SENDAI – In a once-booming whaling community in the northeast, an artisan has managed to keep alive a whale-tooth crafting tradition after his store was destroyed by the mega-quake and tsunami in 2011.
Carver Masayuki Chijimatsu, 65, now sells seals and accessories made from the teeth of sperm whales at a temporary shop in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Given Japan’s controversial decision to resume commercial whaling in July for the first time in about 30 years, he hopes the renewed attention will breathe life into his community.
One seal can be made from the central part of each tooth, a chunk about 20 cm long and 10 cm in diameter, Chijimatsu said. A seal and holding case cost at least ¥54,000 ($480).
“It may be more valuable than elephant ivory,” he said. “Because the prices are set rather high, few people actually buy.”
Whale meat was a valuable protein source amid the starvation after the war, leading the whaling industry to flourish. But Japan stopped after the International Whaling Commission adopted a moratorium in 1982.
Chijimatsu’s grandfather, who started the family’s store in 1928 after moving to Miyagi from southwest Japan, settled in Ishinomaki’s Ayukawa district on the tip of the Oshika Peninsula in search of materials for his craft. In the ’50s and ’60s, Ayukawa was bustling with whale-related businesses, whaling crews and butchers.
But when Japan halted commercial whaling in 1988, Chijimatsu’s father thought the business would be in danger and bought teeth in bulk. Three other whale-tooth shops in the area closed and only Chijimatsu’s survived.
When the deadly quake and tsunami hit on March 11, 2011, Chijimatsu was in the center of Ishinomaki, an hour’s drive from Ayukawa. He tried to drive home but the black, debris-filled waves chased him to higher ground.
He spent the night atop a hill and left his car behind to walk home the next day. As the roads were flooded and strewn with debris, the journey took five hours.
Although his family was safe, his shop on the peninsula was gone.
“I thought it was impossible to continue my business,” he recalled.
But later, while clearing rubble from the site where his store had stood, Chijimatsu found a white stick buried in the mud. He had located his stock of whale teeth.
He cleaned most of them but left some covered in mud. “When I see the mud, it reminds me that I survived,” he said.
Despite the official halt in whaling in the ’80s, Japan resumed hunting in 1987 in areas including the Antarctic Ocean for what it claimed were research purposes — a practice criticized internationally and by the IWC as a cover for commercial whaling.
Japan quit the IWC in December, saying it intended to hunt whales in adjacent waters and in its exclusive economic zone. A company in Ayukawa is expected to take part.
Chijimatsu does not think the resumption of commercial whaling will make it easier for him to secure materials for his craft as the whales to be targeted are too small.
Though he has decided not to have his son take over his business, he remains determined to forge on for a while longer.
“As whaling will restart, I want to take this opportunity to have younger generations learn about the Japanese traditional (whaling) culture,” he said.