Taiji Town earned its fame as a whale town more than 400 years ago. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Taiji whalers adopted, and then adapted, American and Norwegian whaling technology. Eventually, men of Taiji went to the Southern Ocean to join the modern fleets of industrial whalers. The Japanese whalers dominated this fishery by 1937. Since the end of industrial whaling, Taiji whalers once again focused on local whales. Their current hunt for dolphins has brought the town international attention and controversy (e.g. the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary, ‘The Cove’; see Photos 1 & 2).
I had previously visited Taiji to study the town’s whaling history – most recently in June 2009, weeks before ‘The Cove’ was released. Last summer (2011), the Japanese national television company, NHK, aired two shows about Taiji, largely in response to ‘The Cove’.
I avoided Taiji Town during the dolphin hunt, from September to February, and returned to Taiji in March 2012. My visit included a tour sponsored by the local tourism board and led by Hayato Sakurai, Curator of Taiji Historical Archives. Mr. Sakurai is not only an expert on Taiji’s whaling history, he spent years as a curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. Our tour began at the Taiji Whale Museum, included several stops within town (temples, shrines, whalers homes), and visits to promontories along the coastline where lookouts once watched for whales and signaled to the whalers down below (see Photo 3).
Traditional Whaling in Taiji Town
Taiji Town occupies a small peninsula near the southernmost tip of Honshu Island (Japan’s ‘mainland’). The modern town is the smallest in land area of any town in Wakayama Prefecture. Houses are tightly packed between steep hills (Photos 4 & 5). To survive here, the people of Taiji depended on the ocean for their livelihoods.
Little is known of the early history of Taiji’s whaling, although some form of whaling has been practiced for centuries. The town juts out into the Pacific and whales swim close to shore on their migrations. The first whale might have been ‘caught’ when a whale stranded on the Taiji shoreline, or was accidentally entangled in fishing nets. Regardless of its origins, Taiji was recognized for its organized whaling by 1606. Later that century Kakuemon Wada of Taiji (aka Kakuemon Taiji) invented a unique style of net whaling that used a pair of large, semicircular nets to capture whales. The best records of this style of whaling come from scroll paintings made in the 1700-1800’s (see Photo 6).
Taiji whalers perfected their technique over the next 200 years. By the 19th Century, each role in the whale hunt was codified, and many of these roles were hereditary. Three primary types of boats were involved: seko-bune (chase boats), ami-bune (net boats) and mosso-bune (tow boats). Chase boats carried 15 men and 8 oars. They were sleek and fast, covered in black lacquer and painted with brilliant designs (see Photo 7).
Lookouts were placed at promontories overlooking the sea, particularly at Kandori-zaki and Tomyo-zaki (see Photos 8 & 9). Lookouts used signal sticks, flags, smoke, and shell horns to indicate the type and number of whales seen, and their location (Photo 10). A beach master, ami-moto, coordinated the hunt from shore.
Chase boats herded whales into nets that were spread out and held in place by the net boats. The okiai (chief harpooner) rode in the highest ranked chase boat, and struck first with his hand thrown harpoon. It was a dangerous job to harpoon animals much larger than the narrow, 10 m chase boats. Moreover, once the whale had been harpooned, an apprentice harpooner had to jump into the water, climb onto the whale, reach into the whale’s blowhole to poke a hole through the whale’s septum, and tie a rope through the septum to prevent the whale from escaping. Other chase boats coordinated their attacks until the whale was entangled in the net and subdued. Finally, the whale was wrapped up between two towboats and brought to the harbor (Photo 11). On shore, others waited to process the whale. Every piece was used. At the peak of traditional whaling, up to 700 townspeople were involved, including boat makers, lookouts, whalers and the butchers on shore.
Elsewhere in Japan, Buddhist doctrine prohibited the killing of animals and the eating of red meat. During the Edo Period (1603-1868) meat was officially forbidden. Whale, however, was an exception. Choice cuts were sent to the shogun, emperor and local lord. Still, Buddhist monks were against the eating of whale. In 1754, the whalers of Taiji had failed to capture whales and were near the end of their reserves. They begged a visiting monk from Osaka to pray for them and bring them whales. Tanjuzenji (the monk) initially refused. However, as he realized the people were near starvation, he agreed to pray for whales. When the whales eventually arrived, the people rejoiced. They gave the monk gold and whalebone for Zuiko-ji, his temple in Osaka. There, the monk built Setsugeikyou – a bridge made of whalebones. The bridge has been rebuilt several times, most recently in 2006, from whales killed in 2005. Taiji school children visit each May to honor the monk and the whales (see Photo 12).
