Ayukawa, a Whalers' Town

C.W. Nicol

Click here to see the location of Ayukawa

When Japan adopted the Norwegian methods of whaling at the turn of the century, there were some forty whaling stations between Hokkaido and Kyushu. Now there are only a handful left, and of these the town of Ayukawa is the most active.

Before the coming of the whalers some eighty years ago, Ayukawa had been a quiet, remote little fishing hamlet. It is an out-of-the-way kind of place, situated on Oshika peninsula, in northeastern Japan, close by the island of Kinkasan, famous once as a source of gold, and now famous as a tourist attraction because of its tame wild deer, its wild monkeys, and beautiful shrine.

In 1838 they had experienced at Ayukawa with the net whaling techniques that had been used with great success for centuries before the coming of the foreign whaling ships and the wholesale, wasteful slaughter that ensued. At the orders of the feudal lord of the region, Lord Date Masamune, they imported the skills of Iki island whalers, and began to chase the great sea mammals. However, the right whales and humpback whales were fewer now, and the operation did not last long. It folded around 1843, having taken only forty whales.

With the coming of the steam chaser and the Svenn Foyn gun, whaling began with renewed vigor at the turn of the century, and two whaling companies were formed, one being Teikoku Fisheries, and the other Naigai Fisheries. Operations were based first at Oginohama, further up the peninsula. Norwegian gunners came at first, but the Japanese were quick to learn, and by the time the main whaling operations shifted to Ayukawa, which is at the end of the peninsula and therefore closer to the whaling grounds offshore, the gunners were all Japanese. By this time there were four whaling companies, using small wooden steamboats. Most of the whaling companies of that time were formed in Tosa, Shikoku island. It is interesting to note that Nakahama Manjiro, or 'Joe Mung', had been a Tosa fisherman, and was blown out to sea by a storm and rescued by an American whaler. Manjiro, then fourteen, was taken to the United States and treated most kindly; in fact he was adopted into an American family and educated as an American. He later spent some years aboard an American whaler and was impressed with what he saw there. When he returned to Japan in 1851, which was a very courageous thing to do considering that there was a death penalty for any Japanese who left the country, he ended up as interpreter and whaling advisor, first to the Shogun's government, and then to the new government of the Emperor Meiji. Even before the civil war that ended the two hundred and sixty-seven year rule of the shogunate, it had been a Tosa man, a warrior called Sakamoto Ryoma, who had formed the first marine company using steamships. Members of this company were required to study navigation, gunnery, steam engines, foreign languages, and government. These men eventually held key positions in the new and progressive government of Meiji.

With the influence of these young and progressive companies, Ayukawa prospered, and more and more men turned to whaling as a way of life. The town grew.

The Pacific War hit the whaling industry pretty hard, and boats were being torpedoed and strafed quite close to the homeland. But despite this, and despite the fact that in the final months of the war the allied forces pretty well controlled the air and the sea, the remaining Ayukawa whale catchers hunted for the meat that was desperately needed by a starving Japan.

The years that followed the end of the war were lean, tough years. The country was trying to rebuild, and had not money for importing meat. The fishing and whaling fleets had been savaged by the war, and it was a few years before the whalers were permitted by the Occupation Forces to hunt again. Whale meat was a staple; it provided 25% of the meat that went into school lunches. The Japanese hunted all over the world again, but especially in the Antarctic. No other country had as great a need and as great a liking for whale meat.

In 1957 there were some 25 catchers operating out of Ayukawa, and three main whaling companies, not including the small whale hunters whose prey was mostly the small but delicious minke whale. At this time the population of Ayukawa was 13,000, and more than half of it was connected in some way to the whaling industry.

Now, in 1979, there are only two main companies left, operating four catchers out of Ayukawa. The population has dropped to 9,000, because of the lack of work. Nihon Hogei is the largest company in Ayukawa. It employs 70 people on land and 66 men at sea. Should the company be forced to close down, it would be impossible for those people to find alternative work in Ayukawa.

Besides the people employed directly by the two whaling companies and by the small whale catchers, there are many other industries that rely on whales. The smallest are perhaps the people who carve whale ivory and who make plates and shoehorns from baleen.

Sperm whale ivory is extremely hard, but at the same time very beautiful. The old-time Yankee whalers used to carve and ink pictures on sperm whale teeth, and this folk art, called 'scrimshaw', has become very popular in North America. However, the somewhat crude art of the old-time whalers cannot be compared with the delicate beauty of the carvings of Mr. Chijimatsu in Ayukawa. His father before him was a whale ivory carver, and Mr. Chijimatsu would dearly like his son to continue the art and the business. He is now a very worried man, for although the take of Japanese whales just about provides him with what he needs, international pressure is reducing the quota to such a level that the industry is seriously threatened. Should the whaling industry fold, Mr. Chijimatsu and many others like him would be hopelessly out of work, and his art would be lost.

Another small Ayukawa company is the Izumi Kinya Shoten. They employ about ten people and make gut from sperm whale sinew. This goes to make tennis rackets, and it is said that this gut is superior to nylon or plastic, as it will not stretch, and is tough and resilient.

Mr. Endoh, another Ayukawa man, has a company which takes the effluents from the Kvaerner cookers and from washing down the cutting decks of the whaling plants, and converts these wastes to a high protein meal that goes to feed chickens. His company employs 30 people who would be out of work if whaling ceased. They cannot replace the raw materials for the meal with fish as there is not enough fish in the area, and transport costs would prove too costly.

