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A REPORT, The Whale People Of Omishima (1800s - 1980s)

Zhao Renhui

Omishima is a fishing village in the southwest of Japan which in its heyday was home to about 6,000 people. Omishima residents were often referred to as The Whale People, or kujira no hitobito, the people who lived among whales. The Whale People got their name because of their obsessive and bizarre worship of all things whale-related. Huge temples in the shape of whales were erected and statues of flukes — a whale’s upright tail — can still be seen along the coast. Religious ceremonies such as The Arrival, where groups of people rowed out to sea in small boats to touch a giant paper mache whale, were also conducted annually.

The village loved whales, but in particular, it was obsessed with a certain white whale that was spotted by a monk in 1937. He had seen the creature along the Omishima coast and reported it to the local authorities, and this incident sparked a search for the mysterious animal.

In The whiteness of a whale, documentation of various sightings of the white whale in Omishima show the relentless pursuit of this mythical creature, from the very first account in 1937 by the monk to the most recent one in 2008. The villagers had also built several structures for whale watching. These include an underwater tower that stretches 5 miles into the sea for the villagers to catch a glimpse of the whale and a boat that has an iconic white whale’s tail with an underwater viewing chamber which, on a clear day, allows the villagers to see up to 5 miles through the ocean depths.

But things have changed. Today, few residents remember this way of life. A few are still searching for the white whale and living off the frenzy of the past. Mr Kazuhiro Nagashima, one of the last Whale People alive today, is one of them. He would often wade out into the shallow oceans and blow whale song on a yellow flute in the hope of seeing the great creature. Four years ago, he placed a huge net along the coast, following the tradition of his forefathers, hoping to capture the white whale.

The whiteness of a whale highlights how an encounter with an unfamiliar culture exposes the loopholes associated with mediation, documentary (aesthetic and journalistic), systems of knowledge, written history and subjective recordings.



Zhao Renhui is a Singapore-based artist who works closely with The Institute of Critical Zoologists.






Copyright 2010, Institute of Critical Zoologists