Major Lerch

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Lerch's visit to Japan and how he came to teach skiing.

Lerch

Major Theodor Edler von Lerch 1889 - 1945

 The art of skiing was first properly introduced to Japan in January 1911 by Major Theodor Edler von Lerch. He was a soldier of the Austro-Hungarian empire who visited Japan with the aim of studying the Japanese army which had been victorious in the Russo-Japanese War. Lerch himself records that "I was not sent as a ski instructor" but the army practiced marching in snow at Mount Hakkoda. Once it became apparent that Lerch was an expert skier who had trained with Matthias Zdarsky himself, he actively gave them instruction in the sport.

 So what was the technique which Lerch taught them? It was a safe downhill skiing technique suitable for steep slopes in mountainous areas,based on what is known today as the Stemmbogen system. The skis which they used were Austrian Alpine ones, which differed in shape from the long and large Nordic ones. Not only were they shorter, but they had stronger fastenings and only one ski pole was used instead of the more usual two.

"Mettre ski"

 8am on 12 January 1911, at the training ground of the 58th Infantry Regiment (now the grounds of the Joetsu Josei Junior High School). Lerch, an officer who had specialised in skiing, gave the command to put on their skis: "Mettre ski!" (Lerch's main language in Japan was French. That he did not use German, his native tongue, is said to be because his interpreter, Captain Yamaguchi, was more fluent in French.) Then followed the historic moment which decided Joetsu (then known as Takada) City's place as the birthplace of skiing in Japan. Later Lerch, who had spent two seasons in the area as an instructor, said "I was working so hard at teaching them to ski that I did not know whether I had come to Japan to observe the Japanese army or to be employed as a ski instructor."

 On the other side of the coin, those who had accepted him as an observer, Nagaoka Gaishi (chief of the army's 13th Division) and Horiuchi Bunjiro (chief of the 58th Infantry Regiment) were blessed with great understanding. By the latter half of the ski instruction course they had already formed a ski instruction association for the prefecture's teaching staff, and at the same time powerfully promoted the spread of skiing to the civilian population. That a new ski club (The Takada Ski Club) was formed a little over one month after Lerch gave his first lesson, is evidence of that popularity. Those who studied under Lerch later took the lead in teaching others how to ski and then, as those pupils' followers were sent to the snowy areas as instructors, Lerch's skiing technique spread through the entire country in an instant.

Nagaoka Gaishi's Accomplishment

 As the number of skiers in Japan goes on increasing every year, the development of ski-related industries is also remarkable. One might say that the person who laid the foundations for this prosperity was General Nagaoka Gaishi (1856-1933). One can praise him for his great achievement in being the leader who planned the spread of skiing's popularity to civilians, without monopolizing the sport and making it an activity exclusive to the army. The lifestyle in Snow Country before the introduction of skiing was hard and there was no means of wintering those many months other than by using snowshoes and wooden snow shovels. Skiing was not only convenient as a means of transport which was useful for improving energy and physical strength, it caused a complete change in the Snow Country lifestyle, something which one may well describe as one of the blessings of civilization.

Sources:
The Japanese Memorial Museum of Skiing
Oguma Photography (The photograph of Major Lerch with his single ski pole was taken by Oguma Wasuke)