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Famous Antarctic Explorers: Shirase Nobu

Famous Antarctic Explorers: Shirase Nobu

Born in Konoura, Akita, Japan in July 1861, Shirase Nobu led the first Japanese expedition to Antarctica from December 1910 to June 1912.

Growing up, he loved to read about the great explorers of the world, from Christopher Columbus and John Franklin to Ferdinand Magellan.

Inspired by John Franklin, Nobu was originally interested in exploring the Arctic. However, in 1909, he changed his plans to conquer the Antarctic, at the same times as Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton.

Most Japanese thought the idea of exploring Antarctica was ridiculous, and so it was very difficult for Nobu to find a team and to fund his expedition. It wasn’t until he received support from Count Okuma, the former Premier of Japan, that he was finally able to finance his voyage. And so, on December 1, 1910, the Kainan Maru departed, en route to Antarctica via New Zealand.

Because of ongoing poor weather nearing the end of the austral summer, they ended up staying in Sydney, Australia, for the austral winter. Finally, on November 19, 1911, they headed toward Antarctica.

Although he was too late to attempt to be the first man at the South Pole, Nobu’s team were the first to make landfall on the Edward VII Peninsula. They explored the coastal area and the eastern part of the Ross Ice Shelf and managed to reach a latitude of 80°05’S. (In 1961, the New Zealand Antarctic Place-Names committee dubbed that the Shirase Coast, situated on the east side of the Ross Ice Shelf and the Ross Sea).

By the time the crew eventually returned to Japan, the Kainan Maru had travelled more than 30,000 miles since she departed in 1910 and returned in 1912.

Nobu was not a famous explorer when he decided to go to Antarctica. In fact, many thought of his expedition as a waste, and begrudgingly donated money to the cause. However, once the expedition returned to Japan in 1912, Nobu and his team were celebrated as heroes. In 1936, an exhibition was held at the Tokyo Science Museum in their honour. Records of the journey as well as artifacts were displayed, and Nobu spoke to commemorate the occasion.


Polar history buff? Read about the adventures of other Antarctic explorers in our “In the Footsteps of…” series here in the journal.