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Birth of a Pelagic Empire: Japanese Whaling and Early Territorial Expansions in the Pacific

  • Prof Jakobina Arch (Whitman College)
Wednesday 16 March 2022
Leiden Lecture Series in Japanese Studies
Online via Zoom (see below for link)


Whaling in Japan today is a highly political issue, entangled in questions of global diplomacy and international influence on national culture. Outside observers have been surprised at how persistent the government support for whaling has been in the face of increasing disapproval since the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s, but whaling has always been entangled with politics. Even going back to the nineteenth century, when foreign ships increasingly pushed to be allowed to trade with Japan, whaling was part of considerations of how to defend Japanese sovereignty and eventually to expand their imperial territory in competition with other global powers. At the same time, coastal whaling groups began to metamorphose into modern whaling corporations pursuing their prey within what would become Japan's 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 Japanese quickly recognized the political possibilities offered by whaling, from efforts supported by the Tokugawa shogunate to new plans made under the Meiji government leveraging the possibilities of territorial claims offered by the presence of whalers in far-flung areas of the sea. This talk considers how the originally local enterprise of coastal whaling became part of Japanese colonial politics and the globally complex construction of ideas of territory as related to maritime space. In the process, it highlights the importance of the connection between whalers, whaling grounds, and ocean-based imperial expansion in and around Japan as major factors driving the development of Japan's pelagic empire, with consequences still felt in the decisions about whaling today.

About Jakobina Arch

Jakobina Arch is an Associate Professor of History at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Her research focuses on marine environmental history in Japan, especially in the early modern period. Her first book, Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan, examines the role of the marine environment by focusing on the many roles of whales in Tokugawa society and culture. She has also published shorter pieces on later stages of Japanese whaling, up through the Occupation period. Her current book project focuses on coastal sailors and ships in early modern Japan. 

Link to the lecture (Zoom)

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