Thu, Jun 4, 2020

Cormorant fishing: Edo-period practice for the shogun revived in Inuyama, Aichi Pref.

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

Cormorant fishing in Inuyama (Photo courtesy of Takaaki Suzuki)
By Katharina Kaufmann / CIR for Inuyama, Aichi Pref.

Using cormorants for fishing is an old tradition in several countries like China, India, Korea and Japan. Even in some European countries, cormorant fishing has been recorded. Nowadays, it is still alive in some parts of East and South Asia. In Japan, cormorant fishing can be observed in a few cities. One of these cities is Inuyama, Aichi Pref., at the banks of Kiso River.

The tradition of cormorant fishing, or ukai, in Inuyama was first exercised in 1660, when the owner of Inuyama Castle at that time – Masachika Naruse – called 2 cormorant fishers from Mikawa no Kuni Asuke (today, Asuke village is a part of Toyota city) to work for him. From 1660 for the next 70 years, cormorant fishing in Inuyama was mainly done for Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Cormorant fishing in Inuyama lasted until 1809, when Masanori Naruse declared a ban on killing and wounding, which also included hunting and fishing, following his Buddhist beliefs upon his retirement. It was later revived with the help of some cormorant fishers from the Nagara River in Gifu Prefecture, and since 1909, it is mainly done for touristic purposes. From mid-June until mid-October, you can see this tradition either at lunchtime or in the evening after sunset.

Cormorant fishing at night. The usho has to handle the cormorants as well as the fire.
(Photo courtesy of Inuyama City Tourist Association)

Every fishing boat is operated by 3 people. In the back of the boat is the so-called tomonori, who is responsible for steering the boat. The nakanori stays in the middle of the boat and assists both the tomonori and the usho.

The usho is in the very front handling up to 12 cormorants and maintains the fire. The fire shines a light on the surface of the river. Due to the light, the fish underneath the water see the shadows of the cormorant which together with the cries of the usho surprises them and urges them to move. This movement tells the cormorants where the fish are. The usho handles each cormorant through an individual piece of rope that is tied around the neck and body of the cormorant. The tying of the rope is a very delicate matter. If the rope is to loose the cormorant can swallow all the fish and there is no catch to use. If the rope is too tight, the cormorant will refuse to catch any fish. If the rope is tied appropriately, the cormorant can still swallow smaller fish as thick as a thump, but not the larger ones. After a cormorant caught a fish, the usho will get it back on to the boat and initiate the regurgitation reflex naturally found in cormorants with his hands retrieving the fish.

Japanese fishers use a cormorant species native to East Asia. They are caught on the beach, tamed and trained for around 3 years. For the training, the usho has to spend at least 2 to 3 hours every day with the cormorants feeding, playing and interacting with them. The taming process includes cutting off some of the wing feathers, shaving off a part of the beak and generally getting used to humans and the human touch. The training includes tasks like swimming close to the boat, staying on the edge of the boat, getting used to the rope around their neck and letting the usho take the catch from them. While some of the training is done by humans, they also learn by watching older and more experienced cormorants.

The average working age is from 3 years of age for about 8 years. After that they are still kept and cared for by the usho. A cormorant in captivity can live for 10 to 20 years, whereas their wild counterparts live for about 4 to 5 years.

Usho holding a cormorant during a presentation
(Photo courtesy of Kazuhiro Takagai)

The cormorants are precious companions to the usho. Just like humans, each cormorant has its own personality and character; smart, irritable, lazy, active and so on. And just like humans, their moods change every day and during each day, so the usho carefully selects only those cormorants who want to work on a particular day during the fishing season. During the off-season the cormorants get to enjoy themselves within the shelter, relaxing in their own little private place, interacting with the other cormorants or swimming freely in the swimming pool.

Cormorants in the moment of catching a fish
(Photo courtesy of Inuyama City Tourist Association)

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)

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Katharina Kaufmann

Katharina comes from Germany, where she grew up in a village close to Berlin. A high school exchange year in 2009 laid the base for her interest in Japan and its culture. She studied linguistics at the University of Leipzig and got her masters at the University of Halle and Keio University in German-Japanese international relations and Japanese education. She now works as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) at the Inuyama City Hall in Aichi Prefecture. There, she runs local events themed around different aspects of German culture, visits kindergartens and schools, and writes a monthly column for the city magazine among other things.

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