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Whales in the Japanese Landscape: The Power of the Warrior Spirit

The whaling economy was preceded by a battle to overcome a giant creature which, more than profits and losses, required a spiritual vitality.

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From a scroll entitled “Whaling in the Village of Taiji in the Kishu Region” (Taiji Municipal Whale Museum Collection)

Second of 5 parts

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

3rd Part: Whales in the Japanese Landscape: A Test of Character, Past and Present


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 second 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.

In this part we take at the history around the origins of whaling in Taiji.

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Traditional Japanese whaling involved a large fleet of boats, which worked closely with commanders on land as they hunted whales. It can be said that the techniques required to run such an operation were honed in war, and thus within them dwells the spirit of the warrior.

A gateway that feels like something out of a pirate ride at a theme park opens out toward Taiji Harbor in Wakayama Prefecture. “Sekimon” is a natural rock gateway that can be found in drawings of the area that date back to the Edo Period. 

The Kiizokufudoki, a regional guide compiled during this period by authorities in the Kishu Domain (modern Wakayama) during the Edo period describes it this way:

A mountain has been shaved away into the shape of a gateway. If you go inside, it connects to village dwellings. It is said that this is where the Wada household was located.


Wada Family of Village Lore

The Wada family that built homes behind Sekimon was the family that founded whaling in Taiji. As the Kiizokufudoki states:

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In 1606, a man named Wada Chube Yorimoto negotiated with two others, Ronin Iemon of Sakai in Senshu (modern Osaka) and Denji of Bishu Chitagun Morozaki (modern Aichi), to begin harpoon whaling.

The year 1606 was six years after the Battle of Sekigahara, a famous and decisive struggle that is widely considered to mark the end of Japan’s Sengoku, or “Warring States,” Period, a time of endless wars and conflict. 

The same document also touches on the ancestry of the Wada line, mentioning that “according to family lore” the family was related to a samurai commander during the Kamakura Period, the well-known warrior Asahina Yoshihide.

The father of Asahina Yoshihide was Wada Yoshimori, part of a military group in Japan’s central Kanto region and a powerful vassal under Kamakura shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo. According to a famous history of the Kamakura Period, both Yoshimori and Yoshihide were killed in the “Wada Battle,” which resulted in the complete destruction of the Wada clan. 


An Alternate Ending?

A mountain has been shaved away into the shape of a gateway. If you go inside, it connects to village dwellings. It is said that this is where the Wada household was located.

In 1606, a man named Wada Chube Yorimoto negotiated with two others, Ronin Iemon of Sakai in Senshu (modern Osaka) and Denji of Bishu Chitagun Morozaki (modern Aichi), to begin harpoon whaling.

So actually he didn’t die, but rather drifted ashore in Taiji… 

“Sekimon,” a natural gateway that opens to Taiji Harbor in Wakayama Prefecture. Behind it lay the homes of the Wada family in Taiji.

According to this legend, it was actually the descendants of a warrior from central Japan that started whaling in Taiji.

You can read the rest of this story and learn the story of the power of the warrior spirit at this link. This article was first published by Whaling Today on May 25, 2022. Check out Whaling Today for deeper and unique insights into Japanese whaling culture, whale conservation efforts and sustainable whaling.

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(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.)

Series continues in part 3.


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Author: Hideaki Sakamoto

Hideaki Sakamoto is a member of the Sankei Newspaper’s Osaka editorial committee for the local news division.This series aims to experiment with new approaches in examining the spiritual history of Japanese that interact with the sea.

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