THEODOR VON LERCH – The spy who introduced skiing to Japan and made Niseko famous

(英語の後に日本語が続きます。) On a snowy day in January, 1911, the command “Mettre ski” sounded across the slopes of Mount Kanaya. Eleven selected officers from the 58th regiment of the Imperial Japanese Army put on their skis. A little awkward at first but more easily and quickly over the next few days, and weeks. The Austrian Major Theodor von Lerch had started his instruction course introducing modern European skiing methods to the Japanese army.

Anyone living in Takada (Joetsu), is familiar with the name “Lerch”. The statue on top of Mount Kanaya, the mascot, the French restaurant, the history of skiing in Japan, but who was this “Lerch”?

Theodor von Lerch

Von Lerch was born on August 31, 1869, in Pressburg, Hungary (now Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia). Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

His full name is often given as Theodor Edler von Lerch. The addition “Edler” indicates that the family belonged to the lowest rank of nobility in Austria-Hungary. This system was abolished after the first World War, in 1919.

After his secondary education, he entered the Theresan Military Academy in 1888 and was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in 1891. During 1894/95, he completed the general staff course at the Vienna War College. Upon completion of this course, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and transferred to the 59th infantry brigade in Ukraine. A number of other active-duty assignments were followed by an assignment in 1902 at the War Ministry. In 1908 he was promoted to Major.

From September 26, 1910, till January 1, 1913, von Lerch was assigned to an intelligence mission in Japan. The mission’s goal was to gather information on military equipment and tactics in use at the Japanese army.

Von Lerch arrived in Yokohama on November 30, 1910. During his introductory visit to the War Ministry, Tokyo they discussed possible assignments for him in Japan, and in view of his established reputation as a ski-expert, it was agreed to send him to Takada, to the 58th infantry regiment. This regiment was part of the 13th infantry division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Nagaoka Gaishi. Nagaoka was fluent in German, having spent a few years in Germany as a military attaché. The 58th regiment was commanded by Colonel Horiuchi Bunjiro who had some prior experience with cross country skiing and became an enthusiastic participant in the alpine skiing lessons that von Lerch was asked to give.

The Japanese army was interested in modern skiing techniques, especially after the Hakkoda Mountains Incident in 1902, where a group of army soldiers became lost in a blizzard which cost the lives of 199 out of 210 soldiers.

Austro-Hungarian Empire

Although generally described as Austrian, von Lerch was an officer in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austro-Hungary was a Central European Monarchy between 1867 and 1918, ruled by the House of Habsburg.

The Empire was a complex structure: a multinational state, with a dual monarchy, established in 1867 on the basis of the “Austro-Hungarian Compromise”. Within the Empire, Austria and Hungary held equal power and each had its own governmental organizations, but defense, foreign affairs, and finance had been centralized.

The emergence of Japan as a major military power

After Japan established itself as a modern nation after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, it had converted its daimyo-led, antiquated armies into one well-equipped national army. The appointment of Yamagata Aritomo as Minister of War led to the introduction of a new conscription law (1873). Yamagata modeled the national army after the Prussian army. He also drew heavily on French expertise, only to switch later to German expertise for organizational aspects of an army as well as Germany’s expertise in the field of weaponry and metallurgy.

Japan had several opportunities to test its new-found military knowledge, in its war against China (from 1894-95), interventions in Taiwan (1895) and China (Boxer rebellion in 1900), and finally in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05) which ended with an overwhelming Japanese victory.

The European nations realized they were dealing with a Japan that in military respect now was their equal and considering the interests of several European nations in Asia, it became important for them to understand the capabilities of the Japanese army. In order to assess Japanese military capabilities, these European nations therefore sent military intelligence agents to Japan. Austria-Hungary selected Major Theodor von Lerch for this purpose.

Von Lerch in Takada

In early January 1911, von Lerch traveled to Takada to join the 59th regiment. He was warmly welcomed by General Nagaoka and Colonel Horiuchi. Soon after his arrival, he was asked to give a demonstration of modern skiing techniques. The demonstration took place on January 12, 1911, on the slopes of Mount Kanaya and this date is generally recognized as the starting date of modern skiing in Japan.

The first sets of skis to be used for lessons to his Japanese fellow officers were manufactured in the army arsenal in Tokyo and copied from a pair of skis that von Lerch had brought with him. Lessons took place several times a week, with instructions in French and translated into Japanese by the regiment’s Captain Yamaguchi.

