Old shipping lanes along regions facing the Sea of Japan

(Posted on June 13, 2012)


My father’s hometown is a small fishing port located in Shimane prefecture, facing the Sea of Japan. When I was small, I used to hear a story that his ancestors in the Edo period were engaged in the shipping business; however I could not get any further information.


Then, only a few years ago, I came across a brief report on ships that were operated by our family about 150 years ago. Now, I have a clearer picture of this shipping business and it seems to answer some of my questions such as: “Why shipping lanes along the Sea of Japan?” “How did a small fishing port (now) fit into these shipping lanes?” “Did ships sail even during the windy and high-wave winter season?”


The report was compiled by a few local scholars, who went through documents, mostly business correspondence, being kept at the hometown storehouse. They made a 27-page list of the documents (each document is written in a cursive style of its time, so I cannot read it).


How did these shipping lanes start? During the early Edo period, a powerful (Maeda) feudal lord in the “Kaga” region—covering Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures combined—managed to open a new route to send their annual tribute of rice to Osaka, the biggest commercial hub in Japan at that time, for cash. Previously, Maeda’s rice tribute was sent partially by sea and then overland to Osaka. Whereas the new route, which went due west along the Sea of Japan against a strong, warm current was even longer in distance but more economical due largely to the availability of bigger ships.  


So, the new sea route was established. At that time, ships had no navigational equipment other than a simple compass, so they sailed more or less in sight of shore, which prompted making frequent calls. Usually, the ships on this route would start from Osaka around March bound for ports in the Sea of Japan, sometimes as far north as Hokkaido: selling and buying goods at each port of call. On their return trip, also selling and buying goods on the way, the ships reached Osaka around November.


My father’s hometown happened to be one of those calling ports (later I learned that the town during the Edo period flourished as an important iron puddling center), and his ancestors thus started shipping business. This seems to answer the second question of mine. As explained, the ships sailed from March to November, meaning that they stayed anchored in Osaka during the severe winter in the Sea of Japan. This also answers the third question.


Here are some details mentioned in the report:

1. The family owned three ships from the late Edo period until the early Meiji period (for a relatively short span of about four decades all in the 19th Century);

2. More than 20 ports of call spread between Hakodate in Hokkaido and Osaka;


Some additional information on ships on this route:

1. Unlike previous ships, they could sail against a headwind;

2. The ships had no decks for economical reasons (could hold more goods), so they were not suited for high seas.


With the advent of railways, the Sea of Japan shipping lanes disappeared in time, so did the family business.  















A restored ship

(Courtesy of little_dipper from Japan



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