Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan

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A review of Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan, 1600-1900, by Jakobina Arch.

Jakobina Arch’s pathbreaking dissertation makes substantial contributions to global whaling historiography and will inform ongoing international debates about whaling. Even so, this study’s key insights stem from its framing not in terms of whaling, but of whales. Whales—here our attention is directed toward the larger cetaceans often known as kujira or isana 勇魚, their commodified parts, and their other cultural incarnations, rather than creatures like dolphins or killer whales—were, as Arch points out, “peculiar sorts of fish” (p.22). Whales were aquatic; they moved fast; they were big. They posed problems of classification (what are they?) and problems of detection (where are they?). The dissertation illuminates how diverse groups of people grappled with the what and the where of whales in early modern Japan.

Arch analyzes a wide range of published and archival materials spanning from the late sixteenth to early twentieth centuries. This is a chronological scope of early modernity that encompasses but also diverges from the familiar organizing framework of Tokugawa shogunal rule (1603-1868). By looking at relationships between coastal and inland areas, Arch broadens what is here diagnosed as a “terrestrial focus” (p.6) in existing scholarship on Tokugawa Japan. As such, the dissertation succeeds as a substantial contribution to the field of marine environmental history, even as it simultaneously brings saltwater environments to bear upon seemingly dryland concerns. It shows how changing understandings about whales were inextricable from landed agriculture, print culture, ritual practice, and the boundaries of Japan itself.

This study also pushes back against contemporary justifications of Japanese coastal whaling as a continuation of traditional subsistence practices. At the same time, it questions the dichotomy separating “traditional” from “modern” whaling, a distinction of substantial import in contemporary debates over the ethicality and legality of killing whales. Although “improved” whaling technologies (from hand harpoon to harpoon gun, etc.) have long served as markers of modernizing progress in industry accounts, Arch gives us a satisfyingly nuanced picture of interlinked ecological, political-economic, and cultural change at multiple scales. Early modern whalers emerge along the way as speculative entrepreneurs tied to broader networks of finance and trade. We see whalers and others in early modern Japan as keen observers of the paths along which whales moved, the uses (not always, to be clear, straightforwardly pecuniary) to which cetacean bodies could be put, and the terms by which they could imagine relationships with even the most peculiar of marine creatures.

Chapter 1 analyzes the spatial distribution and social organization of early modern Japan’s centers of coastal whaling: the Pacific-facing coastlines of present-day Mie and Wakayama prefectures, northwestern Kyūshū (where the majority of early modern Japan’s whaling groups could be found), western Yamaguchi prefecture, and Kōchi prefecture’s Tosa Bay. Arch challenges prevailing notions of Japanese whalers’ marginality in early modern Japanese society. Coastal whaling was not an out-of-the-way activity; to the contrary, it took place near the currents along which whales and commercial vessels traveled. Arch moves beyond previous scholarly attempts to separate the “active” hunting of swimming whales from the “passive” harvesting of beached whales. Instead, we find Arch’s notion of highly capitalized and highly coordinated forms of “organized whaling.” Changes in the tactics of organized whaling, moreover, correlated with changing target species: the harpooning of right whales (the “right” kind of whale because their carcasses float) was overtaken in the seventeenth century by the use of nets to catch more plentiful if less buoyant varieties. Such dynamics build to one of the chapter’s key arguments: viewing early modern organized whaling as a manifestation of intense local and regional competitions over cetaceans makes it difficult to maintain a clean distinction between sustainable “pre-modern” practices and their exploitative “modern” counterparts.

The second chapter argues that whaling was not itself a subsistence practice, but was rather a fundamentally commercial enterprise. The eating of whale meat was not the main impetus for early modern Japanese whaling; oil-focused whaling groups raised capital by selling investors “shares” of any whales they might catch. The commodification of whale bodies took many forms in Tokugawa Japan. Butchered whales turned into important agricultural products. Bones became fertilizer; guts became tools for the processing of cotton. Above all, whereas whale oil made lamp oil in the West, in early modern Japan it primarily took the form of pesticides (we learn along the way that whale oil contains a component chemically similar to DDT). And if flexible baleen formed corsets in America and Europe, in early modern Japan it served as springs for bunraku puppets and karakuri ningyō automata. With these and other examples, Arch suggests that circulating whale parts were ubiquitous parts of early modern Japanese society.

