What is Kitamae-bune?

What is Kitamae-bune?


Economic artery connecting
Osaka and Hokkaido

1. Between the middle of the Edo period (around 1716 to 1804) and
the Meiji 30s (around 1898 to 1908)
2. Connecting Osaka and Hokkaido along the Sea of Japan
3. Group of merchant ships sailing the Sea of Japan while buying and selling goods.
Kitamae-bune is a collective term for merchant ships
that were doing such movement.
Points are "buying and selling" ...... It is not just a ship carrying cargoes.
They had been sailing between Osaka and Hokkaido while buying anything at
the ports that was considered “cheap”, and selling anything
from the ship’s cargo that could be sold at a profit.



A Dream of Getting Rich Quickly - "Kitamae-bune"

Kitamae-bune photographed by Obama photographer Yonezo Ida, from the end of the Meiji period to the Taisho period.(These old photographs are from the Ida Family Collection and are provided by the Wakasa History Museum in Fukui Prefecture.)

Sailing the Sea of Japan While Buying and Selling Goods

During the Edo period, a ship carrying loads that sailed on the sea was called "Kaisen," or a cargo ship. There were various routes along the coastline, and there were different kinds of ships, each of which specialized in carrying particular loads.
Among these vessels, the largest and the ones that sailed most frequently were the "Higaki-kaisen" (a basic wooden cargo ship) and the "Taru-kaisen" (a ship that carried sake barrels). These ships sailed from Osaka to Edo (the Tokyo of today). Initially, the Higaki-kaisen transported any kind of cargo. It then changed to specialize in shipping sake. When the Sea of Japan became rough in winter, the two kinds of boats sailed along the Pacific Ocean coast to do the round trips numerous times throughout the year.
Other kinds of ships included the "Shio-kaisen," which shipped salt from Setouchi to Edo. Another was the "Itoni-kaisen," which carried silk thread imported into Nagasaki to Osaka, and exported goods like kelp and dried abalone to China on the return leg. Salt was transported to various parts of the Kanto region from Edo because the amount produced in the vicinity of Edo (the coast around Tokyo Bay) was insignificant.
Edo was the seat of power of the Tokugawa shogunate. It had a population of one million people and was the largest city in the world at the time. However, it was unable to produce daily necessities, such as clothing, in sufficient quantities. Therefore, a lot of goods were shipped from the Kansai region. However, there was no cargo loaded on the return ships. There were few ports of call, so both the Higaki-kaisen and the Taru-kaisen ships had to profit solely from the one-way trip to Edo.
Conversely, the Kitamae-bune ships had been making round-trip journeys to Hokkaido. Their "business" included buying anything at the ports that was considered cheap, and selling anything from the ship's cargo that could be sold at a profit. This system was called "Kaizumi-sen," (merchant carrier), and is the biggest feature that distinguished the Kitamae-bune from boats on other routes.

An Image of the Sengoku-bune (cargo ships).

There is also an image called "Sengoku-bune" associated with the Kitamae-bune. This means that the amount of rice that could be loaded was one thousand "koku," (one koku equates to roughly 140kg). The converted weight of 1,000 koku is around 150 tons of rice. There were also many medium-sized vessels that carried 500 koku of rice. The largest ship in the history of the Kitamae-bune carried up to 2400 koku. The shape of the ships was called "Bezai-sen". This is written in kanji as "弁才" or "弁財". This conjures up the image of a Japanese sailing ship with a huge, white sail.
The Bezai-sen is a type of ship developed in the Seto Inland Sea. Until the middle of the Edo period, there were distinctive types of ship for each region, such as the "Ise-bune" of Ise, the "Hokoku-bune" of the Tohoku and Hokuriku districts, the "Hagase-bune" and others. The Kitamae-bune became known as a Bezai-sen because of its robust hull and the ability of its sharp bow to cut through the waves, almost as well as the yachts of today. The Kitamae-bune performed well enough even against strong headwinds.

A Dream That Anyone Can Be Rich

When going on a single round trip between Osaka and Hokkaido on the Sengoku-bune, the Kitamae-bune was able to earn profits of 1,000 ryo (a monetary unit in those days). This is the equivalent of 60 million to 100 million yen today. At that time, people could start as an apprentice sailor and then progress to become a mariner. They could then save enough money to buy their own ship and become a millionaire. Kitamae-bune offered opportunities for ordinary people and apprentice sailors to use their talent and efforts to realize their dream of becoming rich. This was especially so in the prevailing class system in which the samurai was at the top. Although there were many records found of distress signals, shipwrecks and accidents in Kitamae-bune, there was no shortage of sailors who pursued the "Kitamae-bune dream".

