Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and Environment of Early Modern Japan

Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Contributing to a burgeoning body of writing on watery, oceanic or fishy interactions across the globe, Jakobina Arch’s Bringing Whales Ashore is a powerful argument for the diffusion of our conception of such maritime spaces. Arch’s book, unlike older examples of the literature which site much of the history only out at sea, either on or underwater, breaks and fractures the edges and boundaries of the worlds encountered by her writing. While Arch may have the spirit of Conrad Totman and his foundational work in the Green Archipelago (University of California Press, 1989) on onshore environmental, arboreal histories, she continues the fracturing of past consensus on Japan and Japanese history as sustainable or harmonic with its land based and marine environments.

Extremely well organised, Bringing Whales Ashore explores the world of early modern Japanese whaling in a variety of temporal and physical settings and scales. From the lives and spaces of whales themselves, the landscapes of Japanese whalers, and whaling communities in the early modern period, the flows and circulation of bits of whales and whale products within Japan’s economy, to cultural and spiritual landscapes within which whales and whaling play unexpected, surprising and to this reviewer at least, shocking roles, Arch moves skilfully from water to land, from human, to cetacean, to cosmic.

From sea to circulation

There is always something visceral about fishing and in particular whaling. Whether it is the industrial-scale whaling of the first half of the 20th century, or subsidence level artisanal or indigenous whaling from cultures across the globe, there is something intense and macabre about the pursuit, capture and dismemberment of whales. As a scholar of the geographies of fishing in the 21st century, this reviewer is seldom surprised by the danger fishermen and whalers are subjected to, nor the brutality meted out to the bodies of fish and whales. Somehow though Arch weaves an intriguing and revealing narrative in which the journeys and travels of whales and whale populations are intersected by the development of human technologies and capabilities in Japan. In this there are extraordinary flashes of whaling practice from the era before the explosive harpoon, when Japanese whaling squads included a man whose job it was to jump onto the head of the captured whale and strike a fatal blow with a long knife. Images of the grisly deconstruction on the shore by crews and communities concerned to extract as much of value before the very size of the dead cetacean sparks a decomposition which renders the body a rotten and degraded mass.

This mass is later reconstructed into products and materials throughout the Japanese mainland in completely unexpected ways. Arch deftly recounts how the whale’s intrinsic value becomes part of an exceedingly complicated economy, which includes extensive risk and quite elaborate debt and financing structures. With the kaekchu, commission tradesmen and lenders, in mind in the Korean context, this reviewer was similarly intimidated by the complication of actually extracting a profit for communities and whaling associations in the era of daimyo and their domains. Leaving aside the matter of financialization, Arch unpicks the extraordinary material web that whales become. The extensive list of elements of a whale and what they can become includes the highly familiar, such as oil for lighting and lubrication, skin to become leather, tendons and sinews to become strings, bones to become fertiliser (oil was also used for this purpose) and construction materials and the flexible baleen from their mouths to become elements of wraps and springs. So far I have not mentioned that most obvious of whale materials, their meat. Arch reiterates that prior to the invention of refrigeration, meat of any sort was a problematic material, especially that caught offshore some distance from those populations who would eat it. Whale meat like any other meat has a tendency, without artificial methods of cooling it to quickly become rancid and inedible. It was thus much harder to distribute whale meat at distance from the shore and the communities who caught it, than oil, skin or other products. However this transformation from fresh to rotten is accompanied by another transformation of whale meant encountered and considered by Arch, which surely cannot have been anticipated by many.

Mountain whales onshore

Shinto and Buddhist traditions of this period have a complex framework of restriction and prohibition surrounding concepts of ritual pollution by blood and hierarchies of being. Arch describes the equally complex processes by which the wild boar, transformed culturally perhaps as a result of these frameworks into ‘mountain whale’ (yamakujira). Boar meat was thus rendered acceptable and accessible to eat by culturally becoming a close relative of sea going whales, whose meat coincidentally shared something of the same colour palate. This cultural transformation was not simply bestowed upon boars, Arch also recounts that at the same time other meats were renamed: ‘cows as plums, horses as cherries, deer as maple leaves, rabbits as a feather’ (p. 97). Thus whales were bought onshore by linguistic and cultural transformation, however there were other and rather more literal transformations and onshore destinations for some whales.

In the penultimate chapter of Bringing Whales Ashore, Arch explores spaces which are rare in global landscapes of extraction and consumption, places which commemorate the animals and their spirits sacrificed in order to become useful or delicious materials in early modern Japan. In particular in this era it appeared almost impossible for whalers to discern the sex of whales or whether they were pregnant. It was problematic in Buddhism of the period to be responsible for the death of something that had not even born. Whalers would occasionally catch and slaughter a whale to discover that they had caught two. Arch suggests that such foetal whales would have the chance to become little Buddha’s in spite of having not actually been born, and writing of a number of places, for example at Kayoi and Yobuko where whaling communities built physical memorials and gifted endowments for prayers to and rituals focused on the unborn whales. These places can also include an actual grave site for the whale and Arch also records numerous examples in which whales are included in shrine death records. Kayoi shrine even has an entirely separate register for whales. These instances do not for the most part negate the Cetacean identity of the animal remembered or commemorated, making sure to record in some way the individual’s ‘whaleness’, but suggest that these animals through either their size, the nature of the deaths and the challenge presented by their capture for local communities, exist somewhere else in the Buddhist hierarchy of being, beyond simply that of edible or useful material.

In short Bringing Whales Ashore is a breath-taking and emotional read for those concerned to fill in the watery, liminal spaces of environmental history in general or specifically of Japan. While Arch is concerned to slay the myth of sustainability with regards to this form of maritime practice, using the Green Archipelago as one of the poles on which that myth is sustained, her attention to detail and fluidity of narrative has a lot in common with Totman’s. Whaling and the exploitation of the sea and ocean is patently not sustainable in this period, just as it has become even less so in later centuries and certainly is not in our present. Arch certainly records the impact of early modern Japanese whaling on local cetacean populations and those migrating past Japan, well before the advent of refrigeration, the mothership, and the explosive harpoon. This in itself would have been a valuable exercise. What makes Arch’s book fundamentally important is its collapse of the boundaries between water and land, human and cetacean, when it comes to the mobility and transformation of whale products and values away from the shore. Similar to more-than human geographies and histories of the present, even in their deconstruction and destruction whales are not just in there, or over there, but in and around human cultural development, economics and spiritual practices. A truly fascinating read and comfortable companion for the work of Ryan Tucker Jones and Carmel Finlay and others exploring technological, historical and cultural intersections in the Pacific. Arch’s work challenges readers to travel from oceanscapes of cetacean migration, to visceral death on the coast, value extraction by dismemberment, and disintegration to places of hybrid-memory and lives long in the memory.