Nobu Shirase (1861-1946)
Nobu Shirase was inspired by the tales of Franklin’s search for the Northwest Passage and had a life-long passion for polar exploration. He hoped to be first to the North Pole, but his plans were de-railed by Cook’s and Peary’s announcements in 1909, causing him, like Amundsen, to turn his sights southward. Thus he came to lead the the Japanese Antarctic Expedition, 1910–12, which explored Edward VII Land and spearheaded Japanese exploration of Antarctica.
Japan had no tradition of polar exploration, or contact with other explorers, and Shirase faced difficulties securing both expedition funding and official backing for its scientific program. The expedition set sail in the Kainan-maru (Southern Pioneer) in the fall of 1910, arriving in the Ross Sea late in the season. Sea ice blocked their passage and they turned back north to Australia where they spent the winter. The focus of the expedition now turned to science, as they were too far behind Amundsen and Scott to claim the Pole. In January the expedition once again headed south, now aiming to explore King Edward VII Land. They sailed into the Ross Sea and along the edge of the barrier, until they came to the Bay of Whales. Here, to the surprise of both teams, they met the Fram, waiting for Amundsen to return from the Pole.
Shirase led a ‘Dash Patrol’ southeastward by dogsled, planning to head as far south as possible in the time that they had, exploring a hitherto unknown part of King Edward VII Land. The team reached 80°5’S 156°37’W, having covered 237km (147 miles) in 8 days. Shirase claimed the area for Japan and declared it Yamato Yukihara, the Japanese Snow Plain.
The Kainan-maru sailed east to 155°W, a record unsurpassed until 1934. Then, hugging the coast of King Edward VII land, they sailed to the very edge of the Great Ice Barrier, fixing its eastern limit at a bay they named Okuma Bay, after the expedition’s main backer. They collected rock samples from icebergs, which when later analyzed, pointed to an early formation of King Edward VII Land, separate to the eastern Antarctic.
Shirase returned to a hero’s welcome in Japan, but interest in Antarctica soon waned and he soon fell into anonymity. Outside Japan, little was heard of the expedition until 1933, when the first English-language version of events appeared in The Geographical Journal. By this time, the Scott-Amundsen story was legendary and Shirase was little more than a footnote. It wasn’t until the Japanese Polar Research Institute was established in 1933, with Shirase as its honorary president, that this explorer was truly acknowledged. Today, Shirase’s hometown of Nikaho has a museum celebrating his pioneering expedition. Japan’s Antarctic research vessel is called Shirase, and there are several Antarctic features that bear his name.