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Years of research by WMU emeritus culminate in book

by Jeanne Baron

Dec. 5, 2011 | WMU News

KALAMAZOO--The first comprehensive English-language study of the evolving religious and aesthetic symbolism of the world's most famous mountain has been written by Dr. H. Byron Earhart, Western Michigan University professor emeritus of comparative religion.

"Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan" was published in October by the University of South Carolina Press. Illustrated with color and black-and-white images, it provides an overview of the imagery of Mount Fuji from prehistoric to modern times.

Earhart first saw Fuji in 1962. He made his initial ascent in 1969, and spent a year and a half in 1988-89 studying the mountain during fieldwork and library research.

His longtime interest in the revered mountain has resulted in a book that according to one reviewer, "does a masterful job of presenting a rich and comprehensive study of the many different roles that Mount Fuji has played as a multifaceted icon and symbol in Japanese history, culture, literature, art and religion.

The book includes firsthand descriptions of religious practices of pilgrims climbing the peak and pilgrimage organization meetings, as well as provides a link to the author's streaming 28-minute video documentary of Fuji pilgrimage and practice. It also covers little known aspects of Fuji, such as its wartime use in propaganda by Japanese and American forces and its prominence on Japanese currency and postage stamps.

In the past several centuries, Mount Fuji became a prominent national symbol of Japan, made popular especially through woodblock prints.

A key part of Earhart's book traces the rise of Fuji imagery both within the prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai, and as an international symbol through the artworks of impressionists such as van Gogh. It goes on to examine the mountain's association with ultranationalistic ambitions before and during World War II and its becoming a hallmark for peace after the war.

Indeed, history shows that the imagery of Fuji has been so malleable that it has come to serve a host of artistic, naturalistic and commercial causes, even the exotic and erotic.

An expert in world religions, Earhart was named a WMU Distinguished Faculty Scholar in 1981. He has written numerous books on Japanese religion and world religions and continues to teach online courses in those areas for the University.

Earhart retired in 2000 after more than 34 years of service to WMU and now resides in San Diego.