Photo/IllutrationMajor Theodor Edler von Lerch, fifth from the left, a career soldier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, teaches skiing to Japanese in Niigata Prefecture in January 1911. (Provided by Japan Ski Museum)

Skiing was introduced to Japan in 1911 by Major Theodor Edler von Lerch (1869-1945), a career soldier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who taught the basics of the sport in Niigata Prefecture and Hokkaido, using only one ski pole.

Is Lerch well known in his native Austria?

"Not really," said Hiroshi Arai, 62, a professor at Nihon Fukushi University, who has researched Lerch's life and legacy. "He sort of came into fame only after he was reported to have won the respect of Japanese citizens for propagating the art of skiing in Japan."

Arai researched in cities associated with Lerch, such as Vienna and Prague, and authored a biography.

Lerch was stationed in Japan for less than two years between the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. He was on a recon mission to assess the movements of the Russian Army as seen from the Far East.

Upon inspecting drills conducted by the Japanese military, he was disappointed by what he saw. A report he dispatched home went as follows: "There is nothing worth noting about the training of new recruits in Japan."

In his free time, Lerch enjoyed skiing, climbing Mount Fuji and watching sumo. He grew proficient in Japanese. When it was time to leave Japan, he made his farewell speech in formal and flawless Japanese.

Before long, he would see action on the Russian front. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed with the end of World War I. A career soldier, Lerch lost his way, so to speak.

Retired from service, he remained idle for a year. He started a trading company, but the venture was short-lived. He eked out a living selling his watercolor paintings to Japanese friends and others.

He was in his 50s when he finally married a woman for whom he had carried a torch for decades: She was married with children.

In waiting until her divorce came through and her children were grown, Lerch proved himself to be a proudly honorable man who would not compromise.

Because my only image of Lerch was what I saw in a photograph--standing tall and dignified in his uniform against a snow-covered mountain in Niigata--I always believed he must have lived a charmed and very successful life.

Yet, the latter half of his life could not have been more checkered, what with his experiences of defeat in the war, personal setbacks and poverty.

It was so eventful, it almost makes me want to write a screenplay for a film or TV drama.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 7

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.