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NIPPONIA No.31 December 15, 2004

Japanese Animals and Culture
Traditional Cormorant Fishing: Beauty and Skill on the Water
Written by Kani Hiroaki

This variety of sea cormorant migrates to different parts of coastal East Asia. Body length: approx. 80 cm; Weight: approx. 3 kg. (Photo: Maki Hirozo)

The old Japanese way of catching freshwater fish using cormorants is known throughout the world. One place to watch it is a stretch of the Nagara River in the northern part of the city of Gifu. Gifu is about 30 km north of Nagoya, and rail and road transportation between the two cities is excellent.
The Japanese word u-kai has two meanings: (1) to keep cormorants as tame birds; and (2) fresh-water fishing with cormorants. Cormorants are found in most parts of the world, although not in the mid-Pacific. Darwin arrived at his theory of evolution after observing flightless cormorants on the Galapagos Islands. Cormorants are useful because of their phosphate-rich droppings, which make a good fertilizer, and in Japan and China they are also used to catch fish.
Japan has a long coastline, and forests once covered the land. This made an ideal habitat for sea and river cormorants. Sea cormorants would migrate to all parts of Japan except northern Honshu and Hokkaido, crossing rough seas to spend the winter and stay until spring. River cormorants inhabited many parts of the country and tended to stay in the same general area all year round. Japan has a fair number of place names and surnames that include the kanji character for "cormorant," and this too shows that the Japanese and cormorants share a long history.
In Japan, fishing with cormorants was depicted on pottery as long ago as the 6th century, and a Chinese document from the 7th century mentions the practice. Cormorant fishing is known to have occurred since then at about 150 places in various parts of Japan. I personally believe that, long before the 6th or 7th centuries, the practice came to Japan from China along with other techniques like growing rice, and spread throughout the country at the same time.
Today, cormorants are used to catch fish in only a dozen or so places in Japan, and even there the main reason is to attract tourists. One of the best places to watch cormorant fishing is the Nagara River in Gifu, where the action lasts for 158 days, from May 11 to October 15 each year. The birds used on the Nagara are actually sea cormorants, brought to Gifu from the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture before they are 2 years old. They are caught wild, and after they are tamed they start a training program that lasts throughout their lives. Sea cormorants are used because they are said to be better at catching fish than their river cousins.
The cormorant dives under the water, catches a fish, swims to the surface, then twists the fish around so that it can swallow it whole, head first. It has a sharp beak pointed like a hook, and can open it up to an angle of 70 or 80 degrees to gulp down fish as long as 35 cm or so. To prevent the fish from reaching the bird's stomach, a neckband made of hemp, called kubiyui, is fastened around the base of its neck. When a fisherman sees a big lump in the bird's throat, he grabs it by the neck and applies pressure to the throat to make the bird cough up the fish. Because the cormorant is getting no benefit from its work, the word u-kai (cormorant fishing) is also used to refer to the exploitation of workers! Actually, though, the neckband is loose enough for small fish to pass through to the cormorant's stomach. A tighter band would keep the bird hungry and force it to catch more fish, but this would tire it out during "work time" and shorten its lifespan. Cormorants live only about five years if they have to fish all year long, but in places like the Nagara River they live 15 to 20 years because they have a long holiday and are well looked after.
After dark, the boat sets out with a bonfire to attract fish and light the way. The leader of the fishing team, called an u-sho, uses thin te-nawa leashes to keep the birds in the light from the bonfire. The te-nawa are more than 3 meters long, and are made from white cedar fiber twisted clockwise. A piece of whalebone is attached to the end to prevent the birds from getting entangled. (In China, neckbands are used but leashes are not—there, the birds move about freely looking for fish.) The te-nawa are woven ingeniously so that if they become caught on something underwater, the u-sho can twist them counterclockwise to release them right away. The cormorant would drown if it could not come up for air within 3 minutes. On the Nagara River, the u-sho holds 12 te-nawa in his left hand—one for each bird—and uses the right hand like magic to prevent the lines from becoming entangled.
Experience, intuition, and trust in the cormorants—u-sho have all three, and this is why they can handle the leashes so skillfully, and why cormorant fishing is so fascinating to watch. Another fascination is observing how, in these days of modern fishing equipment and rope made from synthetic fiber, u-sho use white cedar cord and other traditional gear. Japan is famous for its ancient crafts, and you can see some of them in action during the cormorant fishing season.


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