Most people have heard the story of the race to the South Pole. In 1911, Roald Amundsen and Sir Robert Falcon Scott set off on concurrent journeys to Antarctica to reach the last great unknown place on Earth. What resulted was a narrow victory for the Norwegian expedition and tragic deaths for the British expedition. The saga of this race is so epic it's retold time and time again. But most stories overlook a third expedition that also had the South Pole in its sights.
The Japanese Antarctic Expedition
When expedition leader Nobu Shirase and his team left Japan in 1910, they had every intention of being the first to reach the South Pole. After a late start and inclement weather, they lost hope of making a landing in Antarctica in their first season. Along with it, they also lost their place in the story of the South Pole race.
When the expedition finally made landing in 1912, the Amundsen and Scott had both reached the Pole already. The expedition set less ambitious goals on their second attempt, but still made significant contributions to the world's understanding of Antarctica. They were the first to make a landing at King Edward VII Land, and they gathered important information about the geology, ice, and weather of the surrounding area. They also hold the distinction of being the first non-European Antarctic expedition.
The Expedition Flag
Like many expeditions of the Heroic Era of Exploration, the Shirase Expedition had its own expedition flag. Historians Shisui Matsuyama and Mitsuo Harada wrote of it flying from the expedition ship Kainan Maru when it departed Japan.
Under a display of bunting, with the national ensign, the Sun-flag, and the special flag of the expedition, with the Southern Cross for emblem a-top, the ship left Tokyo on 29 November, 1910...
In addition to the version that flew from the mainmast of Kainan Maru, Shirase seems to have taken a second version on the expedition. This one also features the white stars of the Southern Cross on a blue flag but swaps the yellow-orange lines of the first version for much thicker red ones. It's unclear why these two variants exist, and there seem to be no surviving photos of the red variant in use. Staff at the Shirase Antarctic Expedition Memorial Museum, where both flags are currently housed, had not responded to inquiries at the time of publication.
Modern reproductions of the flag don't stick to one variant or the other, but often combine the line weight from one with the color of the other. A version of the flag now flies outside the expedition museum, and every year his home town hosts a parade in the expedition's honor. It is also sometimes seen at events of the Japanese National Institute for Polar Research, such as ship launchings.
Despite some fanfare on its return home, the Shirase Antarctic Expedition quickly faded from public consciousness. Kainan Maru returned to its original role as a fishing vessel and was later lost to history. Shirase spent most of his life working off expedition debt and died in relative obscurity. Today the story of the expedition is still far from center stage, but the expedition flag has helped keep its memory alive.