Measuring clouds – Mount Fuji through the eyes of Masanao Abes

The exhibition is produced by: Intermediatheque,
The University Museum, The University of Tokyo
(UMUT) in association with Gustavianum, Uppsala
University Museum, with the support of the
Embassay of Sweden, Tokyo + Public Association
Mushikuitakanoha + Gotemba City Board of

Mount Fuji has long been cherished as a mountain representative of Japan.
If it has been named in 2013 on the UNESCO World Heritage list as a cultural site rather than a natural site, there is a reason. In Japan, Mount Fuji is a unique sacred mountain, a particularly significant spiritual and cultural foundation.
   The physicist Masanao Abe (1891–1966) spent more than half a century of scientific study of this symbol of Japanese culture. He was born into the Fukuyama feudal clan, which took part in the Council of Elders (roju) under the Tokugawa shogunate (1600–1868). Named eleventh head of this illustrious samurai family, Abe devoted himself
to research on clouds. In 1927, he thus founded the Abe Cloud Air Current Research Observatory on the heights of Gotemba, at the foot of Mount Fuji, and left a colossal observation archive on mountain clouds and air currents near Mount Fuji. Blessed in his childhood with the good luck to see one of the first screenings of the cinematograph in Japan, Abe became fascinated by images capturing changing objects. Applying this to his research pertaining to the observation of clouds, he invented various observation and recording devices, and eagerly recorded meteorological phenomena.
   Since the second half of the 19th Century, it was well known among researchers throughout the world that photography was efficient in research on clouds. However, Abe’s ingenious idea of applying film techniques, especially speeded-up film and stereoscopic images, was . radically new in the field of meteorology, even on an international scale. Given the complex international context surrounding Japan at the time, it is particularly unfortunate that Abe’s work could not be evaluated by a global audience. But in reality, the large format photographs of clouds drifting on Mount Fuji, taken on the pretext of scientific observation, are remarkable artworks that capture the appearance of the mountain before the war, a sight that is forever inaccessible.

A Hundred Views of Mount Fuji through the eyes of Masanao Abe

Masanao Abe at the Lightning
Observatory / After 1939 /
Contact print / UMUT

In September 1937, Masanao Abe added to his Abe Cloud and Air Current Research Observatory in Gotemba a public museum. In this museum, more than 100 large-format photographs were exhibit-ed. Abe’s archives contain more than 200 large-format prints, which were prepared for public exhibition. Abe’s photographic prints are of high quality from a technical point of view. This is backed by his career at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research where he specialized in research on photographic developers and plates.

Masanao Abe (1891–1966) /
Sequential Photographs of Tsurushi
Cloud in a Stratocumulus / August 4,
1926 / Gelatin silver print / UMUT

Methodology of 
Stereoscopic Photography

Masanao Abe (1891–1966) / Cloud Photo Sheet /
January 27, 1933, 11:12/ Gelatin silver print,
sketch on paper

After discovering the cinematograph in his childhood, Masanao Abe precociously shows interest for stereoscopic photography. During his world tour in 1923, he buys stereoscopic photographs on glass plates and on albumen paper, an early type of photographic paper where the image appears instantly. After returning to Japan, Abe has a specially ordered stereoscope made, as well as drawers in paulownia to classify his photographic plates. His first attempt at stereoscopic photographs is on May 16, 1923, when he photographs a tornado on the Indian Ocean. Nearly 20 years later, between November and December 1942, Abe methodically experiments on stereoscopic photography by shooting from two distant points, which he covers by foot, by train and by boat. This methodological investigation was necessary to stereoscopically grasp a particular object: clouds.

Masanao Abe (1891–1966) / Lenticular Cap Cloud on Mount Fuji / December 27, 1929 / Gelatin silver print / UMUT

Film Archives

Masanao Abe (1891–1966) / Transformation of
Cap Clouds above Mount Fuji /October 6 1928,
from 5:30 to 7:00 am / Gelatin silver prints / UMUT


Film media was the core of Masanao Abe’s research on clouds. In 1926, when he observed a cloud near Mount Fuji from the land on which he was to build his institute, he did so with a movie camera. The cinematograph was important for Abe’s scientific work as he was mainly interested in cloud movements, their transformations and the movement of cloud particles. He firmly believed that visible clouds were the key to understanding invisible air currents around the mountain. From the beginning, he experimented with means to record images, both static and moving, in stereoscopy. He could thus observe and record clouds and their movements, not only as temporal processes but also in three dimensions. Throughout his research on clouds surrounding Mount Fuji from 1926 to 1941, Abe combined cinematography and photography in order to produce a considerable visual archive.

Metrology of Clouds

Masanao Abe (1891–1966) / Panorama of Mount Fuji and its
Surroundings / Date unknown / Gelatin silver print / UMUT

German geodesist Carl Koppe (1844–1910) invented the phototheodolite by combining the photographic camera and the theodolite into a single instrument. By setting up a phototheodolite on both ends of a line uniting two observation points, we can take photographs of a cloud while recording the data indicated by the theodolite. From these measures, we can infer the position, the altitude and the speed of the cloud by means of a triangulation. Based on this method, Masanao Abe developed another one, where he superimposes a stereoscopic scale grating on photographs taken simultaneously from two observation points. Based on the markers of this scale, we can calculate various data. By placing a small-scale model of Mount Fuji in a three-dimensional scale grating, Abe further attempted to describe the position and the altitude of clouds.

Masanao Abe (1891–1966) / Experiment
on “Air Current Against a Valley Model
made Visible with White Smoke” / 1942
/ Contact prints mounted on board / UMUT
Masanao Abe (1891–1966)/ Clouds /
July 19 1934, 8:40 am / Gelatin silver print

Observation, Shooting 
and Projection Instruments

Masanao Abe (1891–1966) / Prototypes
of Wind Direction Indicators for Wind Tunnel
Experiments on Air Current using Models
/ Circa 1937 / Iron wire, plastic, thread,
wood, in paper box / UMUT

While buying numerous devices for observation, measuring and analysis, Masanao Abe made instruments himself according to the objectives of his research. Abe also photographed these devices on glass plates for documentary purposes, those he bought as well as those he made. He had to illustrate some of his articles and writings with photographs of instruments he used and devices he invented. A photographic album entitled “Projectors Used by the Abe Family” gathers photographs of observation instruments and prototypes.

Photographer unknown / Portrait of
Masanao Abe / Circa 1965 /
Gelatin silver print / UMUT
Masanao Abe (1891–1966) / Mount Fuji
Seen from the Abe Observatory /
Circa 1937 / Photographic glass plate