Nobu Shirase

Born in 1861, Nobu Shirase's first exposure to exploration came on an expedition to the Karil Islands, north of Japan, in 1893. He was an unknown lieutenant in the army when his struggles to organize a Japanese expedition to Antarctica began. Fighting both government and public ridicule, success only arrived when the support of Count Okuma, a nobleman and former Premier of Japan, was gained. Fortunately his financial needs were modest as the public grudgingly donated the necessary funds. When Japan's first expedition to the Antarctic sailed from Tokyo on December 1, 1910, only a handful of students watched the departure. Their vessel, the KAINAN MARU, was only 100 feet in length. The ship arrived at Wellington, New Zealand on February 7, 1911 and four days later departed for the Antarctic. Poor weather was experienced on the entire trip south with their first encounter of icebergs coming on February 26. Clawing their way south through the drifting bergs, the coast of Victoria Land was finally sighted on March 6. Conditions were still so poor that a landing was simply impossible. They sailed on through the Ross Sea towards Coulman Island only to find the weather worse than what they had left. Snow fell continuously, storms pounded them and soon they found themselves surrounded by a heavy ice pack. It was impossible to go further so Shirase ordered the depressed crew to turn the ship northward for Australia. They arrived at the harbor in Sydney on May 1, 1911 and were immediately greeted with suspicion and hostility. Accommodations were not forthcoming. It was left to a resident of upscale Vaucluse to grant them free use of part of his garden to erect their prefabricated hut. Captain Nomura and several members of the crew returned to Japan in an attempt to raise additional funds while the rest of the expedition remained behind, with little money and food, living a life close to that of a beggar.

Shirase expressed his anger with the hostility of the local newspapers when he sadly wrote, "The New Zealand press viewed our attempt with ridicule. The New Zealand Times was particularly poignant in its comments upon us. It remarked that we were a crew of gorillas sailing about in a miserable whaler, and that the polar regions were no place for such beasts of the forest as we. The zoological classification of us was perhaps to be taken figuratively, but many islanders interpreted it literally, because crowds of people came to our tents daily to observe the 'sporty gorillas' misguided with the crazy notion of conquering the South Pole". A former member of Ernest Shackleton's 1907 expedition came to the rescue. Professor Edgeworth David, from the University of Sydney, learned of Shirase's misfortune and his enthusiastic involvement did much to reassure the Australian public.

Nobu Shirase had originally intended to reach the South Pole but it was clear to him that he was now too far behind the other expeditions led by Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott. The second attempt at landfall on the Antarctic mainland began from Sydney Harbor on November 19, 1911. Now that the quest for the Pole was out of the question, attention was turned towards completion of scientific work and exploration at King Edward VII Land. After celebrating New Year's Day with a traditional banquet, they reached the Ross Ice Shelf on January 16, 1912. A party was sent ashore at a spot they named Kainan Bay but the ice was filled with so many crevasses that the safety of the men would be in constant jeopardy. The party came back on board and the KAINAN MARU headed off to the west. Before long the men were startled to see another ship dead ahead. At first they thought it might be a pirate but were subsequently reassured to learn that it was Amundsen's FRAM, which was waiting for Amundsen's return from the Pole. Visits were exchanged but language difficulties prevented any serious discussion.

Shirase was now faced with the task of getting his party to the top of the ice shelf, which was 300 feet high at the place where the KAINAN MARU was moored. "We were resolved to scale the so-called insurmountable barrier or die", wrote Shirase. Some 60 hours later, after cutting a zig zag path up the nearly perpendicular slope, the first men stood at the top. A small party was sent ashore to investigate the ice and when they returned with encouraging reports Shirase decided to make it the starting point of his so-called Dash Patrol. The Dash Patrol consisted of seven men, two of which would remain at the edge of the ice shelf as a base camp while the other five would make a dash to the south on sledges pulled by dogs. As it turned out, it was anything but a dash. On the first day blizzard conditions forced them to make camp after only eight miles. It would be two days later before the "dash" resumed but progress was again very slow since each dog had to pull 57 pounds. They struggled on, through terrible conditions, until January 28; they had covered 160 miles. The men stuck a Japanese flag, on a bamboo pole, into the ice and saluted the Empire with a threefold Banzai before burying a copper case containing a record of their journey. At this time Shirase made the wise decision to turn back for the ship.

While Shirase was off with the Dash Patrol, the KAINAN MARU had left the Bay of Whales to drop a shore party at Biscoe Bay in King Edward VII Land. The men were able to climb a 150-foot ice slope and go on to reach the foot of the Alexandra Range, which until then had not been seen at close range. A large crevasse prevented them from reaching the summit of the mountains but a memorial board was erected to commemorate the journey. After the men returned, the KAINAN MARU made her way back to the Bay of Whales. The wind was against her and it was not until February 2 that she could enter the bay. With considerable difficulty the Dash Patrol was taken on board and the ship made ready for her trip to the north. The ship made one more calling at Wellington and reached Yokohama on June 20, 1912. The expedition had sailed over 30,000 miles since leaving Japan and despite not reaching the Pole, they had achieved all their other goals after departing from Australia. They may have left in a silent departure, but their welcome in Yokohama was a tremendous reception. Nobu Shirase died in 1946.

Ham Radio QSL Card Confirming My 2-Way Radio Contact With Showa Base



Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest.

Antarctica, the Last Continent, by Ian Cameron.

Antarctic Conquest, the Great Explorers in Their Own Words, by Walker Chapman.

The White Continent, by Thomas R. Henry.



Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, published by Reader's Digest, second edition.

Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events, by Robert K. Headland.