Taiji - Winds of Change

C.W. Nicol

Click here to see the location of Taiji
Click here to see the whaling equipment used at Taiji

Taiji is a little town huddled against the southerly hills of the Kii peninsula, the largest peninsula of the main island of Honshu, Japan. It is a whaling town, and has been for eight hundred years or so. For a long time it has been extremely difficult to get to Taiji overland, and the Taiji people looked always to the sea for their livelihood as well as for their means of transport. Now, of course there is an efficient rail service, and a road, yet still Taiji looks out to sea, and one is never long out of sight of the broad Pacific.

Taiji has many sayings and superstitions, two of which have stuck in my mind. The first is easy to understand - "A whale on the beach means wealth for seven villages."

In the old days, the best cuts of meat were sent by ship to the Imperial Court in Kyoto, to the Shogun's Palace in Edo, to the Tokugawa castle at Wakayama, and to Lord Mizuno, Daimyo of Shingu. Meat was also sent to the busy markets of Osaka, Nagoya, and Ise. Neighboring villages also bought or traded goods for the valuable delicacy of whale meat, and still there would be enough meat left over to feed the seven hundred or so men and their families who were employed by the whaling business of Taiji when it was at its peak.

Meat, for human consumption, was the most valuable portion of the whale, but nothing was wasted. As in the West, blubber was rendered into oil, the uses of which were many indeed. Whale oil lighted the lamps of Japan too, but besides lamps, the oil was mixed with vinegar to make a highly effective pesticide for use in the rice paddies. This oil-vinegar mixture was perfectly biodegradable, and killed off only harmful pests, with no ill effects on the edible loaches and small clams that abounded in the rice paddies of Tokugawa Japan.

Oil-rich bones were sawed up and cooked. After this first cooking they were smashed into pieces by hammers and cooked again. These bones provided excellent fertilizer, and more oil. This fertilizer was of such great value that merchants came from distant parts of Japan to make bids for its purchase.

Sinews were carefully cut out from the bone and meat, and when dried they were sold to instrument makers, armor makers and so forth. The baleen (erroneously called 'whale bone' in the West) found even more uses than it did in fashion-conscious America and Europe. It was used in myriad ways, from the tips of fine fishing rods, to beautifully polished plates, and the springs that worked the mouths of the 'bunraku' puppets.

Even the entrails were cut, washed and boiled, and were used in miso soup, or broiled on charcoal. Absolutely nothing was wasted.

In Japan, where the killing of four-legged animals was forbidden by religion, the rich red meat of the whale was a prize indeed.

For a period of some three hundred years, the Taiji men hunted whales with the aid of huge rope nets, designed to entangle the whale and slow it down enough for the harpooners and lancers to kill it. In those days, their principal quarry was the right whale, the humpback whale, the grey whale and the sperm whale. The Taiji men hunted other species too, but like their American and European counterparts, they could not take the fin and blue whales.

Taiji whaling was highly ritualized. Most positions were hereditary, and the industry and hierarchy was extremely complex. Each boat of the whaling fleet was brilliantly decorated with various motifs, and banded with distinct colors so that even at a distance they could be identified. Each boat had its position and function in the fleet. The fastest and most beautiful were the high-powered 'seko-bune' or chase boats, slender vessels with their black hulls lacquered for extra speed, and manned by fifteen men. At the height of the Taiji whaling there were as many as twenty-five 'seko-bune'. Then came the heavier 'ami-bune' or net boats, whose job was to lay the double semicircle of nets in the path of the whale. The broad-beamed 'moso-bune' were used for the final securing and lancing of the stricken whale, which, once dead, would be towed to shore between two of these boats, secured by ropes under the belly and suspended from two stout beams of wood slung from boat to boat. There were also small boats which would retrieve pieces of equipment lost in the water during the hunt.

The fleet was directed from lookout points on shore, which were also in contact with the beach-master. They relayed his orders, as well as the sightings and movements of whales, by the means of various pennants, by signal sticks (a kind of semaphore), by smoke signal and by the notes of conch shell trumpets.

One signal was of great significance. The hoisting of it would means a whale sighting, but no hunt. It was a three-pennant signal, each pennant being black with a white stripe in the middle, and it signified a female right whale and her calf. I had said earlier that there are two Taiji sayings which stick in my head. The first was "a whale on the beach means wealth for seven villages" - the second sayings is "Even in a dream, look not upon a right whale and her calf." Why? Well, firstly, there is a wealth of stories in Taiji to indicate that they held the female whale, especially a pregnant or mother whale in great awe. Even the whaler's song show this. The second reason is that the whalers were fully aware that little whales needed their mothers, and would die without them, and that to kill small whales was foolish. The third reason was that a female right whale, normally a docile creature, would fight with fury if she had a calf. Besides, in the seventeenth, eighteens, and in the early part of the nineteenth century, whales were plentiful around the shores of Japan. Only inclement weather and the unfavorable shifts of the great warm current which was the highway of migrating whales had any real effect on the catch. So the Taiji whalers could afford to let a female right whale and her calf go unharmed, and it seems that they always did so. During the best period of net whaling in Taiji, they took about a hundred whales a year, enough to keep the village flourishing, but certainly not enough to make a dent in the whale population.

