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Japan is known across the world mostly for its varied and fascinating culture–from literature to music to amusing illustrations, there’s plenty to love about the country. But when it comes to physical symbols, there’s one thing that towers, literally, above all else: Mount Fuji.

Though the mountain was only recently added to the World Heritage List, it has been a symbol of Japan for centuries, a social and cultural landmark. So if you were asked who owned the mountain, you’d probably assume it was a national park or some other piece of government land.

But you’d be wrong!

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So, let’s get this out of the way: Mount Fuji–or at least its peak–is privately owned land!

That’s the simple answer–unfortunately, the simple answer is nowhere near the full answer, so let’s take a closer look at the issue.

To begin with, the proud owner of Mt. Fuji’s peak isn’t a person–it is actually part of Sengen Grand Shrine, which is mostly located in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture.  The area belonging to the shrine is everything from the eighth stage of the mountain (3,250 meters/10,662 feet) to the top (3,776 meters/12,388 feet), with everything from the eighth stage down technically public land. However, this wasn’t always the case.

▼ Sengen Grand Shrine in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture

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If we went a few centuries back in time, we’d find that the entire mountain was owned by Ieyasu Tokugawa, whose name you probably know from the Tokugawa Shogunate, the unifying government that essentially ended the Warring States Period. In 1606, he donated the peak to the shrine, which held ownership until the Meiji Period, when the Emperor was reestablished as the supreme ruler of Japan.

▼ Ieyasu Tokugawa, the guy who started all this trouble!

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During this period, the Meiji government took control of the shrine on Mount Fuji and most other shrines, making it all public land. This lasted until 1949 when the new Japanese constitution was established and created a separation between church and state and all the land that had been taken by the Meiji government was returned to the shrines. Except Mount Fuji!

This prompted Sengen Grand Shrine to bring a lawsuit, insisting that land was an important spiritual place for the shrine. Even though they won the lawsuit in 1974, the peak wasn’t properly returned until 2004! Well, if you owned Mount Fuji, would you want to give it up??

▼ The “rear shrine” of Sengen Grand Shrine, on the summit of Mount Fuji

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But this isn’t quite the end of the complications!

While Sengen Grand Shrine now technically owns the peak of Mt. Fuji, there’s one little snag: It hasn’t been registered! How could that be? Did the priests have too much wine celebrating their victory and forget to head down to the city office to get everything officiated?

▼ Maybe they forgot the paperwork and didn’t feel like walking back up to get it?

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Not quite. As you probably know, Mount Fuji sits on the boundary between Shizuoka Prefecture and Yamanashi Prefecture. Unfortunately, that boundary all but disappears as far as the mountain is concerned–there’s no official line demarcating what is in Yamanashi and what is in Shizuoka. This means that it’s impossible for the shrine to register the land as its own.

That’s like getting a brand new Lamborghini for your birthday–but losing the title!

▼ Mount Fuji doesn’t get very good mileage either.

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Well, regardless of the technicalities, now you know: The next time you climb to the summit of Mount Fuji, you’re not just standing on one of Japan’s greatest symbols–you’re also standing on private property!

Sources: Naver Matome, Toretaten, Ashyura, Skyscraper and Moon, Fuji Akoako, Oricon Style,
Images: Wikipedia (Ieyasu Tokugawa, Sengen Grand Shrine, Mount Fuji)