The history of whaling in Japan

Natalie Bennett reflects on Jakobina K. Arch’s Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment in Early Modern Japan, which proves extremely relevant in the light of the country’s plans to restart its official commercial whaling programme.

Humpback whale breaching
Humpback whale breaching

A humpback whale

Natalie Bennett

I picked up Jakobina K. Arch’s Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment in Early Modern Japan in September, in the London Library, on the basis that “this looks like an interesting new book”.

Little did I know how relevant it would turn out to be, with the sad, if not entirely unexpected announcement last month that Japan plans to officially restart commercial whaling. I say officially, of course, because Japan has been conducting indefensible, very thinly disguised, whaling for meat under the cover of ‘science’ for years.

The extensive original research charted in Bringing Whales Ashore could not be better timed. The good news too is that the depth of scholarship is worn lightly and this is a highly readable text, and one that will inform those taking on the Japanese arguments for whaling. Their historical case simply doesn’t stack up, before you even get to the moral and scientific debunking.

The author concludes: ‘The scope and wide-ranging impact of this early coastal whaling actually shows just how different this practice was from today’s pelagic factory whaling, how much more embedded in local culture and society it was, and how it was far from a monolithic tradition within an unchanging set of cultural practices even within the Tokugawa period, never mind across the transition into the 20th century’.

The traditional whaling of this period continued for two centuries, but Arch argues this does not provide it was ‘sustainable’, as has been claimed by proponents of whaling.

Right whales became less available (whether because they changed their habits or populations were killed off is now probably impossible to know); humpback and grey whales began to be targeted as net whaling was developed to supplement harpoons, making it easier to catch faster-swimming whales; and whaling was very much a boom and bust, feast or famine industry. At times it paid large amounts of money into official coffers, but it also had to be propped up with official funds to keep going when whales were not caught.

That helps to demonstrate that whaling was never a subsistence measure, providing essential protein to the population – whale meat was never a steady part of anyone’s diet. It was a gambling, get-rich-quick scheme, if conducted usually by entire communities rather than individuals. It was always a ‘big business’ venture, as it is today.

As a human species we know so little, we’ve lost so much, and yet we continue to destroy

The situation and form of whaling conducted in the 20th century (deep sea whaling) had no continuities with earlier practices, which the book briefly addresses. It was not the taste or the exoticism that was attractive at this point, but the price. The meat being produced as a by-product of whaling for oil, it was inexpensive, and promoted as cheap canned meat during the depression after the First World War and by the occupation forces after the Second. It was particularly used to supply the military.

And today, there are whale meat mountains – the ‘Institute for Cetacean Research’ having tried and failed to auction off frozen stockpiles, adding insult to tragedy.

Arch’s book also helps to highlight the irony of Japan, a country in which Buddhism is strong, being the country to deny international opinion to continue whaling. For we learn that whales were recorded sometimes in the death registers (mostly of names of people) designed to be used for prayers to usher the soul along its path through the afterlife. Memorial stones and pillars were also erected, sometimes also to the foetuses that died inside captured pregnant whales.

In its recovery of records from the early modern period, the book also highlights just how whales have, for centuries, been forced to move, adapt and change in response to human pressures, and just how sparse and whale-deprived the world’s oceans and seas are now, compared to just a couple of centuries ago.

Arch writes: ‘The gray whale’s nearly 10,000-mile round-trip migration route along the west coast of North America between their Baja California breeding grounds and Arctic Ocean feeding grounds is well known, and the current few remaining [200 in 2006] western North Pacific gray whales have only been occasionally sighted heading south along the Asian coast from the Sea of Okhotsk to unknown breeding grounds in the winter, possibly around Hainan Island.’

As a human species we know so little, we’ve lost so much, and yet we continue to destroy. We need much more historical research like this about the relationship between humans and nature – to dispel myths, and help tackle our modern pathologies.