Oct 17, 2012

American Whaling and Japanese Modernization

Recently I read Eric Jay Dolin's "Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America." 

I've been interested in whaling for a long time, partly because I love the novel "Moby Dick" and partly because whaling deeply influenced to Japanese modernization. I have many other reasons why I've been interested in it, but I don't have enough time to write about all of them.

I've been to Nantucket Island, which is famous for the resort for celebrities living in the East Coast of the U.S. and the Nantucket basket. But for me Nantucket Island is the place where Ishmael got on the whale ship Pequod in Moby Dick.

Before I read the book "Leviathan," I knew about the history of American whaling in fragments, but I got a better overall knowledge about it from this book. I could now understand how Nantucket became the center of American whaling.

According to "Leviathan" the golden age of American whaling was from the 1820s to the 1850s, which is just when Japanese modernization began. From the 17th century to the early 19th century, the Edo Bakuhu, samurai's regime, which strictly closed the country, ruled Japan. In 1868 Edo Bakuhu was overturned, and the new government accelerated Japanese modernization.

The main reason why Edo Bakuhu was overturned was that it couldn't handle the threat of Western countries. In 1853 the fleet of the U.S. navy led by Matthew Perry arrived at the Tokyo bay to demand to open the country. Because of this affair Edo Bakuhu opened the country and many Japanese realized that Japan should be modernized to avoid being colonized by Western countries.

In the background of this affair there was American whaling. After the war of 1812, American whaling made great progress. Before that, its main fishing places were in the Atlantic, and then they expanded to the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. In the 1820s a fishing place off the coast of Japan was discovered and many whale ships from America appeared around Japan.

Edo Bakuhu wanted to close the country, but the foreign whale ships arriving off the coast of Japan resulted in contacts between Japanese people and foreign whalers. Sometimes American whale ships saved Japanese drifters, and some of them were taken to America and got an education there. Sometimes American whale ships shipwrecked off the coast of Japan and Japanese coastal people saved them.

One of the most famous Japanese drifters is John Mung. He was helped by American whale ship and taken to America. He leaned English and became a whaler. And then he smuggled himself back into Japan. When the fleet leaded by Matthew Perry arrived at Japan, there were only two English interpreters in Japan including him.

One of the main reasons why the U.S. government sent the fleet to Japan was to secure supply bases for American whale ships, but ironically at that time the golden age of American whaling was ending. Although the main use of whale oil was for lights, in the 1850s oil fields was discovered and developed in America and whale oil was replaced by kerosene.

I learned from the history of whaling that globalism wasn't just a recent phenomenon and an unexpected side of Japanese modernization. I think that you can find another unexpected side of American and world history from the book "Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America."

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