Building Empires on the Backs of Whales: 19th-Century Japanese Whaling and Territorial Expansion

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM
Columbia 7 (Washington Hilton)
Jakobina Arch, Whitman College
After 1800, a growing number of foreign ships pushed to be allowed to trade with Japan, prompting efforts to defend Japanese sovereignty, and eventually to expand their imperial territory in competition with other global powers. At the same time, Japanese coastal whaling groups began to metamorphose into modern whaling corporations pursuing their prey within colonial waters. Of course, whaling was only one of the tools of Japanese expansion, whether for the Tokugawa shogunate or for the Meiji government. But the political possibilities of the transformation of whaling were recognized and exploited by the early Japanese empire: early, unsuccessful attempts by the Tokugawa shogunate to start up modern whaling in Hokkaido and the Ogasawara (B┼Źnin) Islands were more politically than economically driven, and colonial ambitions were equally essential for the more successful expansion of whaling around Korea. The possibilities of territorial claim offered by the presence of whalers in far-flung areas of the sea, first exploited by Americans looking for treaty ports and free trade, were also recognized by Japanese imperial planners. By crossing human boundaries throughout the Pacific Ocean basin, whales helped to shape the possibilities for reshaping those boundaries, particularly for the Japanese archipelago. This paper considers how the originally local enterprise of coastal whaling became part of Japanese colonial politics, demonstrating the importance of the interaction between whalers, whaling grounds, and imperial expansion in and around Japan in the nineteenth century.
Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>