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Sixty Years of Antarctic Research: What the Frozen Continent Can Tell Us About the Future of Our Planet

Motoyoshi Yōichi [Profile]


In 1956, the polar research vessel Sōya set out for Antarctica. In the 60 years since, Japanese researchers in the region have made important contributions to our understanding of the changing global environment. Here, the leader of Japan’s next expedition writes about the special significance of research work in Antarctica for the future of the planet.

On January 29, 2017, Syōwa Station will celebrate 60 years since it opened as the Japanese research base in Antarctica. A sixtieth birthday is a landmark date in the life of any person or institution. Over the course of those six decades, Japan has steadily carried out scientific research in Antarctica, publishing numerous results. These include many new discoveries that no one could have predicted when work began in Antarctica, as well as a number of important clues for predicting the future of the global environment. As we mark this important anniversary, I want to look back on the history of Japanese Antarctic research, and look at what this tells us about the current state of the environment and the prospects for its future.

Syōwa Station and the Antarctic Research Vessel Shirase, which will take the next expedition to Antarctica in November 2016.

Symbol of a New Japan

The story of Japan’s involvement in the Antarctic goes back to 1955, when it announced at a special committee on the International Geophysical Year in Brussels that it planned to begin research in the region. There was apparently deep-rooted opposition among some countries to the idea that Japan was ready to return to the international community so soon after the war. However, other countries were in favor of Japan’s participation, and with their support, Japan started its preparations for Antarctic research.

Although it was already ten years since the war had ended, Japan was still a poor country that bore the scars of its wartime experience. As a child I remember seeing disabled veterans in their hospital uniforms sitting on streets and in front of stations with harmonicas and accordions. It was in this context that a major state project was about to begin.

Yada Kimio, a journalist with the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, learned that the government was considering carrying out research in Antarctica as part of the International Geophysical Year. He persuaded executives at the company to launch an Antarctic Scientific Exploration Project. The whole company got involved in the major campaign that now began, and a major fundraising movement spread across the whole country. Of course, the dedication and hard work of everyone at the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Science Council of Japan, and the Japan Coast Guard (which was responsible for managing the Sōya), were all vital in making the campaign a success. But I am convinced that the passionate support of the Asahi and other private companies and the hopes and dreams of ordinary people around the country were also vital in making the project a reality.

On November 8, 1956, the Antarctic Research Vessel Sōya launched from the Harumi Wharf in Tokyo, waved off by a huge crowd of well-wishers. Japan had joined the United Nations the same year. Many of the people on the wharf that day no doubt saw the ship as a symbol of Japan itself as the country set sail to rejoin the international community. The fact that the launch happened to coincide with Japan’s return to international life made this a highly symbolic event that announced the country’s determination to be reborn as a scientific power.

The Sōya gets underway on November 8, 1956.

The Antarctic Spirit of Cooperation

And so the Sōya set out for Antarctica, carrying with her the hopes of a nation. But once in Antarctica, the ship’s progress was blocked by thick sea ice and blizzards. Although Japan had succeeded in sending a first team of researchers to winter in Antarctica, on the return route the ship became trapped in ice, stuck fast and unable to move.

The Japanese team sent out an SOS to the Soviet icebreaker the Ob, and was lucky enough to be rescued. With the Cold War already underway, relations between Japan and the Soviet Union were barely cordial at the time. But none of this mattered to the researchers involved, and the rescue became a famous example of the Antarctic spirit that says researchers and explorers in the Antarctic must always help one another whenever they can. This spirit of comradeship and cooperation continues to be handed down to the present and is an important part of the lives of the people working in the region today.

The first wintering team consisted of 11 team members under the leadership of Nishibori Eizaburō. The life-threatening risks and near misses the team experienced that winter—as their provisions were swept away from on top of the ice and their research base was destroyed by fire—are chronicled with almost painful clarity in Nishibori’s diaries, later published in Japan under the title Nankyoku ettōki (Wintering in Antarctica: A Personal Record). The remarkable resourcefulness shown by the team as they battled the overwhelming conditions of Antarctic winter , and their determination as they carried out their work and struggled to construct permanent research facilities despite all the setbacks, is a story that has lost none of its power to move.

  • [2016.11.07]

Head of public relations, National Institute of Polar Research. Appointed leader of the next expedition to Antarctica, which will depart in November 2016. Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1954. Took part in eight Antarctic expeditions between 1981 and 2009, two of them as a member of the wintering team, spending almost the whole year in Antarctica, and was previously team leader in 2000 and, 2009.

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