days after the avalanche, Tabei reached the 29,032-foot summit of Mount Everest, crawling on her hands and knees. She was the first woman to complete the feat and the only woman in her party to do so. Eleven days later, a Tibetan laborer named Phanthog became the second woman to summit and the first to do so from the Tibetan side. In keeping with her views on equality, Tabei downplayed her achievement, saying “I was the thirty-sixth person to climb Everest.”

Junko Tabei at the summit of Mount Everest
Junko Tabei at the summit of Mount Everest

The Seven Summits and Beyond

After Everest, Tabei set her sights on becoming the first woman to climb the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. She climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 1980, Aconcagua in Argentina in 1987, McKinley (now known as Denali) in Alaska in 1988, Elbrus in Russia in 1989, Vinson Massif in Antarctica in 1991 and finished with Carstensz Pyramid (also known as Puncak Jaya) in Indonesia in 1992.

Having made her mark in the climbing world, Tabei shifted her focus to environmentalism and activism. In 2000, she did postgraduate work at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, studying the degradation of mountain terrain caused by garbage and human waste left behind by climbers, especially on Everest. She became an influential figure in the fight to protect and preserve nature and served as director of the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan, a group committed to protecting fragile high-alpine environments from the traces left by hikers and climbers. She also worked to help earthquake survivors and wrote seven books about climbing and family, including her memoir Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei.

The Legacy of Junko Tabei

In 2012, Tabei was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Starting that year, she climbed the 12,388-foot-tall Mount Fuji each summer with local high school students, including those from her birthplace in the Fukushima region, an area severely affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In July 2016, she made it only halfway up the mountain but still cheered the students on. She passed away three months later at the age of seventy-seven.

When asked about Everest and her willingness to be different, Tabei said, “There was never a question in my mind that I wanted to climb that mountain, no matter what other people said.” It is in that spirit and in honor of her trailblazing mountaineering, championing of equal rights, and environmental and humanitarian activism, that KineSophy inducts Junko Tabei into its Hall of Fame.