Chapter 3 considers how people thought about, represented, and looked at whales in early modern Japan. The chapter contends that whales were not simply viewed as commodified gristle and bristle. Rather, the wide-ranging careers of whales and their representations were themselves indications of a “general consciousness” of marine environments in early modern Japan. Take the whale drawing that opens the chapter, an illustration from the 1847 Rokugei no zu (Diagrams of Six Whales). A whale is presented in a cutaway view, with organs labeled neither according to the five-organ rubric of Chinese-style medicine nor in terms of salable cetacean commodities. The drawings are, Arch notes, the only extant non-human anatomical diagrams from the Tokugawa period. Who then might have been the audience for these images? Part of the answer to this question hinges upon new connections between natural history and economic concerns, like the aforementioned whale oil pesticides, amid early eighteenth-century searches for domestic materia medica substitutes and methods of famine relief. Another part lies in a rising early modern interest in the realistic (and easily portable) illustration of plant and animal specimens. Arch argues that whales moved far beyond coastal whaling areas on the page and even in the flesh. Whaling groups financed the production of lavish whale texts. Whales appeared too in works by some of Tokugawa Japan’s best-known writers, including Bakin, Saikaku, and Ikku. Improbable though it may sound, whole whales (or substantial portions of them) even ended up as attractions at misemono exhibitions in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Edo and Osaka.

Chapter 4 places whales within early modern Japanese religious practice. As in the previous chapter, it begins by presenting the reader with another anomalous cultural phenomenon: a death register of over 200 names, each designating an individual whale. Arch notes that whales, in particular the unborn calves later found inside their mothers, were among the few non-human creatures to receive such treatment. Jizō statues, more commonly associated with mizuko kuyō memorials to unborn human fetuses, could also be used to commemorate unborn whales. The chapter places such phenomena within a broader context of early modern Japanese views about animals. Arch notes that the 1685-1709 “Laws of Compassion Towards Living Things” (shōrui awaremi no rei), which forbade the killing of animals in shogunal territories, did not reflect views held in other parts of early modern Japan; whaling continued unabated even after their promulgation. Whalers sponsored temples and kuyō memorials. Whale parts were at times used as construction materials, notably in a whalebone bridge first built in the mid-eighteenth century at Osaka’s Zuikōji temple. What we find, in sum, is that whaling and the commemoration of whale deaths went hand in hand in early modern Japan. What kind of interspecies relationships did artifacts like the whale death register indicate? The possibility presented here is that whale memorials and graves indicated “the blurred boundaries between the lives and afterlives of humans and other animals, and between the land and the sea” (p.193).

The final chapter follows a nineteenth century story of new relationships between whaling and Japan’s expanding territorial boundaries, along with the decline of nearshore ways of knowing about and working with whales. What makes this story particularly intriguing is that it introduces strands of a long (and, to use a word favored by Herman Melville, “terraqueous”) nineteenth century of the northern Pacific. It does not pivot solely upon the imperial state-making schemes that followed the 1868 Meiji Restoration, nor does it see the adoption of “foreign” technology as the primary scale through which to measure changes in “Japanese” whaling. The Russian empire looms large in a whale-centric telling of nineteenth-century Japanese geopolitics. Footholds in Ezo (now Hokkaido) and the Korean peninsula linked whalers’ desires to find more promising hunting grounds with Tokugawa and Meiji state desires for national defense—a combination that, Arch adds, was often unintentional and not particularly successful. Even so, the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War included a technological windfall for Japan’s whalers: the mechanized bomb harpoon fleet seized in the conflict. America is a major player in this story as well. The 1830s arrival of American whalers in the Pacific set off a two-decade spasm of open-water carnage that, as noted in the first chapter, was correlated with declining catches along nineteenth-century Japan’s whaling shorelines. Yet in a curious twist, New England’s ship-based whaling methods came to Japan via intermediaries like the castaway-turned-translator Nakahama “John” Manjirō from the 1860s onward—just as the American-led Pacific whaling boom was on the decline.

The development of “factory ships” in the 1930s opened a new twentieth-century whaling theater—Antarctic waters—in which exportable whale oil emerged as the prize of the hunt. Arch’s compelling suggestion is that the twentieth-century form of high seas whaling, cut off as it was from the working coastlines of early modern whaling, was concurrent with new conceptions of ocean space. In this changed environment, practices like coastal memorials became part of local historical memory, not something sustained by interaction with whales. Cheap twentieth-century whale meat, in turn, was a byproduct of a restructured whale oil export industry—and remains a byproduct of “scientific whaling.”

“It should be clear that there are more changes than continuities in the cultural role of whales in Japan in the past few centuries,” (p.225) writes Arch toward the end of the study. One of the many achievements of this dissertation lies in bringing these twists and turns to light, giving us a transformed picture of whales and the worlds in which they lived.

Kjell Ericson
Postdoctoral Associate
The Council on East Asian Studies
Yale University

Primary Sources

Accounts of whaling (Isanatori ekotoba, 1832, and others).
Prefectural histories (Wakayama, Kōchi, and others).
Scrolls from the National Diet Library (Tokyo), Osaka Museum of History, Wakayama Prefectural Library, National Institute of Japanese Literature (Tokyo), and others.

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2014. 259 pp. Primary Advisor: Shigehisa Kuriyama.

Image: Whale bone bridge at Zuikōji, Osaka. Photograph by Jakobina Arch.

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