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  • Japanese: 捕鯨 (hogei)

Whaling was practiced in various times and places throughout Japanese history. Controversy today between animal rights activists and those who claim the hunting & consumption of the meat of whales (and other cetaceans) is a traditional practice, has led to heated political difficulties, as well as in-person clashes on and off-shore.

Whaling was also practiced by the Ainu,[1] and quite heavily in the 18th-19th centuries by Americans and Europeans, whose whaling ships played a significant role in the history of the Pacific, including in encounters with the Japanese.


Bones of whales and other cetaceans have been found in many Jômon period sites, often fashioned into various tools. While some scholars suggest that Jômon people likely lacked the technology to actively hunt whales, and that instead they likely only made use of whale when a creature was beached or otherwise distressed, an opportunistic practice known as yorikuja, others argue that at least some Jômon peoples, in some regions, might have had such technology.[1]

While it is believed that people may have engaged in this "passive hunting" (yorikuja), and in active dolphin drives, since ancient times, the active hunting of larger whales is believed to have begun only in the late 16th century.[2]

Edo period

In the Edo period, whale meat, whale oil, and certain other cetacean-derived products, were prominent trade goods, and whaling was among the most capital-intensive undertakings in the entire Tokugawa period economy. Whaling generally involved large groups of 400 to 1000 workers, operating within complex managerial structures.[3]

Whaling took place chiefly in the Sea of Japan, but also on the Pacific coast, e.g. in Tosa province, which was strategically located along whales' migration paths.[4] The region known as Saikai, including the provinces of Hizen and Chikuzen in northern Kyushu, Nagato province (Chôshû) in western Honshû, and the island provinces of Iki and Tsushima, were together the most productive whaling region in the archipelago, in the Edo period.[5] The chief targets of whaling expeditions were humpback and right whales, which migrated south from the Sea of Okhotsk through the Sea of Japan and into the East China Sea in December, and back north in April and May. Right whales were especially desired for their superior meat and for the amounts of whale oil which could be extracted from their bodies, but grey whales, fin whales, and even blue whales were sometimes hunted as well.[2]

Shogunal and domain authorities generally viewed these three types of cetacean hunting as very separate categories, regulating them rather differently. Beached or drifting whales obtained "passively," as well as dolphins driven towards shore to be slaughtered, were grouped in within the rights of a fishing village to activities in those waters. The two were differentiated, however, in that all residents of the village were given collective claim to a dolphin catch, which thus had to be shared, while collected whale carcasses became in many regions the property of district or domain authorities, who then distributed the meat, oil, bones, and other parts (or the monetary income from the sale of those products) according to their own policies. Active whaling operations similarly could lay claim to their own catches, not being obliged to share with other villagers, but since these active operations often took the whalers not only into waters belonging to other villages, but even into waters belonging to other domains, they were generally obliged to pay a sort of guest fee to the village or domain where the whale was caught.[2]

Active whaling was originally undertaken using harpoons, in a series of methods known as tsukitori hô, developed in or introduced to northern Kyushu, Shikoku, Nagato province, and the Kumano region in the 1590s. Over the course of the following century, a variety of net techniques, known as amitori hô, became more dominant. In some areas, such as in Nagato (Chôshû), whales were driven into bays, and then trapped in using nets, much as in dolphin drives. However, a method developed in 1675 by Wada Kakuemon of Taiji village (in what is today Wakayama prefecture) soon went on to become the dominant method, used in many regions up through the 19th century. Rather than driving whales toward shore, Wada's method involved simply driving them into nets placed out in the open ocean. Once the whale was tangled up in the net, it would be attacked with harpoons.[5]

The increase in active whaling led to an increase in injured and dead whales found drifting or beached. In some domains, such as Fukuoka domain, when one was taken in as yorikuja ("passive" capture of weakened or dead whales), the authorities were to be notified, so that the district headman (ôjôya) could organize an auction for local merchants. Merchants, groups of fishermen, or others would bid for the meat, the bones, or other parts of the whale, with prices varying dramatically, of course, depending on the size and species of the whale, the condition of the carcass (e.g. how long it had been rotting before being collected), and other factors. A large portion of the proceeds, sometimes as much as 2/3, was paid in tax to the authorities. Much of the remainder was distributed among the people of the village, much as finds from shipwrecks or washed-up cargo would be.[6]

Whaling by Westerners

In the first half of the 19th century, American and other Western whaling ships often came to Japanese ports or coastal villages seeking food, water, fuel, and other supplies, or safe harbor where repairs could be made. The conflict between Western desires on these matters, and the Tokugawa shogunate's policies of maritime restrictions, led to clashes at times,[7] and was a key element of the eventual push on the part of the Western powers to "open" up Japanese ports to Western ships. Whaling ships also feature prominently in the cases of Japanese castaways such as John Manjirô and Jirôkichi who were rescued by whaling vessels and brought to the United States or elsewhere, and in the cases of figures such as Ranald MacDonald, who were castaway (intentionally in MacDonald's case) in Japan.


In the 20th century, particularly the post-war period, it became common for a time for canned whale meat to be served as part of school lunches in public schools. As a result, many Japanese alive today who grew up during that time think of it as a rather common/standard thing. Whale meat, prepared in a variety of ways, continues to be relatively easily available in many parts of Japan, including the big cities.

Much controversy surrounds the continued practice of whaling by Japanese today. Environmental and animal rights activist groups such as Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd have taken a stand on the issue, with some groups directly interfering with whaling activities; this has sometimes resulted in rather violent clashes. Local whalers / fishermen in some regions claim this is their traditional practice, and/or simply their livelihood, arguing on those or other grounds that the practice should be allowed to continue. Meanwhile, on a national policy & diplomacy level, Japan has on a number of occasions claimed that most or all Japanese whaling performed today is for scientific purposes, though detractors have argued this to not be the case.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Kobayashi Tatsuo, Simon Kaner, and Oki Nakamura, Jomon Reflections: Forager Life and Culture in the Prehistoric Japanese Archipelago, Oxford: Oxbow Books (2004), 77.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Arne Kalland, Fishing Villages in Tokugawa Japan, University of Hawaii Press (1995), 180-181.
  3. Kalland, 75, 180.
  4. Martin Dusinberre, Hard Times in the Hometown: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan, University of Hawaii Press (2012), 191-192.; Luke Roberts, Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain: The Merchant Origins of Economic Nationalism in 18th-Century Tosa, Cambridge University Press (1998), 45-49.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Kalland, 185.
  6. Kalland, 182-184.
  7. For example, in 1824, members of the crew of one whaling ship were captured by samurai of Mito han, while at least one crewmember of another whaling ship, which landed at Takarajima in the Ryûkyû Islands was slain by a Shimazu clan retainer.