Whales in the Japanese countryside: proud thieves in search of the riches of the sea

Fourth of 5 parts
Japanese Racing Association

Part 1: Whales in the Japanese Landscape: Natural Resources and Production Root

Part 2: Whales in the Japanese Landscape: The Power of the Warrior Spirit

Third part: WHales in the Japanese Countryside: A Test of Character, Past and Present

The Japanese have hunted whales since ancient times. It is impossible to consider the relationship between the Japanese people and the sea without examining the history of whaling.

This is the fourth in a series of five articles on Whales in the Japanese Landscape. The series is part of a larger ongoing collection published by The Sankei Shimbun in Japanese titled “Tales of the Watatsumi” after the Japanese god of the sea.

In this part we take a look at the ownership issues of the captured whales and the traditions in the distribution of the riches of the sea.

Edo period Japanese whalers made huge fortunes. In a way, these men monopolized a marine resource that no one owned. Apparently, other groups then stole the meat from captured whales, but they were not severely punished.

It was a time before modern laws were introduced. This could be thought of as an improvised distribution network for a valuable natural resource.

What caught my attention wasn’t the flensing of a huge whale pictured in the diorama exhibit, but rather a small group shown in a corner. I visited the Shima no Yakata Museum on Ikitsuki Island in Hirado City, Nagasaki Prefecture. During the Edo period, this was one of the largest traditional whaling operations in all of Japan.

The group that caught my eye secretly hung a net over the side of the wharf and tried to catch chunks of whale meat in the water. They also attempted to avoid men pursuing them with clubs raised. Could this be a gang of thieves?

Kyushu whalers

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The remains of the area used for flinging whales during the Edo period on Ikitsuki Island in Hirado City, Nagasaki Prefecture.

During the late Edo period, the scale of whaling operations in northwestern Kyushu exceeded that of Taiji and other communities in the Kishu region (near modern Wakayama).

Kyushu’s whalers included the Masutomi clan, who ran a large enterprise on Ikitsuki Island but also had whaling groups operating on Iki Island and in the Goto Nada Sea west of Kyushu, employing about 3,000 people. Employing a modern management style aimed at increasing capacity and efficiency, the operation recruited net-savvy fishermen from around Kyushu and further north in the Setouchi region on Japan’s main island of Honshu.

You can read the rest of this story at this link to learn more about Japanese whalers and how their character is being tested, past and present. This article was first published by Whaling Today on 6th July 2022. Check out Whaling Today for a deeper and unique look at Japanese whaling culture, whale conservation efforts and sustainable whaling.

The series continues in Part 5.

(Read the column in Japanese at this link. This article was published in cooperation with the Institute for Whale Research. Let’s hear your thoughts in our comments section.)


Author: Hideaki Sakamoto

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