Heroic Whalers Hunting Whale-Mothers

Gender in the Early-Modern Japanese Whaling Industry

  • Jakobina Arch Whitman College


This paper reconsiders the overwhelmingly masculine business of whaling in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) and the ways that gender played a role in the process of whaling, in the uses of some of its products, and in ideas about whales themselves. The gender divisions within whaling groups paradoxically are often overlooked because women barely appear in Japanese whaling sources. While other nations' whaling industries were also centered on men, baleen had a major influence on women's fashion in Europe and America. However, Japanese uses of baleen remained within the more male-centered cultural sphere. At the same time, rethinking Japanese whaling as a gendered practice helps explain the ways that whales themselves were equated with women through cultural expectations about women's roles like caring for children. The intersectionality of shared marine environments and cultural specifics explored here highlights the importance of considering both labor and gender roles within maritime spaces.