(from "ISANA" No. 14, 1996)
Writer (Recipient of the 1978 Akutagawa Literary Award)
Ine Machi of Tango Peninsula facing the Sea of Japan, with scarce plain area along its coastline, is known for its unique scenery dotted with small boat huts at the foot of the mountains which stand close to the shore. Past records show that at least 355 whales were captured in the span of 257 years between the early period of the Edo Era (1603 - 1868) to early Taisho Era (1910 - 1925). The largest of the catch was a 21-meter-long fin whale caught on March 8 in the 11th year of Horeki (1761). Also records tell us that 11 blue whales were caught at one time in 1681. Generally, however, the scale of activities was small, with an average catch of one whale a year.
The Ine Bay is surrounded by a small peninsula on its eastern side, and at its mouth there is a 5-hectare small uninhabited island called Aoshima. When whales migrating from the Sea of Japan swam into the bay in pursuit of sardine or other fishes, a signal was sent to the entire village by striking the temple bell. Then fishermen hastily plunged into brave whaling with harpoons and nets -- each for his responsibility. When the hunt prolonged into night, bonfire was built on the beach, lanterns were lit and women were mobilized to prepare food for the men.
The caught whale was put up for auction. In the case of the 21-meter-long fin whale caught in 1761, a revenue of 7 kan 500 moku was generated, which was equivalent of 158 koku (approx. 28.44 Kiloliters) of rice at that time. Ten percent of auction value was offered to the Miyazu Province as whale tax and the remaining portion was divided among villagers.
The whale was flensed at the Hiruko Shrine -- also called Ebisu Shrine -- on Aoshima which lies at the mouth of the bay. Both Hiruko and Ebisu represent the name of gods who visit the village ocassionally from the distant sea and bring fortune to the people. Whale was undoubtedly the most beneficial gift from gods.
In 1898, Aoshima was designated as an island having forests to be preserved for fishing. The island is covered all over with evergreen forests, typical of the warm zone, such as year-old chinquapin trees. Cutting trees and taking even a leaf or old branch from this island has been prohibited. When whale flensing was completed on the island, a monument was built and Buddhist priests were called to perform a ceremony to appease the soul of the killed whale. Furthermore, a hundredth of the auction value was dedicated to the Joso Temple in Miyazu and memorial service was performed January 19 annually.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit Aoshima for television work. The island, covered by deep green all over, looked like a huge whale swimming solemnly across the quiet Ine Bay. Landing on the uninhabited island shrubbed with old chinquapin trees, I walked under the gate of the Hiruko Shrine and advanced along the stone steps. Then I found three tombs of whales half buried in fern and dead leaves. Engraved on the tombstones were: "Mother whale found with a fetus," "In memory of whale fetus," and "Tomb for whale calves." In front of them were a few half-decayed whale bones. Seeing the tombs, I joined my hand in prayer.
Building tombs for whales is said to have been motivated by the sense of compassion for calves found in the womb of female whale at the time of catch or killed as they stayed near its mother after her death. Whales, being mammals, have a strong material link. Such strong affiliation must have driven the fishermen to embrace a profound pity on calves. Similar records must be found in many other fishing villages along the Sea of Japan and the Pacific, where whaling took place.
In recent years, the whale has become a symbol of the environmental protection movement. Anti-whaling campaign has been rampant, notably in western countries where people having no culture of using whales as food have linked whaling with environmental issues. We do not hear about any record that whalers in the western world cared to dedicate even a minimal portion of their profit from whaling for building tombs for whales or for the consolation of the soul of dead whales.
The whale has not only been a food resource for the Japanese. As the primeval chinquapin forests in Aoshima and the tombs for the whales indicate, the Japanese have pursued co-existence of man and the nature, accepting the unavoidable fate of humans to use the nature for their living. Both whales and chinquapin trees, as part of the nature, found a solid place in the livelihood of humans. The view to regard whales solely as a food source or as a protection object, it seems to me, will not lead to the real solution of the environmental issues which are sure to face a critical stage in next century.