Thar she blew!

TAIJI, Wakayama Pref. — From the lead boat it was difficult to see the spray rising from the waters off Tomyo Point. The onshore breeze dispersed it before it could rise too high and the choppy waters forced the rowers to concentrate on their task. Nonetheless, the sign was there.

The fleet of 25 boats, each with a crew of 16 men, headed south by southwest. Then, the first set of flags was raised at a headland lookout point on shore. A pod of right whales! If all went well, there would be cause for celebration tonight and a visit to the shrine in thanksgiving.

Within minutes a second set of flags went up. Four nets were to be deployed and the boats of the Seko family, the harpoonists, were to flank the lead whale in the pod.

The first harpoon arched in flight and struck the right side of the beast, just behind the eye. The whale plunged, but its escape was hampered by the nets, and two minutes later it resurfaced.

Taking steady aim, the second harpoonist launched his heavy 3-meter-long missile into the whale’s head. A dozen more harpoons then speared their victim, and within half an hour it was all over.

Now it was the turn of the Suji family boats to secure the floating carcass, attaching lines from the boats to begin the long haul back to their home beach.

This scene, of a typical hunt in mid-17th century Japan, is one of those brought alive at the Taiji Whaling Museum.

Located on the southeast coast of Wakayama Prefecture, Taiji is the most famous whaling port in Japan. In 1969, the museum was constructed there at a cost of 330 million yen from largely local funds, used to offset the town’s loss of revenue as the world’s whale stocks plummeted.

It has since become an economic lifeline for Taiji’s 4,000 residents, especially since 1986 when Japan conformed with the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling.

According to Masazane Shoji, vice director of the museum, some 200,000 people visit Taiji each year. “Many Japanese feel there is something deep in their nature that resonates with whaling,” said Shoji. “However, as younger generations have almost no experience eating whale meat, we have had to diversify our attractions in order to bring in more families.”

The museum decided to stage dolphin and orca shows, which take place several times a day. Its pools now hold two orcas, both captured locally, six bottlenose dolphins, three false killer whales and two Pacific white-sided dolphins.

Inside the museum more than 100 exhibits are ranged over three floors. The emphasis is definitely low-tech, and there is no propaganda about the benefits of eating whale meat. On the first floor are the skeletons of several whale species, some suspended from the ceiling. The most startling exhibits, however, are on the second floor — organs from right, sperm and other whales preserved in jars. Fetuses of sperm and right whales are displayed in various stages of development, and the overall feeling is of clinical detachment.

The third floor is reserved for items used during the early days of Japan’s whaling industry, including harpoons, signal flags and nets, as well several small replicas of the early whalers’ boats made by local craftsmen.

There is also a life-size replica of one of these elaborately decorated boats, complete with 13 mannequins dressed in the typical whaling loincloths and headbands. Just 8 meters long, those open boats were painted with abstract symbols that were both functional and festive. These made it easier to distinguish from a distance which boats belonged to which family or group, and also represented aspects of the hunt. The bottom of the boat was carefully lacquered to a glassy finish, helping it to slide speedily through the water.

“The care the Taiji people took in decorating the boats indicated their owners’ status and wealth,” said Shoji. “From early manuscripts they learned that boats of the Heian Period [794-1185] had also been painted, so they decided to imitate them. Underlying all of this, though, was the desire to gain the favor of the gods, who they felt were looking down on them during their arduous task.”

Setting aside controversies over whaling, a visit to the Taiji Whaling Museum will leave all but the most blase marveling at how Japan’s whalers in the Edo Period (1603-1867) managed to capture right, gray, sperm and even blue whales — the largest creatures on Earth — on the open seas, in flimsy boats and armed with no more than 10-kg oak harpoons.

Some historians say there is evidence of whaling in Japan since the Jomon Period 10,000 years ago. It wasn’t until a warlord from Ise arrived by chance in the bay of Taiji, however, that whaling in Japan became a money-making venture — and Taiji became the place where its whaling industry began.

The year was 1675 and the warlord was Yoritomo Wada. Having just been defeated in a civil war, he fled south by boat, only to be blown off course by a storm. His crippled vessel drifted into Taiji bay where, due to his high rank, he and his entourage were given accommodation.

Over the next several years, through his military experience and keen eye for geographic advantage, Wada devised a system for catching large whales — employing spotters, signals, harpoons and nets — that would soon make Taiji one of the richest villages in Japan. In addition, Taiji’s crescent-shaped harbor made it ideal for driving dolphins and smaller whales into the shallows, where they would be dispatched with clubs, a method called oikomi.

So successful was Wada’s system that it soon spread to other parts of the country, including Nagasaki, Muroto on the southern tip of Shikoku and Watagura in present-day Chiba Prefecture. But as suddenly as he appeared, Wada then departed for parts unknown — leaving the system he established, organized along clan lines, to continue till early in the 20th century.

However, if visitors were to go away thinking Taiji’s whaling industry has been consigned to history, they would be sorely mistaken. Out of Taiji’s fleet of 250 fishing boats, 39 are used to hunt pilot and Baird’s beaked whales — which are not covered by the IWC’s moratorium — as well as orcas and dolphins, according to Kazutoyo Shimetani of the Taiji Fishing Cooperative.

“Last year we took 60 whales using harpoon guns and nets, and 300 dolphins of various species,” he explained. “The boats go out as far as 30 km, but only at certain times of the year. We do no research whaling out of Taiji — that is done by larger ships out of Tokyo and Chiba.”

Shimetani said that figures on how many dolphins and orcas are killed by clubbing are not made public. But he indicated that last year as many as 300 may have been taken this way.

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