Japanese cormorant fishers use wild-caught cormorants (birds) to catch fish and deliver them to their handlers. This unusual fishery has been practiced in several parts of the world, including Japan, China, Europe and Peru. In Japan, cormorant fishing is known as ukai. These fishers have practiced their craft for at least 1,300 years and were noted in the earliest Japanese records (Taihou Ritsuryou no Koseki, Legal Code and Family Records, 702 AD, and the Kojiki, Record of Ancient Matters, 712 AD, see Photo 1).
Today, twelve ukai groups fish the rivers of Japan. Most of these groups are less than 100 years old, renewing ancient fisheries for the purpose of tourism. However, the ukai fishers of Gifu City on the Nagaragawa (Nagara River) have fished continuously for hundreds of years. These fishers received a special title 450 years ago: Kunaichoushikibushoku Ushou – ‘Imperial Household Agency Board of Ceremonies, Cormorant Fishing Master’– usually shortened to ‘Ushou’ (see Photo 2).
As a student and professor of marine biology, I read about these birds in American textbooks – usually one photo with a sentence or short paragraph. To learn more about cormorant fishers, we visited the ukai of the Ujigawa (Uji River) on the southeast border of Kyoto. Mariko Sawaki-san of the Uji City ukai welcomed us multiple times to watch her fish, and provided much information on cormorant fishing (see Photo 3). She suggested we go to Gifu City for more research. Thanks in part to her introduction, we were granted an interview with Masahiko Sugimoto-Ushou of Gifu City on the Nagara River (see Photo 4). The following report is based on interviews with both of these cormorant fishers and observations of their fishing methods.
Ukai History and Practice
It is unclear how cormorant fishing arose in Japan. According to Sugimoto-Ushou, birds might have been used initially to herd fish into nets. As the fishery evolved, they began to specifically target ayu, a popular type of smelt (aka sweetfish, Osmeriformes, Plecoglossidae Plecoglossus altivelis).
Umiu – Japanese cormorants – (Pelecaniformes, Phalacrocoracidae, Phalicrocorax capillatus, Photo 5) can catch over 100 ayu per hour. By tying a rope around the bird’s neck, fishers can prevent large ayu from being swallowed. Rather, fish are held in the umiu‘s gular pouch (similar to the pouch of their pelican cousins). The birds cough up the fish into the hands of the Ushou. The birds leave distinctive bite marks on the ayu – proof that they were caught by umiu. Importantly, ayu caught by umiu die instantly – ‘ike jime’ (squeeze the life out) – and taste better than ayu caught in nets, which die slowly (Photo 6).
Thus, ukai provided a unique delicacy. The ayu from Gifu were particularly favored as Mino no Tokusan Buttsu – ‘special food of Mino’. Shogun Oda Nobunaga captured Mino in 1561 and re-named the city Gifu. He built a castle on top of the hill overlooking the Nagara River, and supported many traditional arts and crafts. Shogun Nobunaga gave the cormorant fishers of the Nagara River their royal title of Ushou. This new status allowed them to carry one sword; swords were otherwise forbidden for common people. The first catch of ayu each year was sent to the emperor and the shogun. Later, Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) expanded the number of Ushou along the Nagara River to the current six Uhsou in Gifu City and three others in Seki Town, upstream from Gifu. These Ushou continue to send specially caught ayu to the Emperor (see Photos 7-9).
The Ushou title is hereditary. Masahiko Sugimoto-Ushou comes from a long line of Ushou, at least 6 generations, and presumably as far back as Shogun Nobanaga. The Nagara River has flooded many times, however, and the local records have been lost. Sugimoto-Ushou gained his title 34 years ago, upon the death of his father.
Cormorant fishers work from narrow, shallow boats – ubune – that can navigate in the fast flowing waters of the Nagara River. These boats, approximately 13 meters (43’) in length, remain relatively unchanged from the past. The primary difference is the addition of motor mounts. Motors easily transport the boats upriver, although they are not used while fishing. Previously, men pulled the boats upriver by foot, walking along the shore, a daily chore that required hours of hard labor; they fished as they moved downriver with the current. Ukai fishing occurs at night, therefore the ubune (boat) carries a kagari – a metal fire basket – that can be swung out over the water. A fire of pinewood lights up the water for the boatmen and illuminates the ayu for the umiu (Photos 10 & 11).
A crew of two or three men handles the boat and assists the Ushou. The Tomonori is the primary boat handler, usually situated at the stern of the boat. A second boatman, the Nakanori, works with the Tomonori. These men use long poles and oars to maneuver the boat in the shallow, flowing river. Some boats include a Nakauzukai – ‘middle cormorant handler’ – but he is not a fisher, yet. The Nakauzukai acts as an apprentice and ‘gofer.’ Sugimoto-Ushou began his fishing career as a Nakauzukai when he first worked on a boat with his father. He can perform all the tasks on the boat, but only he fishes with the cormorants (Photo 12).
