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Whales in the Japanese Landscape: A Test of Character, Past and Present

Practiced in Japan as far back as 4000 BC, and humans are still chasing whales 6,000 years later, largely for a spiritual reward not measured by economics.

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Takashi Takeuchi, whaling boat captain in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. March 2022. (Photo by Hideaki Sakamoto)

Third of 5 parts

1st Part: Whales in the Japanese Landscape: Natural Resources and Root of Manufacturing

2nd Part: Whales in the Japanese Landscape: The Power of the Warrior Spirit

The Japanese have been hunting whales since ancient times. It is impossible to consider the relationship between the Japanese people and the sea without examining the history of whaling.

This is the third of a series of five articles on “Whales in the Japanese Landscape.” The series is part of a larger ongoing collection published by the Sankei Shimbun in Japanese, titled “Tales of the ‘Watatsumi’” after the Japanese god of the sea.

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In this part we take a look at how whaling tests the character of each whaler, and on betting honor on the thrust of a knife.

In traditional Japanese whaling, whales were hunted by human power alone. When the time came to finish a hunt, the final cut was performed by young whalers who clung to the back of the animals at sea. It was a grueling test that was compulsory to become full-fledged whalers. The young men leaped into the sea, risking their lives. 

Whaling remains a test of skill and character today, even as mechanical power prevails.

Among the variety of boats moored in the harbor of the town of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, one in particular caught my attention. It had a cannon mounted on its bow, and a high mast topped with a watchtower. 

This boat is the 32-ton Katsumaru No. 7, a small whaling ship owned by the Taiji Fisheries Association. Taiji’s whaling tradition, which began in the Edo period, is still active today.

You can read the rest of this story to learn about Japanese whalers and how their character is tested, past and present at this link. This article was first published by Whaling Today on June 16, 2022. Check out Whaling Today for deeper and unique insights into Japanese whaling culture, whale conservation efforts and sustainable whaling.

Series continues in part 4.

(Read the column in Japanese at this link. This article is published in cooperation with the Institute of Cetacean Research. Let us hear your thoughts in our comments section.)

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Author: Hideaki Sakamoto

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