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ISANA No.32 ISANA Dec. 2005 No.32
  1. The Takayama Festival and Whale Baleen
    Toshikazu Nakabayashi

  2. What Is Intended by Hunting Prohibition
    Kiyohiko Ikeda

  3. Alaska Native, Eskimo Whaling
    Shingo Takazawa

The Takayama Festival and Whale Baleen

photo Toshikazu Nakabayashi
NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) Takayama Bureau

  Gifu is a land-locked prefecture, and Takayama City is located further into the mountains. At first glance, Takayama does not seem to have any relationship to the sea. But actually it does as I will elaborate in this article.

  The Takayama Festival, celebrated in spring and autumn, is one of Japan's national tangible folklore cultural properties. The stage (yatai), called a moving Yomei Gate after the famous gate in Nikko, embodies the traditional culture of Hida. Look, for example, at the sculpture of a rooster in one part of two or three stages, and you will find a rooster in a cage carved in one piece of wood. It is not a mere combination of a cage and a rooster carved separately.

  The brilliant skill of the craftsmen of Hida, cultivated over a long period of time, is observed in every part of the work. This case serves as a criterion for all the rest. Karakuri (mechanical) puppet plays performed on a stage are also superb.

  Unfortunately, there exist only four stages now on which karakuri puppet plays can be performed. Each puppet, the pride of craftsmen, is maneuvered using many strings. But the puppets engaging in drastic movements tend to wear out when used for years, and they are in need of repair from time to time. It is relatively easy to fix wooden parts or clothing, but the most difficult part is the spring. The neck, hands and legs of a puppet engage in subtle movements as they have been doing from olden times. This spring is made of whale baleen. And the best material for the springs is the right whale's baleen. Springs made of steel or plastics cannot reproduce the subtle movements of karakuri puppets handed down from the Edo Period (1603-1868).


  I had the chance of joining the 29th Antarctic whaling expedition as a reporter on board the No.3 Nisshin-maru fleet of Taiyo Fishery Co. which left Japan in 1964. I stayed at sea for three and half months. It was the last year when the fleets of Japanese fishing companies set out for whaling in the Antarctic in several. I must add that it was the first opportunity opened to a TV company to be onboard for documenting the operation. At first I was tense, but I was young and I enjoyed being with the warm-hearted men of the sea, which was contrary to my anticipation. I sent a number of news reports to Japan and this news gathering activity was broadcast in a special NHK TV program titled "The Sea of Whales." The experience during that time directed my attention from domestic affairs to the international arena. Later I was assigned as an overseas correspondent of NHK for a total of seven years, stationed in France and Germany twice, respectively. Besides Europe, I was given a chance to report from the forefronts of world affairs, such as the Middle East (Iran and Iraq) as well as Africa.

  As I advanced in age after experiencing various duties, I was appointed Chief Director of the Hakodate Broadcasting Bureau. I truly loved Hakodate. I felt this port town as my second home because it was the place of my first assignment as a NHK employee. But this time I felt something lacking because, in my post of Chief Director, I could not go out for news gathering myself. Later I urged my boss to send me to my home town of Takayama, and now I am fulfilling my last duty with NHK here. Every day, I drive myself, sometimes riding a bicycle, and keep myself busy with shooting videos, writing articles and talking to people. This is a lifestyle that suits me well.


  During my busy days here, I came across with the topic of whales in the course of news gathering activities. It was when I was collecting information on the practice of karakuri puppetry at the Takayama Festival. Puppeteers told me that they had trouble in obtaining the springs for the puppets which had worn out because of intense use. The springs for puppets have been made of whale baleen from the Edo Period. On top of that, I learned that the baleen from any whale species did not serve this purpose well,but only that of the right whale should be used. Seeing the people who needed whale baleen but deploring the difficulty of obtaining it, I thought how I could help them. I tried various contacts in many places, but found obtaining whale baleen was quite difficult. I once heard that whale baleen was found when repairing the traditional Bunraku puppets. The karakuri puppet of Takayama is as valuable as the widely-known Bunraku puppet. I felt uneasy and wondered if there was anything I could do.

  Around that time, Mr. Shigeru Tanifuji, former Deputy Commander of the No.3 Nisshin-maru Fleet, visited Takayama. The Commander of No.3 Nisshin-maru was Mr. Kimio Kosaka. While we were talking about the good old days over sake, I brought up the problem we are facing about whale baleen. It was good that I asked him about it. After several turns in the talk, we came to the conclusion that we needed to make a request to the Japan Whaling Association and the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR). Then, talks started between Takayama City's Cultural Heritage Section and the ICR. In the end, whale baleen was sent to Takayama from the ICR, and thus the history and tradition of karakuri puppetry of Takayama were preserved. I was happy to see this happen. It was thirty years after I joined the Antarctic whaling expedition.


  Now the whaling issue is being debated at the International Whaling Commission and other forums. It seems that arguments are voiced aloud only on the size of the resources, meat and oil. Do those people who argue against whaling really understand the Japanese dietary culture in which whale meat is cooked skillfully into palatable dishes? Or do they understand the delicate Japanese culture which uses all the parts of whales, not wasting even a string of baleen? Was it not those people who only extracted whale oil and discarded other parts that drove the blue, fin and other whales to the brink of extinction? The Japanese are not asking for the resumption of disorderly whaling. Rather, I consider that reducing the number of fast increasing minke whales would help the recovery of large blue whales. Although the Japanese are ready to talk about the whaling issue based on scientific evidence and calmly taking into account the conservation of whale resources, discussion on the whaling issue is deadlocked because of the unreasonable arguments of anti-whaling people.

  I heartily sympathize with the people working devotedly for the continuation of whaling. I wish to encourage them to keep up with their efforts. This time, we could manage to repair the important national cultural property in Takayama. But there is no guarantee that we can secure whale baleen in the future. Substitute springs made of steel or plastics will deprive us of one of Japan's traditional cultures.

Karakuri puppet (Photo presented by Takayama City)

Nisshin-maru No.3 (Photo by Mineo Takagi)

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