The Cormorant Fishers of the Imperial Household

July 27, 2017 Irwin Wong

The Cormorant Fishers of the Imperial Household from ZEISS Camera Lenses on Vimeo.

Along the banks of the Nagara River in Gifu city, there stands a centuries-old home. Its entrance is quite well hidden, a single unassuming stairway carved into the retaining wall, and you could easily miss it if you weren’t paying attention. Climb the stairs however and you’ll find yourself in a beautifully preserved Japanese villa from a different era. This is the ancestral home of the master cormorant fisher Yamashita Tetsuji, the 26th of his line.
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Yamashita-sensei tells me that cormorant fishing has been occurring in the Nagara River area for at least 1300 years. Over the centuries they have enjoyed the support of some of the most powerful warlords and patrons in Japanese history, from Oda Nobunaga to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun. The dissolution of the Shogunate with the arrival of the Meiji period stripped the cormorant fishers of the support they previously relied on, however shortly after that they were employed into the office of the Imperial Household as the Emperor’s own cormorant fishermen. To this day Yamashita-san and 5 other cormorant fishers in the Gifu City area still hold this office, passed down from generation to generation. These days however, the practice of cormorant fishing is done mainly for the benefit of tourists who watch from the riverboats. Compared to olden times, amount of fish caught in the river has dropped dramatically.

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Yamashita-sensei himself looks exactly how you would want an old Japanese master to look like. His pointy white beard, weathered skin and diminutive stature do not diminish the fierce twinkle of vigor and humor in his eyes. He leads me through his ancestral home, showing me where the birds are kept and trained. Paraphernalia related to the art of cormorant fishing are kept in fastidious order around the house; there are grass sandals and grass skirts as part of their uniform as well as large bamboo baskets for holding the cormorants, not to mention the long boats crafted especially for cormorant fishing. Over a millennia of accumulated knowledge and expertise, contained in the fine craftsmanship of the tools, and more importantly, behind Yamashita-sensei’s glittering eyes.

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Having never seen anything cormorant fishing before, I was a little nervous, especially as working with animals always brings an element of unpredictability to every shoot. Would the birds be well treated? Would they be scared of the camera or the flashes? Would they act up? I watch Yamashita-sensei handle a bird. He plops the cormorant on top of a bamboo basket and whispers to it while attaching a lead. The bird is skittish once noticing my big octabank and camera, but Yamashita sensei rubs its neck in a soothing manner and the cormorant calms down. It lazily begins to stretch its wings, showing off their impressive wingspan, and the bird was relaxed for the rest of the photoshoot. According to Yamashita-sensei: ‘we live with and train the birds for three years before they become ready to fish in the river.

We take great care in monitoring and tending to their health and as a result the cormorants that live with us have lifespans many times more than their counterparts in the wild.’ The record for the longest lived cormorant stands at 26 years, although he retired well before then, Yamashita-sensei says with a smirk.

© Irwin Wong, Sony A7R2, ZEISS Loxia 2/50, f/4, 1/125 sec., ISO-320

© Irwin Wong, Sony A7R2, ZEISS Loxia 2/50, f/4, 1/125 sec., ISO-320

That evening sees me accompanying Yamashita sensei down the river to see the preparations for the night’s fishing demonstration. The large bonfire burns as cormorant fishers from the different houses gather around it, swapping jokes and smoking cigarettes. The birds splash playfully on the riverbank, honking away. At some unspoken signal, the bonfire is broken up and the fishermen carry flaming tinder down to the waiting boats in order to stoke the braziers suspended from their prows. The fire is a technique from olden times to attract the freshwater trout to gather around the boats. Within seconds each boat has a blazing star kindled in their lanterns, and the boats head off downstream.

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Yamashita-sensei stands at the prow of the lead boat, his face lit dramatically by the burning lantern feet from his face. From his hands lead eight leashes, and on the end of each leash is a cormorant bobbing through the water for trout. Under Yamashita-sensei’s practiced eye, he summons each bird back to the boat with a tug on the leash once he surmises they have caught a fish. The bird then spits it out to be collected and then jumps back into the water to continue working. It’s a dazzling display of coordination and concentration, performed by the grandmaster of his generation. Every now and then he’ll scoop some new wood into the brazier, sending out a shower of sparks that are borne away on the wind. The tourist boats are rapturous in their applause and vocal in their encouragement. Yamashita-sensei and his five other colleagues are local heroes here.

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The fishing ends and the boats laden with tourists head back to land. Yamashita-sensei and his boat crew, including his 20 year old son have returned upriver with the boat, no doubt to attend to the cormorants and clean everything to be ready for the next night of fishing. Gifu has returned to being a sleepy, quiet city. ‘The Nagara River flows quietly by.

Cormorant Fishing viewing is available in Gifu city during the months of June to October.

About the Lenses:

I am a Sony Alpha shooter for many reasons. They have everything I need in a camera and more: power, size, great photo and video quality, not to mention all of the other bells and whistles such as in-body image stabilization and 4K recording. That’s why I’m overjoyed ZEISS has released the Loxia series for E-mount. The Loxia family perfectly balances the Sony Alpha series’ dual role as powerful stills and video cameras, not to mention they are sharp and extremely well built. The same filter thread size across all four lenses (21, 35, 50 and 85) means that you’ll be able to swap out ND filters with ease on a tricky video shoot, and the butter smooth manual focus is super friendly for rack focusing or stills photography without the frustration of buggy AF. I also used a Milvus 2/100 on the long shots.

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