However, things were to change. Following reports of a merchant vessel captain who had been en route from Shanghai, the first Western whaling ships, the 'Maro' from Nantucket, and the 'Enderby' from Britain, soon filled their casks with oil. By 1822, thirty ships were whaling off Japan. By 1846, together with Russian, British, Dutch and French ships, as well as the big American whaling fleet, there were seven hundred or more vessels hunting off Japan, killing right whales, humpback whales, grey whales and sperm whales in great numbers. However, unlike the shore-based Japanese, the foreign ships had no use for meat or bones, and certainly not for entrails. They killed for oil, baleen, and what little ivory came from the sperm whales. To the Japanese, the wastage of those years is a horror story.

Whaling was big business. In 1846, the peak year of the American whaling industry, in the United States alone some 70,000 people were employed in the whaling business, and it was pressure from this business that brought about the lobbying which caused the eventual dispatch of a powerful American naval expedition to Japan, headed by Commodore Perry. This expedition, which took place in the years 1852, 1853 and 1854, was the point of the wedge which opened Japan to the rest of the world. I'd like here to quote from the official Narrative, published by order of Congress in 1846.

"Whales of several varieties abound in those parts of the ocean lying between the Bonins and the coast of Asia, and are in greater numbers in the neighborhood of Japan. Until the establishment of a treaty with that singular empire the masters of whaling vessels were cautious not to approach near to its shores, under a well-founded apprehension of falling into the hands of the Japanese, and suffering, as a consequence, imprisonment and cruel treatment. These fears should no longer exist, as the stipulations of the treaty (the Treaty of Kanagawa, the first treaty Japan ever signed with a foreign nation. Brackets mine.) make provision and offer guarantees not only for kind treatment to those Americans who may approach the coast, or be thrown by accident upon its hitherto inhospitable shores, but allow all American vessels under press of weather to enter any of its ports for temporary refitment; and the ports of Hakodadi (Hakodate) and Simoda (Shimoda) are open for all purposes of repair or supplies.

"As, therefore, the obstacles to a free navigation of the Japan seas no longer present themselves, our whaling ships may cruise in safely and without interruption as near to the shores as may be convenient, or in the seas lying more to the eastward. But to render this part of the ocean in all respects convenient to our whaling ships, something more is wanted, and that is a port of resort, which shall be in all respects free for them to enter and depart without the restraints of exclusive laws and national prejudices; for though, as before remarked, the ports of Hakodadi and Simoda, in Japan, to which we may add Napha (Naha), in great Lew Chew (Ryukyu, i.e., Okinawa), are by treaty open to American vessels, a long time may elapse before the people of those ports divest themselves of the jealousies which they have hitherto entertained against strangers, and it is well known that the crews of whaling vessels visiting the ports of the Pacific are not remarkable for their orderly behavior or conciliatory deportment."

Commodore Perry then continues to argue for the establishment of a base in the Bonins, which was quite clearly Japanese property.

However, despite Perry's remarks that the masters of whaling vessels had been cautious not to approach near to the coasts of Japan, by the time the black ships of his squadron had bullied their way into the ports of Naha and Shimoda, and into Edo bay, there had been thirty or so years of intensive whaling off the coast of Japan by foreign vessels, eager to brave storms and typhoons for the riches of the seas. The Kanagawa Treaty made things easier for them, but already the whales, especially the slow-moving and valuable right whales, were in decline.

In Taiji, a village whose only wealth came from the sea, things were getting hard. There were no rice paddies, and precious little ground suitable for yams and vegetables.

The coming of the foreigners brought a wake of strife, assassinations and civil war. The government of the Shogun was overthrown and the Emperor Meiji reinstated as the head of government. It became harder and harder to take the big whales, and the smaller cetacea, like the black pilot whales, gained in importance as a food source, although their meat did not fetch as a good price as that of the larger animals. The great prosperous era of net whaling was drawing to an end. But the worst was yet to come.

