The Cultural History of Godzilla – Pt 51


「ゴジラの精神史」The Cultural History of Godzilla 1954 by Shuntaro Ono (2014)
「ゴジラの精神史」The Cultural History of Godzilla 1954 by Shuntaro Ono (2014)

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Whale and Japanese


Well, another genealogy that makes up the name Godzilla is the whale. Gorillas used to hide in the forests of Africa, but this one, like Godzilla, lives in the sea. The kanji character for “whale” comes from the unit of the number “Kyo,” which means gigantic. However, it is a mammal that has returned to the sea, and it seems to be a degenerated creature from the evolutionary scheme. This, along with the whale’s enormous size, leads to its complicated position as a sea animal that cannot be called a fish.


The idea that Eiji Tsuburaya had for a special effects movie was “A giant octopus attacking a whaling ship in the Indian Ocean.” The setting, the Indian Ocean, was probably chosen because of the location of Skull Island, where King Kong is said to be. Even so, the whaling ship symbolizes the postwar situation in Japan. In 1945, in order to avoid Japan’s food shortage, GHQ permitted whaling in the waters near the Ogasawara Islands, and whaling by the mothership method began in the northern and southern oceans. GHQ seems to have given candidates including the battleship Nagato, but the first mother ship was a ship carrying a human torpedo Kaiten [human torpedo in WW2​]. A ramp for launching torpedoes into the sea was helpful in pulling the whale up.


As a result, there is a figure that whales have become nearly 50% of the supply source of “meat.” There was a time when it was in people’s mouths more than cows and pigs.

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Then, processed foods such as ‘whale cutlet,’ ‘whale bacon,’ and ‘oden no koro’ became established as food culture. When whaling is regarded as a tradition of Japanese food culture, it largely saved the food shortage after the war, and the culture of eating whales spread among the baby boomers through school lunches (Tomoya Akimichi, “Whose whale is it?”). Here whales have gone from a monster to a delicacy to a popular food for the Japanese.


Even in the name of research, whaling in Japan has caused various conflicts. In 2010, the radical environmentalist group Sea Shepherd named its ship, which was used to disrupt Japanese whaling, “Godzilla” and painted a green iguana-like pattern on its hull. She flew the pirate and Australian flags, but was renamed “Brigette Bardot” after a Godzilla painting was copyrighted.


The reason they named it Godzilla was because they calculated that using Godzilla to attack Japanese people would be a bit ironic. However, at this time, it is interesting that they did not think of Japan as the evil beast Godzilla that eats and devours whales, but that they see themselves as the Godzilla that destroys Tokyo. The idea of Sea Shepherd is to rectify injustice through destructive power. Godzilla is understood there as a hero who protects mankind. This is also one of the strange connections between whales and Godzilla.


In the Millennium series “Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla” (2002), when it was first discovered by radar, it was mistaken for a whale. Since ancient times, the Japanese have had a deep connection with whales. Bones have also been found at the Sannai-Maruyama ruins in Aomori. When it appeared in the Manyoshu, it was called ‘Isana.’ It is said to be an ancient Korean word, and there is also a phonetic equivalent of “brave fish.”

Manyosho is an 8th century anthology of Japanese poetry

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On the other hand, there are various theories about whales, and the etymology is not well understood. It comes from “black and white” and “mouth wide.”


In the 8th century, among the Kume poems that appear in the descriptions of Emperor Jinmu, ‘Kujira’ is used in the Kojiki and ‘Ku Sera’ is used in the Nihonshoki. The lyrics are broad-minded, about how a net was thrown to catch a sandpiper, and a whale caught it. The notation “KUSHIRA” is also connected to the congratulatory address “GOJIRA” read aloud at the “Godzilla Festival.” Masanobu Utagawa, an ukiyo-e artist in the Meiji period, has a nishiki-e titled “Tairyo Daikujira,” in which he depicts whaling, and ‘Ra’ is also used. Manyo-gana tradition.

Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese art which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries. Its artists produced woodblock prints and paintings of such subjects as female beauties; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica. (Source: Wikipedia)

Manyo-gana is a kind of kana (the Japanese syllabaries), and it mainly refers to the letters from which Japanese people borrowed Chinese-derived pronunciation in order to express Japanese in ancient times. These letters are represented by the writing in “Manyoshu,” and therefore they are called in this way. (Source:


The tradition of Kumeuta [variety of ancient ballad​] remains as Kumemai of gagaku, but the content is to inspire battle. The Kume (Kurume) clan was a family of guards protecting the emperor. Paired with Kumemai is Abe’s Yoshishimai. Although this piece does not exist today, Akira Ifukube composed a march called “Kishi-mai,” a classical military music, at the request of the navy during the war. It is played in “Godzilla” where the frigate attacks. It became established as the so-called “Godzilla’s March.” Since then, the march has been used in many movies. Ancient song and dance traditions are connected to Godzilla.

(Source: is one of the traditional forms of music in Japan, China, the Korean Peninsula and Vietnam.

During World War II, Ifukube was asked to compose nationalistic themes for the islands liberated by Japan. One such theme, Kishi Mai, played when Japan officially surrendered to the United States in 1945. (Source: Wikizilla: Akira Ifukube


In the 10th-century “Wamyo Ruisho,” there is an entry for “whale” among dragon fish, and a note is given as “Kuchira Wana,” it can be seen that whales were clearly recognized as whales. However, since it is lined up with dragons in the item “dragon fish,” there is no doubt that it was regarded as a monster.

The Wamyō ruijushō or Wamyo ruijusho is a 938 CE Japanese dictionary of Chinese characters. The Heian period scholar Minamoto no Shitagō began compilation in 934, at the request of Emperor Daigo’s daughter. (Source: Wikipedia)


The image of the scene where Godzilla, which has appeared off the coast of Shinagawa in Tokyo Bay, attacks Shinagawa Station is not unrelated to whales. Currently, there is a whale mound at Toda Shrine in Shinagawa. This is a memorial service for the fishermen of Tennozu who killed a whale over 16 meters in length after a storm in May of the 10th year of Kanei (1798).

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It is said that the oil was removed because it eventually rotted, but it is so-called whale oil. Securing oil, not meat, was the purpose of whaling in the United States and elsewhere. However, in the mid-19th century, Canadian [Abraham Pineo] Gesner invented kerosene (kerosene) from petroleum, and the daily use of whale oil declined. This is the basis of the anti-whaling movement.

Odo Island and America’s shadow


After the war, the GHQ lifted the ban on whaling around the Ogasawara Islands, but Japanese people were prohibited from entering within 12 nautical miles, so they were not allowed to build a whaling base on the Ogasawara islands. Therefore, a system consisting of a small catcher boat and a mother ship that dismantles and stores whales was adopted. Before the war, whale oil from whales and canned meat (Yamato-ni [beef boiled with soy sauce, ginger and sugar​]) were used to earn foreign currency, but after the war they became an important source of protein to make up for food shortages.


In fact, the Ogasawara Islands are the key. America’s shadow in the movie “Godzilla” is not only related to preceding works such as “King Kong.” The same goes for the Budapest String Quartet when Ogata asks Emiko out on a date. Although the name derives from Hungary where it was formed, the members were all Russian at this time, and since 1940 they have been based in the United States. Contrary to his name, he was also a cultural envoy from America.


More than that, it is the familiar “Odo Island” that teaches us the America hidden in “Godzilla.” As I pointed out in Chapter 1, the location where Godzilla appeared was near Iwo Jima, the site of a fierce battle between Japan and the United States.