In Edo Japan, Artists Captured Whales Like Never Before

The whaling industry was an important economic force in both the United States and Japan, but each society captured the subject matter very differently in art.

Anonymous, section detail of “Geigyo Hinshu Zukan” (Fourteen Varieties of Whales) (1760) (all images courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum)

In June of 1798, a 55-foot-long humpback whale drifted into Edo’s Shinagawa Bay, drawing crowds to the beach to marvel at the trapped cetacean. Naturally, the rare occasion drew artists, too. They immortalized the event in woodblock prints and watercolor scrolls, and the images proved so popular that versions were produced and disseminated over the following decades. One particularly lively scene was rendered by Katsukawa Shuntei, who painted boats filled with revelers enjoying sake on rolling waves, watched from the shore by elegantly dressed courtesans. Curiously, while Shuntei likely witnessed the event firsthand, he took great creative liberty with his visual account, recording not one whale, but two.

Hiroshige Shigenobu II, “Hizen Goto Kujira Ryo no Zu” (Catching Whales at Goto, Hizen Province)

His print exemplifies traditional Japanese whaling as a cultural phenomenon that engaged the entire village communities. This ancient proverb, often appearing on prints, speaks to the significance of a successful whale hunt: “One whale makes seven villages prosperous.”

The importance of whaling to the local economy and cultural traditions is evident in companion exhibitions at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Enlightened Encounters: The Two Nations of Manjiro Nakahama and The East Unlocks its Gates: American Whalers and Trade in Asia. Together, they explore Japanese whaling culture in the first half of the 19th-century as it was contemporaneous to the burgeoning American whale fishery. Manjiro Nakahama, a Japanese whaler who spent a decade working in the American industry before returning home, serves as a focal point of this joint history; he played a pivotal role in building relations between the two countries, serving as a translator and whaler with knowledge of both whaling cultures.

The exhibitions feature images of American whalers such as Captain Mercator Cooper, the first American to formally visit Edo; letters Manjiro sent to Americans; logbooks; and Japanese objects acquired by Cooper. It’s the prints of Japanese shore whaling from the 1820s to 1840s, however, that stand out most, for their dynamic and evocative scenes. They contrast starkly with artworks that depict Yankee whaling, and the differences are telling.

Shuntei Katsukawa, “Shinagawa Oki no Kujira Takanawa yori Mita Zu” (Seeing the whale in Shinagawa Bay at Takanawa) (c. 1798)

“The spirit of the American whale fishery is downright monochromatic compared to the complexity of the Japanese’s intimate relationship with whales,” Michael Dyer, the museum’s curator of maritime history, told Hyperallergic. “One is hunting whales strictly for profit, and they couldn’t give a rat’s patoot about the spirit of the whale.

“And you have this other culture, and you can’t differentiate between what’s science, what’s religion, what’s art, and what’s journalism. The [visual culture] represents an important relationship between the people and the whales.”

Shuntei’s busy print, which the museum has on display, conveys this sentiment. As does what Dyer referred to as “one of the greatest whaling prints of all time” — an action-packed scene showing the stages of whaling, from the hunt to the butchering. “Big Catch, Prosperity of the Whale” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi centers on one large, dopey-eyed whale being scrubbed and skinned as its pod swims in the background. Among them is a whale painted red to indicate that it’s a particularly lucky one.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, “Tairyo kujira no nigiwai, or Big Catch, Prosperity of the Whale” (c. 1847-1852)

This emblem also appears in a scroll of whales that depict 14 varieties of the marine mammal. While other artworks center of the social aspect of whaling — from whale watching to the crowds of men in colorful rowboats chasing a beast — this suite is a scientific study that illustrates how advanced Japanese understanding of whales’ anatomy and physiology was.

“There’s nothing that comes out of Western cetacean research that even approximates a Japanese cartoon from the early part of the 19th century,” Dyer said. “The difference between the knowledge base in Japan and that in the West was a ridiculously broad gap.”

This depth of knowledge enabled Japan to build its great whaling industry, which sustains itself to this day, despite global pushback. The images we’re familiar with today are photographs often related to protests, which capture bloodied whales, chopped up or lying in rows on a giant fleet. The prints at the New Bedford Whaling Museum offer insight into the industry before it grew to an industrial scale, presenting a bygone era when whaling practices were deeply connected with the community and even to religious beliefs. It’s worth noting that the humpback whale that became a sensation in 1798 was commemorated by locals who interred its bones at a shrine; you can still visit it today, and read a haiku written in its memory.

Anonymous, “Whaleship Manhattan at Uraga” (1845)
Anonymous, “Japanese Whaling Boats”
Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi, “Shiojiri, or A Traveler Viewing the Capture of a Whale” (1852)
Utagawa Toyoharu, “Uki-e Kumano-ura Kujira Tsuki no Zu” [Harpooning whales at Kumano-ura in Kii Province (late 18th century)
Installation view of ‘The East Unlocks Its Gates’ at the New Bedford Whaling Museum
Installation view of ‘The East Unlocks Its Gates’ at the New Bedford Whaling Museum
Installation view of ‘The East Unlocks Its Gates’ at the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Enlightened Encounters: The Two Nations of Manjiro Nakahama and The East Unlocks its Gates: American Whalers and Trade in Asia continue at the New Bedford Whaling Museum (18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, MA) indefinitely.

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