As the year of 1878 dragged into winter the beach-master or 'ami-moto' was getting desperate. At that time there were two hereditary leaders in Taiji. One was Taiji Kakuemon, who ran the business operations, and the other was his relative, Wada Kinemon, the advisory head. On December 24, 1878, after a bleak, poverty-ridden period of poor catches, a big female right whale and her calf were spotted by the lookouts. The triple black and white pennant was raised and the whalers momentarily relaxed, for the whalers knew that a female and her calf were not to be hunted. It was late afternoon, and for a successful hunt, a whale would have to be killed and secured before nightfall.

At the beach in front of the shrine of Asuka, the two leaders argued. Kakuemon insisted that the village needed a whale, and needed one before the New Year. Kinemon said no, it was not their custom to hunt a female with calf, and that it drew late, that bad things would befall them if they broke this rule.

Nevertheless, Kakuemon gave the order to hunt, and as the red signals went up and the conches blew from the lookouts, the surprised whalers jumped to their long sculling oars and the gaudy, sleek boats darted forward. The whale was enmeshed and harpooned, but she fought with great fury, and dragged the boats out to sea. Cold winds were blowing from the shore and the men became cold and exhausted. It got dark. By morning the fleet was scattered, and no matter how hard the men in the boats attempting to tow the whale struggled at their oars, the winds, current, cold and the sheer size of the whale was too much for them. Finally, in tears, they cut the whale loose. The storm grew worse.

Within a few days, the cream of the Taiji whalers, and the best of their boats, had been swept far out to sea and had died from exposure or drowning. Some drifted as far as the seven islands of Izu. Estimates of the death roll vary from 111 to 130 men killed. Only a handful survived.

Taiji Kakuemon, in his grief, gave his entire family estate to the bereaved families, and eventually left Taiji for good. The village was plunged into an awful depression, and many young men left for foreign shores, for Hawaii, California, Canada, Mexico. Many of the dances, skills and sea lore of the whalers died with those men who chased the taboo female, and although there were attempts over the next two decades to rebuild the net whaling fleet, they had small success.

One Taiji man, returning from the United States with learned skills as a gunsmith, developed a five barreled harpoon gun for hunting small whales. This gun, still used today in Taiji, was then developed to a three-barreled gun, and was found to be quite effective. The village survived.

In 1905 the Imperial Navy fought the Russian at the Battle of Tsushima, winning the greatest naval victory ever. Japan had become a mighty naval power, with iron-clad battle ships and impeccable naval discipline.

One small result of this battle was that Taiji got a small Russian warship, the 'Nikolai'. She was refitted, and a 90-millimeter Svenn Foyn whaling cannon was mounted on the bow. Three Norwegians, Larsen, Bungen and Olaf, came to live in Taiji and hunt the blue and fin whales. By now the Norwegian methods of whaling had spread all over the world. Indeed, their techniques had been very successfully employed at Senzaki since 1899. Taiji saw new life in whaling.

By 1934, when Japan entered the Antarctic to whale, using an ex-Norwegian factory ship which was renamed the 'Tonan Maru', it was Taiji men who made up a large part of the expedition members. But other writers have written about the rise and fall of the Antarctic whaling. One or two have been unbiased. However, from Taiji men I hear first-hand stories of great hardship, of loneliness and courage, of parties and jokes and mishaps, of depression and suicide. The one thing that all of them stress is that they hunted for whale meat to feed Japan, and that they were proud to do so, and that the ocean for Japan was what the prairies are to Canada or the United States. Nobody, they say, has greater respect for the whale, greater reverence for the whale, than men of Taiji.

Now Japan has one Antarctic fleet, and a few land stations. The demand for whale meat is still great, and best cuts of 'O-no-mi' or tail meat reach around the $ 40 (US) mark per kilo. Taiji men still go off to the Antarctic and North Pacific to hunt whales, and it is still dangerous. Only this winter, a hundred years after his ancestors had died in the great accident of 1878, a Taiji man was killed abroad his catcher when a cannon exploded at the breech.

News of anti-whaling demonstrations and statements causes great resentment. Taiji men are fully aware of the need for conservation. It wasn't the whalers of Japan who decimated Japan's coastal stocks of whales, and they grow angry when they hear that Japan's whalers are being called 'barbaric' in the West. North Americans on average eat four times the amount of animal protein per capita as do the Japanese, and they also feed incredible amounts of valuable sea proteins to their pets. I hear more and more angry statements from whalers, who are, among anybody, tough and tenacious. The anti-whalers create monologues, and will eventually make it difficult for serious conservationists to function. Perhaps it would take a Taiji man to truly understand the two sayings? "A whale on the beach means wealth for seven villages" ... "Even in a dream, look not upon a female right whale and her calf."

C.W. Nicol
February 1979
Taiji, Japan