Every day before fishing, the Ushou must decide which birds to use. Each Ushou owns and cares for his own birds. Sugimoto-Ushou had 24 birds when we met in July 2011. When he was a boy, the birds were kept in baskets in the doma (entranceway) of his home. They could be very smelly. Now, he keeps the birds in a large enclosure behind his home (still smelly). The birds naturally pair up, but not necessarily as male-female pairs. The birds are not named, but the Ushou knows each bird by its markings, partner and personality. An individual ushou can handle as many as 12 birds at a time (Photos 13-15).
Ushou wear special outfits while fishing. Most distinctive is their koshimino, a custom-made skirt of straw. The koshimino is a typical skirt used by many types of fishermen in the past. It sheds water and provides warmth during cool evenings on the river (Photo 16). The Ushou wear a jacket and headscarf – kazaoreboushi – of dark blue (Photo 17). The scarf protects their hair from sparks, and the dark color does not distract the birds at night (they are startled by bright colors). Half-length woven sandals provide stable footing in the wet, unstable bottom of the ubune (boat, see Photo 18).
The Ushou of Gifu live in a small neighborhood on the western bank of the Nagara River (Photo 19). Their boats are tied to rings embedded in steps that descend into the river (Photo 20). After selecting their birds and dressing for the evening’s work, the Ushou and their crews load their boats. It takes a few minutes to cross the river to the welcome center (see Photos 21 & 22).
At 5:30 PM one of the Ushou demonstrates his craft (see Photos 17 & 18). The birds are kept in pairs, inside baskets. The Ushou pulls out one bird at a time and prepares it for fishing. He handles the bird by its strong neck, often massaging the neck as he works (Photos 23 & 24).
The tanawa – a complex system of ropes – connects the bird to its handler. It includes the kubiyui – a short piece tied around the bird’s neck, the haragake – a longer rope tied around the bird’s body and under its wings, and the long leash held by the Ushou. Historically, baleen was used for sections of these ropes to prevent chafing of the bird or entanglement of the ropes. Today, these sections are coated with plastic. Importantly, the rope around the neck must be tight enough to trap large fish in the birds pouch, but loose enough for small fish to pass through, otherwise the birds become frustrated and stop fishing. Once the rope is attached, a tray of large fish is presented to the cormorant. The cormorant swallows the fish in seconds. The Ushou quickly massages the birds neck and opens it mouth, and the cormorant spits the fish back into the tray (see Photos 25 & 26, and Video 1).
Tourism makes up a substantial portion of the ukai earnings. Before and during the demonstration, boats are being loaded along the riverbank. Tourists board their boats for the journey upriver to view the ukai. Options include a full package with meals and drinks, or boat only (you can bring your own food and drink). One boat carried dancing girls. Once night falls and all is made ready, the fires are lit in the ukai boats, and a brief show of fireworks herald the start of fishing (Photos 27-29).
The Nagara River is a wild river, protected by government edicts. The stretch in Gifu is relatively shallow, typically no more than 3-4 meters (10-13’) deep during the ukai fishing season. The water is clean and clear. The bottom consists of smooth, round rocks that provide shelter for the ayu as they sleep. These are ideal conditions for ayu, and for ukai (Photo 30).
As soon as the Ushou releases his birds, they begin to fish. The boatmen bang on the side of their boat to stimulate the birds and startle the ayu. The ayu – disoriented and half asleep – flush from the rocks. As they right themselves in the moving water, the light of the fire reflects off their silvery bellies, and the cormorants gobble them up. The Ushou, holding 10-12 leashes in his left hand, pulls in one bird at a time. He tucks the bird under his right arm and massages the bird’s throat. The bird’s head and beak are held in the Ushou’s left hand to direct the coughed up fish into the boat. In a few seconds, the bird is back in the water and the Ushou pulls in the next one. The Ushou spends much of his effort to keep his birds fanned out, to avoid entanglements of their leashes (see Photos 31-34, Video 2).
At the end of the event, the six Ushou bring their boats side-by-side and head down the river in a spectacular finish. Their collective noise awakens any remaining fish for the birds to catch. This style – sogarami – was once reserved for royal spectators, but has become a regular finish to a night of cormorant fishing in Gifu (see Photo 35).
