Japan’s sea view through the ages, in poetry, prose and plain speaking


At Tafushi Cape / Those gracious men of the court / gather seaweed. — “Manyoshu” (7th century)

By the Bay of Ami / Lovely maidens board a boat, / their long skirts drenched / by the flowing tide. — Manyoshu

There is a Pure Land of happiness beneath the waves, another Capital where no sorrow is. Thither it is that I am taking our Lord. — “Tales of the Heike” (13th century; spoken by the widow of the defeated commander as she prepares to drown herself and the 8-year-old Emperor Antoku.)

If King Felipe [of Portugal] himself, or even the very God of the Christians, or the great Buddha contravene [the new sakoku exclusion policy], they shall pay for it with their heads! — official shogunal message to Portugal regarding the execution in 1640 of 61 Portuguese envoys who came from Macau to petition for trading rights.

No seaweed grows on the floor of the sea that the inhabitants of this country do not use as food. — “History of Japan” by Engelbert Kaempfer (1727).

Of late, barbarian ships have repeatedly sailed into Japanese waters and have committed belligerent actions. However, there is not the slightest indication that they plan to seize Japanese territory. It is true that they are barbarians, but does it stand to reason they would travel tens of thousands of miles over the waves in order to wage a war? This is quite unthinkable. — Toyama Kagemichi (1764-1837), a government official who in 1825 made a rare plea for easing sakoku.

If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold. — “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville (1851).

This war will give us much trouble in the future. The fact that we have had a small success at Pearl Harbor is nothing. — Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, upon hearing of the stunning but incomplete success of the December 1941 secret air attack he had devised against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

If this trend continues, the world’s currently fished seafoods will have reached what we define as collapse by 2048. — Boris Worm, lead author of a four-year study reported in Science magazine, 2006.

We think it is possible to use whale resources in a sustainable way. We don’t have much land, we have the sea. Japan has lost so much of its own culture already. Countries like the U.K. and America have their own resources. We don’t tell them what to eat.” — Japan Fisheries Agency official Hideki Moronuki, 2006