Commentary / Japan

A Japanese poet's whale elegy

by Shaun O'dwyer

Special To The Japan Times

In November 2011, while cleaning up tsunami debris as a volunteer in Miyagi Prefecture, I visited the tsunami-damaged port of Ayukawa. On that bleak day it was a desolate sight. Piles of rubble littered the shorefront, interspersed with gutted buildings and a collection of whale skulls — but little else to tell that this had been a prosperous whaling port five decades ago.

As I looked on, I remembered a verse from Misuzu Kaneko’s poem “The Whale Hunt”: “The whales no longer come here/And this coast has fallen on hard times”.

A native of the whaling town of Senzaki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Kaneko knew the old whaling culture well. It features sometimes in the natural, spiritual world depicted in her poetry; a world she represented with the honesty and wonder of a child’s eye view.

Kaneko’s life, tragically cut short in 1930 by suicide, has been dramatized for television and film. Rather than dwell on her biography though, I will introduce another of her poems, “Whale’s Memorial Service”, which can give insight for whaling advocates and critics alike into Japan’s old coastal whaling cultures:

A whale’s memorial service comes/At the end of Spring,/In the season when they catch flying fish./While the bell tolls at the beach-side temple/Its sound floating across the water’s surface/And while the town fishermen hasten/In their haori coats to the temple/A solitary whale calf cries offshore/To the striking of that temple bell;/He cries “Koishi, Koishi!”/For his dead mother and father./But how far does the sound of the bell/Carry out to sea, I wonder?

I thought this was an anti-whaling poem when I first read it three years ago. But I was less sure after reading “The Whale Hunt”, which is a masculine, nostalgic celebration of the open boat whaling that began in the 17th century in towns like Senzaki.

We need to pause over the more enigmatic aspects of this poem to get at its insights. What was the purpose of whale memorial services?

Kaneko’s old-time whalers led superstitious lives, just as old time fishermen the world over have. Their folk-Shinto world was filled with spirits inhabiting places and things, both living and inanimate. Correct rituals had to be observed to appease these spirits, for the things received from nature, and nothing was to be wasted.

Buddhism overlaid this animistic piety with rites for memorializing whales, such as the ceremony referred to in Kaneko’s poem. Buddhist rites for animals used as food and for scientific experimentation are in fact common in Japan, and many Japanese hold Buddhist ceremonies for their departed pets. But rites dedicated to whales were sometimes special. In the old Japanese whaling towns Buddhist temples house stone memorial monuments (kuyo-to) to whales and practiced (or still practice) annual whale memorial ceremonies, sometimes with an elaboration usually reserved for departed human souls. The wearing of formal haori coats indicates the seriousness with which they were taken.

At the Kogan-ji Temple in Kaneko’s hometown, whale fetuses discovered inside slaughtered whales were buried in a special tomb. The temple also holds a remarkable nonhuman funerary register (kakocho) recording the spiritual names (kaimyo) given to whales caught by whaling crews in the 19th century.

Anthropologists explain that these rites accorded such respect to whales’ spirits to express gratitude for what was taken from them and to console them.

In the uncertain, dangerous world the whalers inhabited, declining catches and disasters were also seen as the revenge taken by angry whale spirits, so performing memorial services could help guarantee good future hunting seasons.

Modern coastal and pelagic whalers still observe some of these rituals, seemingly reinforcing arguments that modern and pre-modern whaling share in the continuity of a tradition.

Yet Kaneko’s poem invites us to delve deeper into the spiritual worlds of the old whaling towns. For the imagined grief of the orphaned whale calf momentarily distracts the child narrator of the poem; it is as if, for a short while, ritual alone will not compensate for the calf’s loss.

And here I think Kaneko reached beyond cultural traditions to a universal sense of conscience. In the minds of very young children, there is not yet a firming up of the boundaries of what philosopher Roger Scruton has called the “moral community,” through which societies distinguish those (mostly human) beings whose lives must be cherished, respected and protected from those beings which may be treated more simply as resources.

In a number of her poems, Kaneko faithfully captured the disquiet of sensitive children as they become aware that their sustenance requires the taking of animals’ lives. This is not to say that such children, in Japan let alone anywhere else, will become vegetarians.

What “Whale’s Memorial Service” hints at is the role that memorial services played in allaying such disquiet in people whose livelihoods depended on the taking of whales’ lives.

Buddhism in particular gives room for flexibility over how the moral community’s boundaries are to be drawn, and for spiritual disquiet over how they are drawn.

So for people like the child narrator of Kaneko’s poem who observed that, rather like humans, whales raise and keep their young close to them, that they can be courageous and strong, and that they suffer and bleed copiously when harmed — the Buddhist rites, I believe, were also meant to ease their guilty consciences if they arose.

This is also the opinion of anthropologist Kato Kumi. The priest at the Kannon-ji Temple in Ayukawa agreed when I spoke to him recently, though he did not specifically address the narrator’s standpoint in Kaneko’s poem.

He stated that “in addition to consoling whales’ spirits, the meaning of memorial ceremonies includes one’s own guilt and apology for killing them”.

Assuming that Kaneko’s poems take us into the spiritual hearts of the old coastal whaling traditions, we can draw some conclusions from the insights they yield.

First, modern environmentalists are not alone in treating whales as “charismatic megafauna.” Kaneko and her old time whalers did so too, in their own way.

Second, there is a spiritual depth in the old coastal whaling traditions that whaling opponents should acknowledge. Understanding it, critics will no longer stare in bafflement at monuments commemorating the souls of whales, as some activists visiting Taiji do in the documentary “The Cove.”

Third, however, it is obvious that today’s pelagic whaling industry, with its corrupt influence peddling and its mountains of warehoused, surplus whale meat, has very little in common with the traditional whaling practices Kaneko remembered. Coastal whaling communities may better claim such a connection, but their way of life is dying.

While most Japanese today rarely eat whale meat, some defend pelagic whaling out of a belief that Japanese eating habits should not be dictated to by foreign activists. But if such advocates could commune with the poets and whalers among their own ancestors, they would feel their dismay at the impious waste of whales’ lives in the name of “research whaling.”

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University.