Afterward, the Ushou beach their boats nearby the tourists and untie their birds. The birds sit on the gunnels of the boats and spread their wings to dry, while the crew stores their leashes. A tray of freshly caught ayu are displayed. They will be sold in the local resorts for the next day’s lunch and dinner (see Photos 36-38).
We visited Gifu twice to watch these fishers, once in July and again in October. It rained on our first visit (July 27, 2011). The runoff muddied the waters and raised the river – difficult conditions for ukai, and difficult to watch and photograph. We were fortunate to be able to interview Sugimoto-Ushou the next morning. Later that day he went to the Goryou jyo – ‘honorable fishing place’ – a stretch of the river reserved for imperial fishing. Ushou only fish here eight times per year. Sugimoto-Ushou explained in English, “I send ayu to Emperor tonight” (see Photo 39).
Capture and Care of the Cormorants
Japanese Cormorants do not breed in captivity. For centuries, umiu have been captured near Hitachi City, along the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture. Only a few men have permission to take these birds (similar to the royal cormorant fishers). They supply birds for all the ukai of Japan, with the exception of Wakayama Prefecture, where they capture their own birds.
The cormorants stop in Ibaraki in the spring and fall on their migrations. Men work from blinds made of straw. They tether a tame cormorant nearby, on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. The tethered bird attracts young cormorants, which are readily snared when they land next to the ‘lure’. This method works best to capture young, naïve birds (1-3 years old), which are easily identified by their lighter plumage (Photo 40). Fortunately, young birds are preferred. These birds are initially quarantined, and later blindfolded for the journey to their new homes. Birds must be ordered a year in advance.
Wild-caught cormorants know how to fish, but must learn to tolerate their human handlers. Younger birds tame more easily. Also, they more readily accept the existing pecking order of their new group. Japanese refer to the relationship between senpai – the elder, or one who came first, and the kohai – the one who came later. Similar relationships develop between the cormorants. Importantly, the young bird will learn from its senior partner how to work with a human on a leash. It may take 2-3 years before a new bird is ready to work. Over time, dominance relationships can change. However, when selecting birds for fishing, the Ushou must be careful to place only paired birds into the same basket. Otherwise, they may fight to the death (Photo 41).
Cormorant fishers take great care of their birds. Wild birds only live a few years. Cormorants used for ukai often live 15 years or more. It takes patience to tame the birds, and intimate knowledge of each bird and its partner to decide who will fish each night. The hands and arms of both Sugimoto-Ushou and Sawaki-san were covered in scars from the bird’s bites, and burns caused by sparks from the fires used while fishing (see Photos 42 & 43).
Sugimoto-Ushou learned his craft from men that used to walk the boats upriver. They made more of their living from the fish they caught, rather than tourists. It was hard physical work, and they were strict. In his grandfather’s era, the birds were taken upriver for days at a time in the winter, the offseason for ukai. The cormorants could feed themselves freely in the river, returning to sleep in their baskets on the boat. Men would stay with them during the day, but return home each night by bike to sleep in their own beds. Boys were left to sleep on the boats and watch after the birds. This winter style of feeding was called egai. Today, Sugimoto-Ushou takes his birds to the river in winter to feed themselves, but he uses a motor on his boat for travel (Photo 44).
Sustainability and Modern Ukai
The Nagara River is one of the last rivers to sustain an active ukai fishery. Its natural quality and historical protection have preserved this nearly-wild river for the ayu that mature and spawn here. The young develop downstream in Ise Bay, and then return in the spring. Ukai fishing begins May 11th each year and ends October 15th. They compete with a net fishery for ayu, which begins at the same time, but continues later in the fall. A limited number of Ushou and a relatively large mesh size on the ayu nets protect the population from being over fished (see Photos 45 & 46).
Still, the Nagara River ukai depends more on tourism than the sale of fish. According to Sugimoto-Ushou, it has been this way from the time of Shogun Nobunaga. In those days, it was the attention and support of the shogun that kept the fishery viable. After the Meiji Restoration, it was the Emperor who provided critical support. Since the 1950’s, the local government and development of modern tourism have been the primary source of funding, although Ushou continue to receive imperial support. The Ushou of Gifu learned long ago to adapt to the current business conditions, and their various supporters. This lesson is passed down from generation to generation. During our October 7, 2011 visit, 36 boats of tourists (capacity 20-50 people per boat) paid an average of $40 or more to watch the ukai (estimated gross receipts $35,000-50,000). Sugimoto-Ushou has a young son. He expects his son will take over his title when he passes on (Photo 47).
Historically, ukai fisheries were active on many rivers throughout Japan. Most of these fisheries ended in the Heian Period (794-1185). The cormorant fishers of the Ujigawa (Uji River) were made famous at this time by Lady Murasaki in her classic, ‘The Tale of Genji’, Japan’s first novel (see Photo 48).