In 1768, a monument to whales was erected at Taiji’s Tomyo-ji temple. Whalers recite sutras (Buddhist prayers) here to atone for their sins and give thanks to the whales (see Photo 13). The designs painted on whaleboats also might reflect the sacredness of the surrounding Kumano area with its Mt. Nachi, Nachi Waterfall and Nachi River. Nachi River flows directly over the sea toward the ‘Pure Land’ of Japanese Buddhism (a heavenly place of enlightenment). Taiji whalers fished the waters between Nachi Beach and the Pure Land, under the eye of the divine. Whaleboat designs were a featured exhibit at the Whale Museum ‘Whale Boats: Styles and Designs’ (see Photos 14-17).
Americans and other westerners whaled along Japan’s shores by the early 19th Century. American’s dominated whaling throughout the century, with over 70,000 people employed in the industry at the time of Moby Dick (published in 1851). Whereas Taiji whalers took one whale at a time and consumed every part of the animal, Americans took as many whales as they could hold: keeping only the whale oil, baleen and ivory, and throwing the rest of the animal back into the sea. American whalers established stations throughout the Pacific where they could come ashore and provision their ships (e.g. Hawaii). Pressure from whalers was in part responsible for Commodore Perry’s mission to ‘open’ Japan. Perry forced the shogun to sign the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854 (Photo 18).
The End of Traditional Whaling: Seminagare
Taiji’s shore-based whaling apparently declined in the mid-19th Century, probably in part due to the American whaling fleet. However, few records have survived. A catastrophic earthquake and subsequent tsunami destroyed the town in 1854.
A second catastrophe in 1878 ended Taiji’s traditional whaling. It had been a bad year for whaling. Few of the preferred whales (semi-kujira, North Pacific right whales, Eubalaena japonica, zato-kujira, humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae and ko-kujira, gray whales, Eschrichtius robustus) had been seen. On December 24th, two North Pacific right whales – a mother and her calf – were spotted offshore. Tradition forbid the taking of mother whales, but the poor season led to the decision to hunt these whales. It was a mistake. Over 100 whalers were lost at sea trying to capture these whales. The head of the whaling fleet, Kakuemon Taiji, gave this account 23 years afterward.
“Around 1:30 p.m. on December 24, 1878, the lookout at Tomyo-zaki spotted a large right whale of unprecedented size with a calf, and informed each whaleboat. They did their best to tangle the whales with nets, but the whales also fought hard. The fleet was taken about 20 km off the coast, where the whales finally died the next morning, around 10:30 a.m. The current was strong and so was the west wind, which blew the fleet to the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. They could do nothing. They let the whales go and headed for land. The west wind got worse by nightfall. It turned out to be a disaster. A passing ship rescued the crew of one boat, another boat landed on a beach in Atawa, and one other washed up on Kozushima Island. But the rest of the fleet went missing. Words cannot describe the wretched state of the hundreds of bereaved.” (from the Taiji Whale Museum’s catalogue for ‘The Last Harpooner’ exhibit, by Hayato Sakurai).
This single event, Seminagare (Right Whales, and Drifting Away) effectively ended Taiji’s traditional whale fleet. Most of the whalers and their boats were gone. The few survivors continued to whale for the next few years, but by 1881 it was over. A memorial to the lost whalers overlooks the port of Taiji (see Photo 19).
Modern Whaling and Tourism
Traditional whaling soon gave way to modern whaling. Men of Taiji travelled to America and other lands, some returning with western technology. Two young men of Taiji created 3-harpoon and 5-harpoon guns, after returning from their voyages to America. These guns were used to hunt kobiregondou (short-finned pilot whales, Globicephala macrorhynchus) off Taiji (see Photo 20).
