(from "Whale and Traditions of Diet", 1987)
1) The Jomon Period (7000/8000 to 3000 B.C.): whale as an essential food
There are a few facts that can be obtained as historical evidence which provide an explanation of the Japanese consumption of whale in this period. The first facts can be found in one of the traditional songs of the Kushiro Ainu and in the lyrics of an ancient songs called 'Yuukara' from the Saru Ainu (a group of Japanese aboriginals who have lived in the northern part of Japan since the Jomon period).
The song of Kushiro Ainu described the following story: "There was a standard whale on the Toya coast. A young fellow found it. He shouted the news around from village to village." Although Toya is currently located about 12 km from the shore line, it was on the shore about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago when the Kushiro Plains was still a part of the ocean. Several pieces of Jomon (straw-rope pattern) pottery were found in Toya shell mounds.
In the 'Yuukara', whales are mentioned: "Killer whale, god of the ocean, please bring more than one and a half whales every year. Then, I will be pleased to give my sweet daughter as your bride." As can be seen from this ancient song, the whale was a very important source of food for ancient people of Japan.
The other historical evidence can be found among the objects excavated from shell mounds. Shell mounds have been found all over Japan and provide much information about ancient people's diets. They contain bones of deer, wild boars, whales, dolphins, sea lions, fur seals and so on. This indicates that the people of the Jomon period ate whales.
Then, how did they catch large whales? They were able to hunt most mammals and animals except whales by using bow, spear and gaff. Could they hunt whales with these tools? One picture which was found from a shell mound solved this question.
A picture of whaling in this period was found on one of the bones (10 cm in length and 3 cm in width) excavated from the Bentenjima shell mound in Nemuro City. In this picture there are seven persons in a boat, and one of them is trying to spear down a large whale by using hand harpoons. Two harpoons were driven into the back of the whale and were connected to their boat by ropes.
There are two ways to catch whales: passive whaling and active whaling. By the former method of whaling, people catch weak (wounded, sick or decrepit) whales or stranded whales (chased onto the beach by killer whales). In active whaling, people hunt migratory whales in the off-coast area using boats and harpoons.
The first record of active whaling in Japanese literature can be found in "Geiki" (Record of Whaling), written sometime between 1764 A.D. and 1772 A.D. According to this, it was practiced sometime between 1570 A.D. and 1573 A.D. by people of Mikawanokuni-Utsumi (Aichi Prefecture) using seven or eight boats at a time and hand harpoons. However, active whaling using hand harpoons and boats had existed in the Jomon period (7000/8000 B.C. to 3000 B.C.). Besides the bone from the Bentenjima shell mound, a drawing of seven people whaling on a boat was found in the Suzuya shell mound on the south coast of Saghalien. Why did Jomon people not only catch stranded whales but also hunt migrating whales by using the active method? According to archaeologist Mr. Ryohei Tsuboi, whale was a necessary food during the Jomon period for people in the northern part of Japan. They ate all the edible parts of a whale, including its meat, blubber, internal organs, blood, marrow and fetus. Whale oil was their only source of fuel. They could not survive without whale blubber and its oil in the several cold environment.
2) The Yayoi Period (3000 B.C. to 300 A.D.): as an offering to the souls of the dead
A whale bone was discovered together with Yayoi pottery from the Tanou ruins at Tanounakanotsubo, Amagasaki City in Hyogo Prefecture in 1976. Experts proved this bone to be the root of the third rib of a whale. Many clay dolls of cuttlefish, octopus and whale were found in the moat of the grave of Emperor Oujin. Since ancient times, it has been the custom of Japanese to offer the gifts of the sea to the souls of the dead.
It is a general view that the Tanou ruins are the graves for people of high ranks. Thus the discovered whale bone seems to have been attached to a whale meat offering. This fact implies that people in this period lived in ease with plenty of food since they could afford to give valuable whale meat as an offering.
All bones from a whale's skeleton were not found in the same Yayoi shell mound. This fact implies that several hamlets cooperated in whaling and shared hunted whales.
3) The Nara Period (710 to 784 A.D.): the appearance of the term 'kujira' in literature.
Although it is difficult to discover in what era people began to use the word 'kujira' (whale in Japanese), it is clear that this word was already in use before the Nara period. The term 'kujira' can be seen in the "Kojiki" (Record of Ancient Chronicles), the oldest literature in Japan, edited in 712 A.D. and "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan), the oldest authentic records in Japan, edited in 720 A.D. Different Chinese characters of the word 'kujira' appear in these records. Although the pronunciations of these words are the same as the current term, neither character is in use today.