Like many of the current ukai fisheries, cormorant fishing in Uji died out for nearly 1,000 years. During the Taishou Period (1912-1926) a group of local boatmen were looking for more business. One of them knew the Ushou of Seki City on the Nagara River. They studied with these fishers, and brought their techniques back to Uji (Photo 49). They restarted cormorant fishing to attract more tourists. Uji City’s tourism office provides support.
Today, these fishers work a protected stretch of the Uji River (Photo 50). They hire out their boats to tourists, who can enjoy an evening on the river with food, drink and the spectacle of cormorant fishing. Dinners can be ordered from the small restaurants that line the riverbank. The restaurants coordinate with the boatmen to deliver their meals on board (see Photo 51).
We first visited Uji City on June 12, 2009, the day before the season opened. At the ukai office, we met Matsusaka-sensei – the head (‘teacher’) cormorant fisher; his grandfather studied with the Ushou of Seki City (Photo 52). He invited us to return the next night and join the media boat. Also, he invited us to interview his protégé and current lead cormorant fisher, Mariko Sawaki-san (Photo 53).
At dusk on June 13th, Shinto priests performed a Shin Shiki (‘god ceremony’) from a boat on the Uji River. Local officials and the ukai fishers joined them onboard (Photo 54). At the conclusion of the ceremony, the ukai began. They lit their fires and released the cormorants. The boatmen banged on their boats to stimulate the birds and startle the fish. The birds came close enough to splash us, and our cameras. The fishers showed off the ayu as the cormorants spit them out. The Uji River is no longer rich in ayu, however, so they stock this section of the river. The fish caught here are given back to the cormorants at the end of the show (Photos 55-61 and Video 3).
Because this first night of fishing began early, it was easy to see the actions of birds and handlers. Also, this narrow section of river allows spectators to view the ukai from either shore and from two bridges. The ukai brought their boats alongside the press boat and tour boats. It provides a very intimate view of cormorant fishing (see Photos 62 & 63).
We returned a few days later to interview Mariko Sawaki-san. Sawaki-san represents a new type of cormorant fisher. She is the first woman cormorant fisher on the Uji River, and one of only four women cormorant fishers in Japan. Also, she did not inherit her position. Rather, she has had a life-long interest in animals and animal-human interactions. Her interests in ukai and the changing business environment brought her to this new position.
Sawaki-san works full time in the Uji City Tourism office, two blocks from the ukai office (Photo 64). Her ukai work keeps her extra busy for the 100 day summer season. However, the short season presents a problem to the fishery. The boatmen hold most of the jobs in the industry and they need work all year round. They take tourists for rides on the river both day and night, but business is much slower outside the ukai season.
We returned later that summer with our family to watch the ukai on a more typical evening (Photo 65). Eleven tourist boats of various sizes were available for hire. We rented a boat for ten, the smallest size available. The ukai of Uji use two boats for fishing, with two female fishers. On this night, the women took turns fishing from the same boat. At the start of the evening they poled upriver, just below a small dam. The tourist boats followed. Here, the two women and Matsusaka-sensei demonstrated the tying of the birds and other aspects of their craft (Photos 66-71).
The fishing was enjoyed by all. They Uji fishers hold six birds at a time. They do not catch fish for sale, and fewer birds are easier to handle. Their boat takes turns moving amongst the tourists, providing excellent views. They fished for more than 30 minutes (see Photos 72-75).
We returned to Uji in October 2011 and spoke with Sawaki-san and Matsusaka -sensei. Their business has improved over the last two years, despite the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. One of their birds escaped last year and did not return. They have 15 birds now. We watched the birds being fed that day at 2PM (Photo 76). They eat frozen fish throughout the year, and are fattened up in the winter. They lose weight over the summer, when they are kept hungry.
It was interesting to compare the two styles of ukai. Fishing a wild river for ayu to sell is quite different from demonstrating this ancient fishery for tourists. However, the basic techniques are the same. The Gifu ukai is more dramatic on a wild river with more boats, fishers and birds. On the other hand, we were able to get closer to the ukai in Uji and could observe more of the event. We are grateful to Sugimoto-Ushou for speaking to us, and showing us his craft in the free-flowing Nagaragawa. We are indebted to Sawaki-san and Matsusaka-sensei for their hospitality, many interviews and fishing demonstrations. The expertise and dedication of these cormorant fishers will maintain the ukai tradition for at least one more generation.
Note: Torrential rains hit Uji August 14th, flooding the river and some of its streets. A man and woman are missing, as well as one of the ukai boats.