Japan Heritage Living with Whales Story Japan Heritage Living with Whales Story

“Living with Whales,” a designated part of the Japan Heritage, is a story that communicates the whaling culture of
the Kumano Sea. This pamphlet follows the thread of that story, which is based on the tangible
and intangible cultural properties (the cultural properties that make up the Japan Heritage) found in the region.

History of traditional whaling

In ancient times, the Japanese considered whales to be manifestations of the god Ebisu, who brings riches from the seas. People gratefully utilized the whales that occasionally washed ashore as a source of food, and eventually they began whaling themselves as a means of livelihood.

Whales have been seen in coastal areas lying along the Kumano Sea, where the Black Current flows, since ancient times, and organized whaling began during the Edo period. Legend holds that the samurai Wada ChubeeYorimoto, who was from Taiji, pioneered the techniques of whaling, and he continues to be revered as the founder of whaling today.

Initially whales were caught using harpoons, but the subsequent creation by Taiji Kakuemon of methods for capturing the creatures using nets led to the rapid development of whaling. In this approach, a fleet of boats would surround a whale, catch it in a net, and then attack it with harpoons. But this “fleet” was nothing like a modern fleet of boats, consisting instead of small craft that were rowed by hand. The whale would be attacked with a large number of harpoons of several different types and then killed with a large sword.

The descendants of the Kumano Navy played a central role in traditional whaling.

It is said that it was the descendants of soldiers who fought for the Kumano Navy and made a name for themselves long ago in the Genpei War who carried out this dangerous enterprise. They possessed bravery, a strong esprit de corps, excellent boat-building and boat-handling skills, and extensive knowledge of the sea. They were also highly skilled swimmers. These men provided the manpower that was the driving force behind whaling.

Geographical factors cannot be overlooked as one reason whaling flourished in this area. The Kumano Sea is bordered by an intricate, deeply indented coast set against precipitous mountains. In short, highlands from which whales avoiding coastal areas could be quickly spotted and beaches where whales could be brought ashore were one factor in the rise of whaling here.

Japan Heritage Mifune Sacred Boat Ritual, Kochi-matsuri Festival The passage of a ceremonial boat is the highlight of the festival, recreating the history of an area that prospered through whaling.

The passage of a ceremonial boat is the highlight of the festival, recreating the history of an area that prospered through whaling.

Kajitori-zaki Point as seen from Tomyo-zaki Point

Kajitori-zaki Point as seen from Tomyo-zaki Point

Prosperity brought by whales

More than 500 people played a variety of roles in whaling, a large and ambitious undertaking that required a truly regional effort. Those roles included lookouts who kept watch for whales from atop the area’s mountains, harpooners who attacked the whales with harpoons, and others to carry out tasks such as transporting the whale meat and managing and repairing associated tools and implements. An individual known as the “whale manager” was responsible for butchering the animal and processing the carcass and its meat, most of which was salted and shipped. Communities were grateful for each catch and used every bit of the gigantic creature, extracting whale oil from the bones and skin and utilizing whiskers and tendons as material for use in tools and implements.

Whales offered enormous prosperity to the area, inspiring the saying that “one whale benefits seven villages.” It is reported that the landing of 95 whales in 1681 yielded profits in excess of 6,000 ryo.

Whaling enriched each community since behind those who were involved directly in the hunt were numerous others, including ship carpenters, blacksmiths, and meat-sellers. News of the area’s prosperity reached as far afield as distant Osaka, inspiring Ihara Saikaku to note the wealth of Taiji in his work The Eternal Storehouse of Japan.

Whaling culture, passed down

In addition to Taiji (present-day Taiji, Taiji-cho), traditional whaling was also carried out in Miwasaki (present-day Miwasaki, Shingu-shi) and Koza (present-day Koza, Kushimoto-cho).

The traditions of traditional whaling have been passed down in Taiji, where people continue to practice them in nearby ocean waters, albeit on a smaller scale targeting smaller species. Tangible and intangible cultural properties that communicate the history and culture of whaling in the Kumano area provide a means of tracing the story of whaling.

Historic sites such as mountain lookouts and smoke signal sites evoke the stirring heroism of traditional whaling. Monuments memorializing whales testify to the value people placed on the mammals and the gratitude with which they saw them.

Festivals and traditional performing arts that celebrate whales provide a more immediate glimpse of the deep connections between people and whales. The region has maintained a variety of distinctive events that have been passed down from each generation to the next, including the passage of a gorgeously adorned ceremonial boat and the Whale Dance, which recreates the heroism of the whale hunt. Many elementary school students in the city of Shingu and in the town of Taiji learn the Whale Dance as part of their study of their local community.

For people living in coastal areas along the Kumano Sea, whales continue to be a special and familiar presence. With its 400 years of history, the area’s deep-rooted whaling culture remains alive to this day.

  • Japan Heritage festivals and traditional
    performing arts that depict whaling culture