Major von Lerch and his Japanese military students at Mount Kanaya

A measure of von Lerch’s success was the inauguration on February 19, 1911 of the Takada Ski Club which within a year already counted 6,000 members.

After the 1911 winter in Takada, he focused on the real purpose of his assignment to Japan, i.e. his intelligence work, by observing and studying the Japanese army, visiting different army units, and participating in maneuvers.

He did have time for one more adventure by becoming the first person to attempt climbing and skiing down Mount Fuji, Japan’s sacred mountain in April 1911. Two Japanese military officers did not receive permission to accompany him. It was not recorded whether the military brass thought the expedition too dangerous or inappropriate to be undertaken by a foreigner.

Von Lerch, therefore, ended up making the climb accompanied by Egon von Kratzer, a foreign resident of Yokohama. They had to abandon their attempt at about 3.600m. The top of the mountain was covered in ice and they had no ice-climbing equipment.  

His next assignment

In early 1912, von Lerch was transferred to Asahikawa, an important army base in Hokkaido, and home to the 7th Infantry Division and a number of other units. The division commander, Lieutenant General Hayashi requested von Lerch to teach his officers and after a relatively short period of intensive training, the group managed to ski down Mount Yotei.

Von Lerch actively explored other potential skiing areas in Hokkaido and when visiting Kutchan, also discovered the powder snows of Niseko. Von Lerch stood not only at the cradle of skiing in Takada but his explorations in Hokkaido thus eventually also led to the rise of Niseko as a world-famous ski resort.  

Ski manufacturing

The first sets of skis to be used for instruction in Takada were manufactured in the army arsenal in Tokyo but soon the first Japanese ski manufacturing companies appeared.

The Ogasaki Company — a local furniture manufacturer in Nagano – produced their first set of 40 pairs of skis in 1912 in their Iiyama plant. They expanded their production, successfully following new trends and technological developments, and in recent years adding snowboards to their product line-up.

At around the same time, skis were also manufactured in Takada, by Yokoyama Kisaku of Nakamachi, Tahara Heihachi of Bancho, and a company called Kazama. The latter company no longer exists but the brand name “Kazama” has for a while been used by the Bulgarian ski-manufacturer Pamporovo-Ski.

After leaving Japan

After terminating his Japan assignment, and promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, von Lerch started his return trip on September 21, 1912. Via Shimonoseki, he first traveled to Korea. Next, he visited Mukden and Port Arthur, and then — after visits to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong — he traveled to British India in order to observe military maneuvers there in November 1912. After his return to Vienna, von Lerch resumed his duties in the War Ministry again in early 1913.

After being promoted to Colonel in 1914, he became Chief of Staff of the 17th Corps and saw action during the first World War, first in Galicia (now south-eastern Poland and western Ukraine) and after that along the Isonzo River on the eastern sector of the Italian Front. In early 1917 he took command of the 20th Mountain Brigade in Albania and later commanded the 93rd Infantry Brigade. He was promoted to Major General and participated in the battles of Flanders (Belgium) in 1918. Von Lerch survived the war and retired from the military in 1919 in Vienna.

He married in 1922. After retirement he spent most of his time writing and giving lectures about his experiences in Japan and Asia and about the South Tyrol issue.

Until 1925 he also owned a company acting as a technical representative of German as well as Chinese companies.

Von Lerch kept in contact with old friends from Japan, most prominently with Lieutenant-General Nagaoka who in the meantime had gone into politics and had been elected to Japan’s House of Representatives. In Takada (Omachi) the General’s statue can be found in the garden of the old divisional headquarters, now home to a very good French restaurant, appropriately named “Helice” (propeller) after the General’s extra-ordinary mustache.

 Von Lerch passed away in Vienna on December 24, 1945, at age 76.

Statue of Lieutenant-General Nagaoka in the garden of French restaurant “Helice”, formerly his divisional headquarters

Was von Lerch really the “Father of skiing” in Japan ……?

Having come this far we are firmly convinced, no …., we know in fact that von Lerch was the father of skiing in Japan. Or was he ….?

There is evidence in many parts of the world that in ancient times people used ski-like implements to move around in snowy conditions. There is no reason to believe Japan was an exception in this respect. But it was not till the end of the 19th century that modern skis, as had been developed in Europe, entered Japan.  

