Australian Whalers in Japan

I hate the thought of whaling, and I would love to see Japan stop killing whales in the Southern Ocean – but I can’t help feeling that the actions of Sea Shepherd are counterproductive.  ‘The insufferable in pursuit of the intractable in pursuit of the inedible’, as a letter writer in the Australian put it.

Maybe I’d feel differently if their efforts were directed to saving blue fin tuna, which really are being hunted to extinction by the Japanese, but the long line fishermen are more elusive, the photos aren’t as bloody, and we humans seem to get sentimental only over mammals.

When I recently had a piece about boat people published on The Drum, many of the comments asked, more or less politely, what’s the point of drawing a comparison with what happened in the past?  Well, apart from providing the odd good story or two, one reason why I firmly believe that historical comparisons are worth making is that history reminds us that attitudes change, and may make us a little less sanctimonious.

In 1850, the Australian colonists were enthusiastic whalers.  I’ve talked about this before [here and here].  Hobart was a centre of the whaling trade, and Charles Seal one of the most successful whaling entrepreneurs.

Whales follow a dependable migratory path, which makes whaling (and harassing whalers) a highly predictable pursuit.  Southern whales breed in the tropics during June/July, then migrate south to the Antarctic to feed on krill, and are at their fattest (and most valuable) during the late southern summer.   Whales in the northern hemisphere follow a similar migration to the Arctic during the northern summer.   They very seldom cross the equator, so each hemisphere has a separate population of most species of baleen whale.

In May 1850, one of Charles Seal’s whaling ships, the Eamont, was hunting for whales to the east of Hokkaido when it was caught in a typhoon. On 22 May, the ship ran aground near the coastal town of Akkeshi.  All 32 men escaped in the boats, but they were marooned in a strange land, unable to communicate with the local population.

Hokusai's Goto Kujira Tsuki

Katsushika Hokusai, Whaling scene on the coast of Goto, c. 1830, from Wikipedia

Three years later, in 1853, the American Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbour and demanded that the Japanese open up to foreign trade, but in 1850 Captain Lovett and his crew had none of the clout of an American gunboat.  And the people of Akkeshi were equally perplexed, for trading with foreigners was still strictly forbidden.

According to the Maitland Mercury (22 March 1851),

a number of Japanese seized on them and kept them in a house strictly guarded, at a small town about six miles from the wreck. They, however, treated them well, though they were closely confined…

Meanwhile the locals in Akkeshi sent word of their arrival to the authorities.  On 12 September, the Shogun sent 2 junks to collect the crew and take them to Nagasaki, the only port where legitimate trade between Japanese and foreigners could take place.  The Eamont’s crew remained sealed below decks until they arrived, when the Japanese handed them over to Dutch traders.  They eventually got home via Batavia (Jakarta) in early 1851.

As in the case of the eco-warriors who have just been rescued/removed from the Nisshan Maru, they seem to have been a tiresome and expensive nuisance to the Japanese, but they were treated humanely.

Four years later, following Commodore Perry’s return to Tokyo in 1854, Japan changed direction, abandoned its isolation, and began the complete overhaul of its administration known as the Meiji Restoration.

Perhaps we might see a similar overhaul of Japan’s ‘Cetacean Research’ in a few years too.  Perhaps.

But people, and nations, don’t like being pushed around by high-minded busybodies.  Within two generations of Perry’s visit, Japanese ultra-nationalism was on the rise, and we all know where that led.  I doubt if Sea Shepherd will have such an effect, but I’m sure they cause a lot of otherwise indifferent Japanese to defend their right to continue whaling in the Southern Ocean.

Meanwhile Akkeshi and Clarence, opposite Hobart on the Derwent estuary, are now twin cities, and a sign has been erected overlooking the bay where the Eamont’s ill-fated voyage ended:

On the 16th April the third year of Kaei (1850), a whaling ship, the Eamont registered in Hobart, in the  State of Tasmania, Australia, was wrecked about 2km off-shore from this beach. The crew of 32 were rescued safely by the people and repatriated to the Tokugawa Shogunate. This historical fact led to the establishment on February 9, 1982 of a Sister City relationship between the Town of Akkeshi and the Municipality of Clarence, which is part of Greater Hobart. Erected by Akkeshi Town and Koala Club.

8 responses to “Australian Whalers in Japan

  1. Hi,
    Very interesting bit of history on our whaling most of which I did not know, an interesting read as well.

  2. For me, the para on Commodore Perry’s ‘visit’ spoilt an otherwise interesting article. I think it’s political bias masquerading as ‘history’.

    May I be permitted a re-write?

    “But people, and nations, don’t like being pushed around by high-minded busybodies. Within two generations of Perry’s outrageous attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of another sovereign nation, US imperialism was really on the rise, and we all know where that has led…”

    • Syd, I agree. Perry’s intervention WAS outrageous – and there have been later US interventions that have been similarly outrageous. But Japan also went through a period of ultranationalist aggression, starting with the war with China in 1895.

  3. Thanks Marion. I don;t want to sound like an apologist for militarists anyhwre, but I do feel the Japanese have been treated with dreadful unfairness.

    IMO it’s a bit rich for western historians to complain about Japanese militarism as though it was an unsual and extreme phenomenon.

    First we showed aggressive intent to force them to particpate in a world economy controlled largely by the western powers. Then we encouraged them to behave like imperialists – then we criucified them for doing so too successfully for our own liking. Now we look back on their period as successful mini-imperialists and refer to the Japanese of that era as ‘militarists’.

    I realise that’s a very short, very inadequate summary of 1.5 centuries of complex history. I realise thew Chinese, Koreans etc have good reason for disliking the Japanese of that era. But if the west had wanted Japan to behave like “good Christians” we might have tried behaving like “good Christains” ourselves. As it was, I seem to recall we bombed the largest cathedral in the far east (in Nagasaki) with a nucelar bomb.

    One thing the west does better than anyone esle is hypocrisy, and our long-term relationship with Japan, to my way of thinking, is the quintessential example.

    • I don’t disagree with any of that, Syd. I was only trying to suggest that Sea Shepherd are unlikely to succeed in their aim if they just provoke the Japanese into a resentful, and justifiable, defence of their national sovereignty. (and to say it within a readable 800 words, which means cutting a few corners and qualifications). Cheers – Marion

  4. Charles Poynton

    The wording of the sign at Akkeshi is slightly different to that given above, reading: “… were repatriated to their own country by the unprecedented treatment of the Tokugawa Shogunate.”

    … I photographed the sign on October 2 1992 on the headland overlooking Akkeshi and have a JPG file of this in my possession.

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