Others from Taiji went overseas to fish and whale. Many eventually returned and brought home with them foreign customs (see Photo 21). Some stayed in their new homes, particularly in three communities that worked the seas: Steveston, British Columbia, Canada (salmon industry), Broome, Western Australia, Australia (pearl industry), and San Pedro, California, USA (abalone and tuna industries). Taiji people in San Pedro lived on Terminal Island in houses owned by the canneries. They had their own school, temple and shrine. They even raised money for the American principle of their school to visit Taiji so she could better understand their culture (see Photos 22 & 23). The Japanese of Terminal Island were the first to be interned, in December 1941. By the end of February 1942, the entire village had been sent to camps.
In 1900, Juro Oka, the father of modern Japanese whaling, began to use the latest Norwegian technology, including exploding harpoon guns and steam powered boats. He even hired Norwegian gunners. By the 1930’s Japan was sending their boats to the Southern Ocean, to join the other industrial whaling nations. By 1937, they had become the most productive fleet. Men of Taiji were an integral part of this fleet.
Whaling stopped during the war in the Pacific. However, General MacArthur sent the Japanese back to the Antarctic with a US Naval escort in November 1945, three months after the war was concluded. MacArthur knew that whales had become an important source of protein for Japan. For the next 40 years, Japan dominated the southern whaling industry, and Taiji whalers were well represented (see Photo 24).
The modern whalers were too successful. The International Whaling Commission formed in 1946 to regulate the industry. By the 1960’s it was clear that the biggest whales were highly endangered, and one-by-one they became protected. A complete moratorium on commercial whaling went into effect between 1986 and 1988.
As whaling declined, the mayor of Taiji decided to build on the town’s whaling tradition as a tourist attraction. The town built the Taiji Whale Museum, which opened in 1969. The facility consists of a three-floor building with museum and gift shop, dolphin aquariums and sea pens outside, and other whale and whaling related displays (see Photos 25 & 26).
The central space inside the museum is filled with whale skeletons. Above these skeletons is a life-sized model of a right whale and chase boat, with its crew of 15 men (see Photo 7, above). The right whale was based on an actual whale, whose skeleton rests below (Photo 27).
Several of the other exhibits were previously referenced above – the scroll painting that documents Taiji’s traditional net-whaling, an interactive diorama that animates the whale and lights up the different lookout points, and the two special exhibits: ‘Whale Boats: Styles and designs’ and ‘The Last Harpooner: The end of old whaling, and an introduction of American and Norwegian whaling’ (both curated by Hayato Sakurai).
The museum’s gift shop sells stuffed toy dolphins and whales, and other whale-themed souvenirs. Also for sale are whale cookies (real cookies, shaped like whales) and whale meat: frozen, dried and canned (Photo 28).
Outdoors, a dolphin aquarium offers a show with leaping dolphins, similar to SeaWorld. We saw one bandouiruka – common bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, and two kamairuka – Pacific white-sided dolphins, Lagenorhynchus obliquidens (March 2012). Trainers will take your picture with a dolphin after the show (Photo 29).
Other dolphins are housed in sea pens (hanagondou – Risso’s dolphins, Grampus griseus, okigondou – false killer whales, Pseudorca crassidens, common bottlenose dolphins and short-finned pilot whales). They perform in shows and can be fed by hand (Photos 30-32).
An indoor aquarium houses other marine creatures (fish, crustaceans, etc). The largest tank houses a ‘four-finned’ bottlenose dolphin captured in 2006. She has a normal pair of pectoral flippers (‘fins’), and a small pair of fins near her pelvis. These rudimentary fins are not normally expressed by dolphins or whales. Their appearance in this animal may be the expression of genes for hind limbs that have been ‘turned off’ for 20 million years – evidence of her tetrapod ancestry (see Photo 33).
The town built the Hakugei (White Whale) Hotel near the Whale Museum, separated by a small cove (‘The Cove’, see map, Photo 4, and Photo 34). The dinner plan includes whale dishes and the hotel sells whale-themed souvenirs (Photo 35). Other private hotels have opened nearby. Some have their own dolphins that can be fed, petted or taken for a ride.
