The practice of ‘whaling’ in Japan stems back to ancient times, with evidence of cetaceans being used as a resource dating back to the Joman Period (14, 000 to 300 BC) and taxation on dolphin driving and commercial hand-held harpooning of whales dating back to the 14th and 16th centuries respectively.

The practice of commercial ‘whaling’ in Japan originated in the small coastal village of Taiji, Wakayama when, in 1606 the local Samurai family (‘Tokugawa’) organised the first commercial hunts where hundreds of local men would gather on paddle-powered timber boats (known as Sekobune) in traditional hunting dress to pursue whales with nothing but a hand wielded harpoon and a whole lot of courage. During this time it would take 20-30 harpoons to kill one whale. Many men lost their lives at sea in pursuit of these enormous and magnificent marine mammals.

Historical documents show that one whale killed would feed seven villages and that every part of the animal was used as a sign of respect for the life lost. In history books from Taiji dating back to 1675 there is mention of strict laws against using firearms in whaling practices. The Samurai believed in honour between the whales and the hunters and stated that the connection between their respective spirits would be lost with firearms as it gave the hunters an unfair advantage. Whaling in these times was a highly ritualised and extremely dangerous cultural practice.

Although commercial dolphin hunting can be traced back to the 14th century in Japan, dolphins primarily were taken on an opportunistic basis as an extra bonus from the bountiful natural resource that was the ocean. The first dedicated commercial dolphin fishery only came into existence in 1917 in the Otsuchi region in Iwate, when dolphins and porpoises were actively sought out and harpooned at sea or driven into a cove or bay where they would be slaughtered. Their meat was used for human consumption and the animals were also killed to eradicate competition for fish, squid and other species that the fishermen were worried would dwindle if dolphin populations weren't controlled.

A traditional Sekobune whaling ship - Taiji, Japan


Photography © Karl Goodsell, Positive Change for Marine Life