A different Chinese character is used in the "Fudoki" (Topographical Survey of the Provinces), edited in 713 A.D. In this topography, the same Chinese character for 'kujira' as we use today can be found in "Hitachi-Fudoki" and "Iki-Fudoki". This was the first time that this Chinese character was used in Japanese literature. Furthermore, the "Man'yoshu" (Collection of 10,000 Leaves) which is composed of 4,516 ancient poems edited in approximately 770 A.D. has twelve poems using a term referring to whale. This indicates that whale was an important source of animal protein for the nation in this period.
Since several emperors of the Nara period forbade not only the killing of four-legged animals but also the eating of their meat, whale meat became an important source of animal protein in this era (note that whales were considered as a kind of fish).
The Court believed in Buddhism, and the killing of animals was not consistent with Buddhist principles. Therefore, the following Imperial ordinances were proclaimed:
a) the 40th Emperor Temmu forbade the killing of animals and eating of their meat (676 A.D.)
b) the 44th Emperor Genshou forbade the killing of animals and falconry (721 A.D.)
c) the 45th Emperor Shoumu forbade the killing of animals (725 A.D.) and butchering cows and horses (736 A.D.)
d) the 46th Emperor Kouken forbade the killing of animals (752 A.D.)
e) the 50th Emperor Kammu forbade the butchering of cows (three times between 781 and 806 A.D.)
f) the 75th Emperor Sutoku forbade the killing of all animals (1127 A.D.)
g) the 82nd Emperor Gotoba forbade the killing of animals (1188 A.D.)
The Nara period was the most prosperous era for Buddhism in Japanese history; therefore, the above-mentioned Imperial ordinances pervaded the nation; and animal meat disappeared from the Japanese diet. Whale was not included among the restricted foods because it was called 'isana' (large fish and/or brave fish) in the "Man'yoshu".
4) The Muromachi/Azuchimomoyama Period (1573 to 1600 A.D.): whale dishes on the emperor's tables
Whale dishes began to be served as one of the formal dishes during this period. For example, in 1561, when the Shogun Yoshiteru Ashikaga visited the Lord Yoshinaga Miyoshi, the Lord Miyoshi prepared a whale dish and a dolphin dish as a part of the menu for 'shikisankon'. 'Shikisankon', a ceremony of exchanging cups of sake, held on every formal occasion, was truly important for samurai society at that time. Strict rules were set out regarding the order of dishes. Seafood dishes were served first, followed by foods found in the countryside. Among the seafood dishes the whale dish was served first followed by a carp dish and a snapper dish.
Among nobles it was very popular to have dinner parties called 'Shirukou'. In the 'Shirukou' the host family prepared just the soup and the invited guests brought their own rice. This type of party is described in detail in the "Tokitsugukyo-ki", the diary of Tokitsugu Yamashina. According to the diary, this type of party became popular among the nobles because of their financial difficulties. They used mushroom, wild geese, pheasant, crucian and sometimes whale to make the soup. The meat of four-legged were never used.
When Hideyoshi Toyotomi became the chief minister of state in 1585 A.D., he went to the Court and had formal dishes. According to the "Todaiki", there was a whale dish for the seventh dish. By this time, whale dishes were eaten by people of various ranks.
We should recall that there was nationwide use of soy sauce as it should be noted that the popularity of soy sauce played an important role in the increased consumption of whale dishes during the period (see section B).
5) The Edo Period (1600 to 1867 A.D.): the increase of whale dishes in the national diet
People gradually started to eat animal eat as the dislike of eating four-legged animals had weakened. Descriptions of cooking deer, raccoon, wild boar, hare, bear and land otter are found in the "Ryouri-Monogatari", a cooking book edited between 1624 and 1644. There was even an animal meat market in Yotsuya, Edo (Tokyo).
Whaling was established as an industry due to a revolutionary change in whaling methods resulting in an increased supply of whale meat and greater whale meat consumption. The revolutionary whaling method was the additional use of whaling nets. Yoriharu Wada in Taiji, Kishu (Wakayama Prefecture) got this idea from a spider's web. (The right whale was in great demand during this period.) Whalers could only hunt right and sperm whales with the old whaling method of using small boats and hand harpoons because other species swam too fast and would sink after their death. However, with the new method they could hunt the latter species.
This unique net-whaling method spread from Taiji to other places such as Kochi, Yamaguchi, Fukuoka and Chiba prefecture. There were about thirty whaling bases in Japan.
As a result of the increased production of whale meat, it was natural to form a new diet based on whale products. Therefore, the Edo period was characterized by an increase of whale dishes in the national diet.
According to "Wakansansai-zue", a record of special products in the nation edited in 1713, Hokkaido, Mie and Wakayama Prefectures, and certain islands in Nagasaki Prefecture were known to make whale products.