The end of commercial whaling brought Taiji whalers back home, and back to coastal whaling. Initially, they concentrated on pilot whales and later smaller dolphins. Their ‘dolphin-drive hunting’ method requires several boats working together. They position themselves into a semicircle around a pod of dolphins, and then drive the pod into the cove by banging on metal rods. Because of their echolocation, dolphins are very sensitive to the noise. Once in the cove, smaller boats close the mouth of the cove with nets. A few of the younger dolphins are pulled aside for sale to aquariums, which provides the main income from these hunts. The rest are slaughtered, primarily for their meat. Images of this slaughter drew the attention of anti-whalers from around the world. Eventually, ‘The Cove’, released in 2009, brought these images to the rest of the world and earned an Oscar for best documentary.
Taiji After ‘The Cove’
Anti-whalers have been a fixture in Taiji during the last several whaling seasons, September through February. Members of the Ocean Preservation Society (the people responsible for ‘The Cove’) arrived the first week of September 2011, led by Ric O’Barry, the one time trainer of ‘Flipper’. Sea Shepherd members also spent the season in town. Two members were on the beach of the cove when we walked by at the end of March 2012 (Photo 36).
The town has set up a temporary police box across the street from the cove, with additional police positioned there to keep order. I walked back and forth here several times. We even went looking for shells in the cove, but were never approached by police or anyone else (Photo 37). In fact, people greeted me politely throughout the town. We happened to visit the port on Sunday during a festival, and were offered free lobster soup, along with the rest of the town visitors (Photo 38).
It has been a difficult time for the whalers and their families in Taiji. At least some of them have gone through a period of self-reflection and prayer in response to the hate-filled mail and visitors that have rained upon them. The two NHK films suggest that, after this time of reflection, they will continue to be whalers. I did note, however, that the town’s whale hotel no longer served whale with its basic dinner. It had to be ordered.
Final Notes on Whaling
The whaling season in Wada Town, Chiba Prefecture, began June 20, 2012. These whalers target Baird’s beaked whales, Berardius bairdii. A typhoon and subsequent bad weather limited the hunt in June. On July 3rd, the first two whales were landed. The next day, Mr. Yosinori Shoji, President of Gaibo Hogei Corporation, LTD, held a public flensing and feast of the first whale for the local 5th grade students – part of his annual ‘Whale School’. Their July 4th feast included watermelon along with the deep-fried whale meat.
The International Whaling Commission completed their annual meeting on Friday, July 6, 2012. As usual, the IWC was strongly divided between those nations that want to return to whaling, and those that do not. The IWC did approve renewals to hunt bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) by America and Russia, and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliea) by St. Vincent and the Grenadines (in the Caribbean Sea). However, it refused to grant permission to Japan for small-scale whaling by coastal communities (e.g. Taiji and Wada). The IWC noted that the greatest threats to whales today come from bycatch, ship strikes, chemical and noise pollution (including gas exploration), and the effects of climate change – particularly in the Arctic.
Over this last year, I asked several people in Japan about their thoughts on whaling. It is a difficult subject to discuss, especially after ‘The Cove’. I asked about whaling as a side note in the course of other conversation, and as politely as possible. In general, the people I spoke with considered whale a traditional food, even though most rarely or never ate it. Everyone agreed that any whaling should be sustainable. However, what was pointed out to me repeatedly was the sense of hypocrisy on the part of the west, and particularly America.
Many people were disturbed by America’s response to global warming; America is responsible for 25% of all the anthropogenic (generated by humans) greenhouse gases of the last century, yet America was the only country that refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Climate change threatens whales and other marine mammals, as well as the rest of life on Planet Earth.
Tuna fishing in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, primarily for the American market, devastated populations of spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) and spinner dolphins (S. longirostris). The ‘dolphin-safe tuna’ program has reduced the number of dolphin mortalities in this fishery. However, these populations have not recovered, possibly due to continued stress of the fishery on female dolphins (i.e. mothers). Even today, the ‘dolphin safe’ fishery kills as many dolphins each year as the Taiji whalers according to the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA. World-wide, tens of thousands of dolphins and whales are killed each year as bycatch.
Native Americans continue to hunt whales, and Canadians continue to kill baby seals. This spring (2012) the US Navy estimated their sonar and explosive tests may cause up to 8,000 cases of hearing loss and 1,000 deaths to dolphins and whales over the next 5 years.
The people I spoke with could not understand, Why do Americans come to Japan to fight whaling when Americans kill so many whales?