Another man who would be out of work is Mr. Sato, who operates a small boat which takes the whales from the catchers and tows them to the plants.

More than half the population of Ayukawa relies on whales and whaling for their living.

If whaling stops, more than half the population of the town would have to leave, and this would mean the failure of many small shops, restaurants and other retailers.

I talked at length with Mr. Kondo, a broker who buys and sells whale meat. He says that just the people he is dealing with, those not directly involved in the taking of whales, but in marketing of the products, number about 150.

"These anti-whaling people have absolutely no right to criticize how we live", he said. "We are not exterminating the whales. Ask those people who go out to sea... there are lots of whales." I raised the argument that with Japan's huge gross national product, she could afford to close down the whaling industry and support those people who were out of work, should that be necessary. He got very angry. "What then would happen to our town? To our pride? Maybe Japan has a huge GNP, but that has little effect on the daily lives of many people. Most Japanese are quite poor, and we can't live on beef, chicken and pork, and with all those countries declaring a 200-mile limit, we can't even get the fish we need. Fish is awfully expensive nowadays. However, with this good sperm whale meat that we get in Ayukawa, we can sell it at 150 yen per kilo, which is many times cheaper than any other kind of meat. I know that this meat is vital to a lot of people in districts outside of Tokyo. Maybe those rich people in the big cities can do without whale meat, but there are many, many common people who cannot."

I talked also with the mayor of Ayukawa, Mr. Watanabe Satoshi. He is a small, dapper, cheerful man with a big voice and a big smile. For twenty years he had been involved with the whaling industry.

"If you can help us to tell those people abroad that we really do need whales, we would be grateful. Go anywhere in the town, ask what you like. For us whaling is not just a profit-making business, but a way of life. We are trying to create alternate employment, like tourism for instance, but it is not easy. Ayukawa people are not used to serving other people, and even if they were, we do not yet have tourist facilities. Those tourists who come all the way here are often coming because they want to see a whale, or a whale catcher, like you for instance." He laughed.

I remembered too that an Ayukawa hotel owner had told me that a large proportion of the guests who used his hotel were in Ayukawa because of the whaling.

Ayukawa people don't like anti-whalers.
"A group of those fellows came here," said one Ayukawa man, "but they couldn't speak Japanese, so we couldn't with them. They had one Japanese with them, but when I spoke to him and asked why should those foreigners come to criticize the way we live, this Japanese said he was not an interpreter and couldn't ask that. So there was no discussion. Then they cruised in the harbor, taking pictures of the whaling plant with a telephoto lens, while we were cutting up a whale. If you go to America or somewhere like that, you don't go rudely into a slaughter house to take propaganda pictures, do you? What if they showed pictures of cows being killed to people in India, and said, 'Look what these terrible Americans do,' they would be horrified, I'm sure.

"It's not right for them to take pictures of us cutting up a whale and then go off to call us barbarians, without having the means, or the courage, or whatever, to talk to us and discuss with us. This is our country, isn't it? It's not polite to poke around in other people's kitchens."

At a London meeting of the International Whaling Commission, a screaming protester entered the conference room and threw red dye all over the Japanese representative, who happens to be a very sincere and gentle man. That such a fanatic should be able to get to a representative at an international meeting, and should so insult him and his nation is unthinkable. I have heard here in Japan that they should tell England, America, and all the rest to go to hell, and then the whaling nations should reform their own commission. This would be a great pity, and the non-whaling nations should consider the implications very seriously. As it is, the IWC commissioners have an extremely unenviable task, caught as they are between people who look upon whales as a source of food, as a renewable resource, and others who believe that all whaling should cease. To the people in Ayukawa, it looks as if the non-whaling nations in the commission are responding more to noisy protesters and political pressure than to the need to establish reasonable whaling quotas and protect the stocks, which is supposedly the mandate of the commission.

"We Japanese need whale meat so much that a Japanese freezer ship will follow the Russian whaling fleet and buy meat directly from them" said one Ayukawa resident.

Recently, Korea joined the International Whaling Commission. It is said among whalers that she did not join the commission out of respect for its decisions, but because a ruling, which Japan would obey, that an IWC member nation should not import whale meat from a non-member nation. Korea exports pretty well all of her whale meat to Japan.

To Ayukawa, whose men also, like the men of Taiji, another whaling town in which I happen to live, range far south to Antarctic with the whaling fleet, the taking of whales is vital. If the whaling industry dies, the town dies.

"What can I think of my government," said one Ayukawa whaler, "if it would throw away Ayukawa. If Japan can throw away Ayukawa, and the whaling which is a part of our culture, then what could Japan throw away next? No, we will never stop whaling as long as there is breath in our bodies and as long as there are whales in the ocean... and there are whales in the ocean, and we are not taking too many, despite what they say." He paused for a while, and leaned across the table, "Please go and tell then that in your country, so they know exactly where we stand."

So that's where they stand. Ayukawa, in northeastern Japan, in the prefecture of Miyagi, needs whales, and whalers too. If anyone wants to argue with that statement, I suggest you try arguing in Ayukawa. Good luck.

C.W. Nicol
Taiji, Japan, March 1979.