In 1895 Captain Matsukawa Toshitane brought cross-country skis back from Europe where he had been stationed as Japan’s military attaché in Germany.

In 1902 the Norwegian Consul in Kobe ordered skis for the Japanese army after the Hakkoda Mountains disaster.

In 1904 Nomura Jisaburo, a rich businessman from Aomori ordered a set of skis from Norway but there is no record if and how he used them.

It was reported in a Tokyo newspaper that some units of the Japanese army fought on skis during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05).  

In 1908 Hans Koller, born in Zuerich, was appointed as a lecturer in the German language at what is now the University of Hokkaido. He imported skis into Japan in 1909. He was unable to ski himself but his students experimented on their own, until in 1912 they received instruction from von Lerch who at that point was stationed in Asahikawa.

In 1909 Egon von Kratzer (Austrian) was living in Yokohama. He represented Siemens in Japan and was giving ski instruction to his fellow foreigners. As described above, von Kratzer accompanied Von Lerch in an attempt to scale Mount Fuji on skis in April 1911. Later, von Kratzer followed in the footsteps of Hans Koller and taught at the university in Sapporo.

Von Lerch clearly was not the first person to introduce skis and skiing to Japan but there seems little doubt that he was the real catalyst for the rapid development of modern skiing in Japan. He was strongly supported in this respect by General Nagaoka who understood the military necessity but at the same time supported skiing as a sport for all. On balance, describing von Lerch as Japan’s “father of skiing” is entirely justified.

In memory of von Lerch:

At the foot of Mount Kanaya is the Japanese Memorial Museum of Skiing. It has lots of interesting information not only about von Lerch but also about the development of skiing in Japan in general.

Japan Ski Memorial Museum
(Mount Kanaya, Takada)

The original Takada Ski Club became the Japan Ski Club. A new Takada Ski Club was formed in 1921 under the name Takada Ski Dan (“group”) and it is still in existence today.

Separately, a group of Takada ski enthusiasts with an interest in its history in Japan established the “Lerch no Kai” (the Lerch Society) about 50 years ago. The group has more than 100 members and its objective is to keep alive the old, one-pole skiing method as introduced by Major van Lerch. The committee responsible for teaching this method is headed by Ms. Masuda, who also manages the Memorial Museum.

Every year in February, the Lerch no Kai organizes its Lerch Festival, which includes demonstrations of the one-pole skiing method.

Member of the “Lerch no Kai” practicing his one-pole skiing technique

テオドール・フォン・レルヒ 日本にスキーを紹介し、ニセコを有名にしたスパイ

1911年1月の雪の日、金谷山の斜面に「Mettre ski! (メテレ スキー! スキーを履きなさい)」の号令が鳴り響いた。大日本帝国陸軍第58連隊から選ばれた11人の将校がスキーを履いた。最初は少しぎこちなかったが、数日後、数週間後にはもっと簡単に、もっと早く滑れるようになった。オーストリア人のテオドール・フォン・レルヒ少佐が、ヨーロッパの近代的なスキー術を日本軍に導入するための指導を始めたのだ。

高田(上越)に住んでいる人にとって、「レルヒ」といえば金谷山頂の銅像、ゆるキャラ、フランス料理店、日本におけるスキーの歴史など…… 馴染みのある名前だ。さて、この「レルヒ」とは何者なのか?












1868年の明治維新を経て近代国家となった日本は、大名が率いる古めかしい軍隊を、設備の整った国軍に改編していた。1873年に山縣有朋(やまがた ありとも)が陸軍大臣に任命され、徴兵制を取り入れた。山縣はプロイセン陸軍を手本とし、フランスの技術を導入したが、陸軍の組織面ではドイツの技術を導入し、その後武器や冶金の分野でもドイツの技術を導入した。

























1895年、松川敏胤(まつかわ としたね)大尉がドイツ駐在武官としてヨーロッパからクロスカントリースキーを持ち帰った。












One thought on “THEODOR VON LERCH – The spy who introduced skiing to Japan and made Niseko famous

  1. You have a nice blog. I really appreciate it. Isn’t Japan beautiful?

    I looked into レルヒ a bit after coming across a monument to him on Mt. Fuji earlier this month.

    I enjoyed his story. That period of history was such a fascinating turning point.

    I also found it amusing that the fact that he joined the Nazi party in 1940 (according to German wikipedia) is not mentioned on Japanese or English wikipedia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s