Matazaemon Masutomi wrote a book called "Isana-Toriekotoba" which was a sort of dictionary on whales covering its species, whaling methods, tools, names of the parts of the whale body and cooking methods. The section concerning on the cooking methods in this book was independently published under the name "Geiniku-Choumihou" (Ways of Cooking Whale Meat). Many recipes are described in this book. Seventy different parts of a whale's body were used as ingredients for these recipes. This will be explained in later chapter.
A German medical doctor Philipp Franz von Siebold paid attention to the Japanese's love for whale dishes. He came to Japan in 1823 as a medical doctor for a Dutch business house. He wrote "Fauna Japonica" (Record of Japanese Animals) based on his research during his stay in Japan. He wrote the following about the Japanese utilization of whales: "...the right whale's meat is very delicious and it is a major part of the diet. Whalers sell whales to fish wholesalers. People eat the whale's meat, blubber and internal organs and take oil from the inedible parts. All over Japan, people eat whale meat. The taste of the right whale is similar to the bull or the buffalo, and is hard a little. Although they eat both row and salted whale meat, salted meat tastes better. Salted blubber is eaten sliced. Fins can be eaten. The salted blubber can be used as a medicine for chronic diarrhea, and it is effective for stomach ailments and general stomach health. Powdered fin relieves constipation and oil is a medicine for scabies..." He clearly recorded that whale could be used not only as a source of food but also for medicine.
"I would say good bye after having whale soup." This is one of 'Edo-senryu' (humorous verse of the Edo period) explaining the lives of the Edo people. On New Year's Eve, it was the custom for apprentices to clean their master's houses thoroughly. After they had finished their work, they were offered whale skin soup. They would not go home before they had this soup. It seems that whale skin soup was really delicious and loved by all in Edo.
6) Modern times: the admission of whaling by the G.H.Q.
The modern Japanese whaling industry started in 1899. There was a change in whaling methods from using nets to Norwegian whaling techniques. The whaling industry developed rapidly with the introduction of harpoon guns on the bows of steamships. This development made it possible for whalers to hunt the fastest swimming whales such as the blue, fin, sei and Bryde's whales. These species could not be caught by the old methods.
With the introduction of Japan's first pelagic whaling fleet in 1934, whaling in the North Pacific Ocean and the Antarctic Ocean prospered.
Whale meat production and consumption increased with the expansion of the whaling industry. The total supply in the mid-1920's was approximately 10,000 tons. It increased to 45,000 tons in 1939.
There were five years of inactivity during World War II. The whaling industry was re-established in 1946 in order to help the severe food shortage in Japan. Whale meat was no longer a special food but was necessary to keep the Japanese healthy and alive. Whale meat was rationed all over Japan. People ate whale meat as a source of protein whether they liked it or not. According to statistics of 1947, about 47% of the total animal protein consumption was whale meat.
Until the mid-1960's whale meat continued to be their main source of animal protein. In 1962, the whaling industry recorded 226,000 tons which was the highest record of production throughout the history of the Japanese whaling industry. The percentage of whale meat consumption in relation to the total animal meat consumption was 23% in 1964. The whaling quota has been reduced since this period due to strict international regulations. The present production of 16,000 tons is about the same as the amount of whales caught during the period when net gears were used.
However, a small number of whale meat products which were commercialized after the war are still produced supported by strong demands. It is not canned food such as 'Yamatoni', 'Sunoko' and 'Yakiniku', and bacon are hard to find in stores. Moreover, they have become very expensive.
Fish Sausage made from whale meat and tuna has disappeared. This product, which was good for snacks, was first sold in early 1950's. 190,000 tons of this sausage were produced in 1965. At present, fish sausage is made from cod instead of whale meat. In addition to the rationing system, the provision of school lunches contributed to the increased consumption of whale meat nationwide. Whale meat, which was inexpensive, was appropriate for preparing a large number of meals of the same quality and quantity.
Whale meat was the only meat served in school lunches which began in 1947 and continued until the mid-1950's. After that, pork and chicken began to be served in school lunches and the amount of whale meat decreased. However, until the mid-1970's, whale meat was used more than any other meat. About 15% of the total amount of the Japanese production of whale meat was used for school lunches in 1973.
Several places, especially in the Kyushu and Chugoku regions still adhere to the custom of eating whale meat.
Some people of these regions avoid eating the meat of four-legged animals during the New Year celebrations. They only eat whale meat. Whale dishes are served at weddings, the construction of new houses and launching ceremonies. What would happen to these traditional customs when whaling is banned?
Because woodcutters in the Kyushu region take only salted whale meat and rice when they go into the mountains, they would also be troubled. They slice the meat and pour hot water over it to make a delicious soup containing a lot of protein and salt. Since their work is very strenuous, the salted whale meat soup replenishes the salt they lose through perspiration. Therefore this soup is indispensable as a source of their energy.