Japan at Nature’s Edge 2: “From Meat to Machine Oil”

by tigermanifesto


Our next foray into the environmental history of Japan is this short and sweet essay by Jakobina Arch. “From Meat to Machine Oil” tells another nautical tale, this time about the modernization of the Japanese whaling industry and its shift from shore-based to pelagic (aka oceanic) operations. She frames this narrative within the larger context of both the Meiji modernization campaigns and the depletion of easily accessible whales by industrial Western and Japanese whaling operations.

Japanese fishers had, of course, hunted whales from the shore for a long time before the Restoration. According to Arch’s account, traditional whaling was dominated by “local family elites” based in coastal villages. One consequence of the modernization of whaling was the consolidation of operations, so that “by the 1910s, the there were only three whaling companies in Japan running all offshore operations.¹”

What’s notable is that the revolutionization of whale hunting and processing did not proceed evenly throughout Japan. Those who were at the centres of traditional whaling struggled to adapt to the introduction of new technology. Adaptation to a global shift in fishing, which required advanced technology to pursue increasingly scarce and evasive prey, mandated not only massive amounts of capital––and thus the aforementioned consolidation of the industry––but also the redefinition of whaling in subjective terms. Whereas the whaling had previously been restricted to short-term missions where prey was caught close to shore and brought in for processing, the space for it opened up to long-term voyages into the ocean.

Arch’s article points out the problem with the common Western (and Japanese) view of the Japanese as inherently “in tune” with nature. Indeed, Japan has been at the centre of controversy for its continued pursuit of whaling long after its prohibition in other countries, who are now content to exploit whales in theme parks and aquariums. Under pressure from global capitalist developments as well as nationalist imperatives to expand the fishing and whaling industries, the local fishers were transformed into a seafaring industrial proletariat, torn from their villages and traditional ways of life and thrust out far into the sea. Whatever sacred connotations the sea might have had and even retained through the Meiji Restoration was transformed and dissolved by exposure to the demands of capital.


  1. Jakobina Arch, “From Meat to Machine Oil: The Nineteenth-Century Development of Whaling in Wakayama,” in Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, ed. Ian J. Miller, Julia A. Thomas, and Brett L. Walker (University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 49.