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  • Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan by Jakobina K. Arch
  • Jonathan Stockdale (bio)
Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan. By Jakobina K. Arch. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2019. xxii, 247 pages. $40.00.

With Bringing Whales Ashore, Jakobina Arch almost singlehandedly places the emerging field regarding whales and whaling in Japanese history on solid ground. As the title hints, Arch is interested in exploring not just the detailed practice of early modern Japanese whaling, but also the myriad ways in which whales entered mainstream Tokugawa society and culture: as consumer products (primarily meat, oil, fertilizer, and pesticide), as "food for thought" (as in the fiction of Ihara Saikaku), and even as spiritual beings, speaking in dreams and in turn being memorialized in temples and graveyards. In the process, Arch also takes aim at historiographic issues within studies of the Tokugawa period, arguing powerfully for the importance of the oceanic environment for understanding a society too often characterized as "closed" to the sea or based overwhelmingly in agrarian rice production. More than an environmental and cultural history, however, Bringing Whales Ashore serves also as a work of environmental ethics, each chapter pausing amid Arch's detailed historical analysis to issue strongly worded rebukes of pro-whaling interests in contemporary Japan, who voice their legitimacy through claims to an "unbroken tradition" of Japanese whaling. Lucid, thoughtful, and thought provoking, Bringing Whales Ashore is a richly textured work that not only fills an important gap for scholars of Japanese history but also provides engaging material that should stimulate discussion—as well as debate—in the classroom.

The first two chapters lay the foundation for the book regarding whales and whaling per se: chapter 1 reconstructs a natural history of the whales that once flourished in the waters around Japan, while chapter 2 explores the actual practice of coastal whaling that lasted from slightly before until slightly after the Tokugawa era. In chapter 1, Arch shows through Tokugawa-period illustrated manuscripts that a wide spectrum of whales was familiar to the Japanese, including toothed (sperm and beaked whales) as well as baleen varieties (primarily right, gray, and humpback, but also fin and sei whales), all of whom passed alongside Japan during their long-distance migrations, heading northward in the summer toward Arctic feeding grounds and southward in the winter to breed in warmer waters. (An inadvertent error on page 25 flips these seasons to read "summer breeding grounds" and "winter feeding grounds," but if one flips the two seasons within that sentence back again, the sentence is in agreement with the [End Page 174] detailed discussion in the rest of the chapter.) For early modern Japanese whalers, however—who launched their oar boats from the shore after sighting whales, and who processed their catch back on the shore—their targets were almost exclusively the shore-hugging baleen whales, and of those, the slowest moving, hence primarily right, gray, and humpback whales.

Reconstructing historical whale populations is a much more difficult task, as Arch herself indicates: "historical whaling records are our best source for numbers and locations of whales before the twentieth century" (p. 23), but those records are not always extant and only show the number of whales taken, not the numbers actually present. As a result, Arch combines current whale population data with historical whaling records to yield a sense of the vast numbers of whales that would have been present in Japanese waters: if today only about 500 right whales exist in the entire North Pacific, but 30,000 right whales were taken by American whalers in the 1840s alone (p. 33), then the number of right and other whales that would have been visible in early modern Japan was surely considerable, and Arch is no doubt right to conclude that even on a purely environmental level, "whales were a powerful presence throughout early modern Japan" (p. 47).

In chapter 2 Arch provides a nuanced analysis of the historical practice of Japanese coastal whaling. As she details, coastal whaling (as opposed to the opportunistic harvest of stranded whales) began in the 1570s with the advent of harpoon whaling from...


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pp. 174-178
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