Whaling at Taiji

Manuscript scroll on paper entitled “Kujirakata shosha zue” [“Genuine copied illustrations of the whaling techniques of Taiji revealed from the source”].

Scroll (273 x 13,760 mm.). At end (in trans.): “All the images are of the whaling at Taiji…April 1857, Tennojiya Shinsuke owned.”

A remarkable, long, and vividly rendered whaling scroll, from Wakayama Prefecture, depicting the whaling activities in unusual detail, of the famous town of Taiji and its bay (“Taiji ura”), the site of the annual dolphin slaughter, featured in the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. Taiji has long been known as a whaling town, and its history is essentially the history of whaling in Japan. In the 17th century, whalers of the town developed a series of more sophisticated whaling techniques, including the group hunting system (1606), a handheld harpoon, and the whaling net technique (1675).

The scroll begins with a quite detailed history of whaling in Japan, written in a very legible hand, describing the above-mentioned new methods of whaling, with dates of introduction. There is information on when certain species of whales pass by during the year, signaling systems, other technical aspects of whaling, etc.

The first images depict six species of whales found off the coast of Taiji: Semi kujira (North Pacific right whale), Zato kujira (humpback whale), Nagasu kujira (fin whale), Katsuo kujira (Bryde’s whale), Koku kujira (gray whale), and Makko kujira (sperm whale). Each of the dramatically and richly painted whales have notes regarding their most notable identifying features.

The next scene takes place at Taiji: it shows the captured Semi kujira whales being winched onto shore and the highly specialized butchering of the carcasses. The slaughter area is fenced off and there are observation decks for government officials to review the work. We see a cross-section of the whale and the various products rendered from it in various stages of dismemberment: skin, flesh, bone, intestines, fins, penis, all displayed in large piles. Spectators stand to the side, watching the work. A shrine is depicted in the background. This scene has been heightened with metallic pigments. All the harpoons in this scroll are depicted with metallic pigments.

Following this is a scene of the different kinds of boats entering the greater bay, towing a whale. The scenes of the houses on shore reveal what a prosperous community it once was.

The subsequent scene depicts the specialized boats going out to sea, passing two elevated signal posts (“Kajitorizaki” & “Shomyozaki”), which receive news of whales in the distance and sends signals by a flag system. Smoke is rising, a signal to the boats. One of the boats is a “tool” boat containing special harpoons to kill the whale after it had been entangled in a net. Other boats are “net” boats, each of which requires 81 sailors; they are seen spreading out the net. There are other boats — seko bune — which guide the whale into the net. Another vessel is fast-moving messenger boat giving directions to the others.

In the following two scenes, the sky and ocean are very beautifully depicted with delicate gradations of colors.

The whale (a humpback) is shown caught in the net, writhing and fighting for its freedom, desperately spouting water. The enormous motion of the whale has caused the water to turn white with foam, which is very expressively painted on the scroll, with almost a 3-D, Jackson Pollock, splashed effect. A young whaler is seen climbing on the whale, to stab it in the nose. The whalers all have special tasks to fulfill, and the scroll provides the names of each special function.

The next scene shows whalers catching a North Pacific right whale just off the Mikisaki peninsula.

Following this, we are on shore again, at the enormous supply storage compound. The first scene shows government observers at the security gate of the compound with men shown mending and storing the whaling nets. The workers wear different head gear and colors of clothes, denoting their jobs and ranks. One room has bundles of poles for harpoons. The next building shows men making boat paddles, blacksmiths making harpoon heads, barrel makers, men assembling the harpoons, and men making ropes.

The subsequent scene depicts men painting three “leader” whaling boats in vivid colors and patterns. The designs on the boats have been highlighted with metallic pigments. The finished boats are stored in sheds, which are shown behind. This is followed by a scene of the sheds where boats are constructed. We see a group of shipbuilders constructing a seko bune using saws, planes, and various other woodworking tools.

The next scene depicts the tools of the whalers: various harpoons of different weights and lengths with different metal heads and large knives on long poles. Each harpoon’s specific purpose is mentioned. The ropes attached to the harpoons are contained in a series of bundles to avoid tangling.

In fine and fresh condition. This is the finest whaling scroll we have yet encountered, with a number of scenes of specific and well-known sites. Preserved in the original, but rather decrepit, wooden box with metal clasps. Accompanying the scroll is an original metal harpoon tip with the name “Eishichi” engraved.

Price: $39,500.00

Item ID: 6620