Kitamate-bune that also Spread Culture

Kitamae-bune also caused the spread of a variety of cultures. One example is food culture. Kombu from Hokkaido is now used as a base for a lot of present-day Japanese food made in western Japan. Kitamae-bune also spread folk songs around Japan. The song "Haiya-bushi" originated in Kyushu and has since become "Sado Okesa". This became popular in Niigata Prefecture and then further changed to "Tsugaru-aiya-bushi" in Aomori Prefecture. The song "Izumo-bushi" from Shimane Prefecture transformed into "Akita-funakata-bushi" in Akita Prefecture. This was because Kitamae-bune sailors remembered it and established it in each region they visited. A type of weaving called "Sakiori" (a process of tearing and then weaving cloth) existed in various areas along the Japan Sea coast. People weaved old clothes into weft. Cotton cultivation started in Osaka Prefecture at the beginning of the Edo period. This started a "clothing revolution" among Japanese people. However, cotton does not grow in cold regions so Sakiori became a valuable cotton recycling technology for old clothes shipped by Kitamae-bune. This process led to the "Sashiko" style of cloth and this also spread to many areas.



The History of Kitamae-bune

A rice storage warehouse built in 1893 (the Meiji year 26) and the symbol of Sakata, a "Yamai warehouse". This building houses the Sakata Municipal Tourism Bureau, the Sakata Yume Rice Warehouse, and the Shonai Rice History Museum.

The Trading Route of Omi Merchants

Before Kitamae-bune was introduced, the Omi merchants had been exclusively handling all products from Hokkaido. These merchants were advancing to Matsumae from the end of the Sengoku period when different states were at war. They acquired the items in Tsuruga, took them to Osaka via Lake Biwa and then sold them more cheaply. Some Omi merchants had their own boat, but many of them jointly acquired their own ships and hired sailors, many of whom were from Hokuriku. Those who get their ship in this way and sold products from Hokkaido later did business in Osaka. The Kitamae-bune became a catalyst for better-maintained and safer sea routes.

The Birth of Kitamae-bune

In 1672, an Edo merchant called Zuiken Kawamura was ordered by the shogunate to maintain the sea route from Sakata to Edo. This was in order to transport 150,000 koku of rice from the shogunate's Tenryo (territories) that existed in the Mogami river basin. The eastward passage from Sakata to Edo, which passes through the Tsugaru Strait (between Honshu and Hokkaido), is close to the Pacific coast and the waters there presented dangers. Zuiken declared 10 sites between the Mogami River and Hokkaido as official ports of call, such as Ogi in Sado, Shimonoseki, Osaka and others. Each clan in these ports was asked to make their port tax free, and they asked other clan leaders to reciprocate. This led to the development of the "Westward Route" over longer distances. Tsugaru, Akita and other clans along the Sea of Japan who knew the safe passages along this route began shipping rice directly to Osaka on an annual basis.

The Shogunate's Westward Sea Route Service

One can say that the Omi merchants' Tsuruga (on the Hokkaido route) and Zuiken (on the westward Sakata-Osaka route) operated "routes of the Kitamae-bune". However, Kitamae-bune did not start operating immediately. While the volume of rice to be landed in Tsuruga had decreased, the products carried by Omi merchants from Hokkaido continued to increase. In the Edo period, Koda progressed nationwide. As people became richer, the demand for kelp, herrings, etc. also rapidly increased. This resulted in a rapid increase in the production of kelp in Uchiura Bay throughout the Edo period. This meant it became possible to supply large quantities of kelp to the Keihansin (Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe) area.
As the cultivation of cash crops such as cotton, rush, indigo, etc. spread throughout Setouchi area, the demand for fertilizer increased. At the same time, developments in rice-paddy use also progressed, even in the areas where sardines (used as fish fertilizer in places like Kujukurihamahama, Chiba Prefecture) were in large supply. Sardines were no longer shipped to western Japan due to local demand in Chiba. They were instead replaced by herrings. In the beginning of the 18th century, technologies were developed to boil herrings and concentrate the fish oil. The remaining sediment was turned into fertilizer and it became possible to supply this in large quantities.
The cooks of the Hokuriku district, who had been hired by Omi merchants, became aware that profits could be made through repeating the same processes. The cooks therefore became independent of the Omi merchants through various means, such as (1) acquiring their own boat, (2) dealing with merchants in Esashi and Hakodate as well as merchants in Omi, and (3) directly trading with wholesale product stores in Osaka. This is Kitamae-bune from about the mid-18th century.

Its Peak Was after Entering the Meiji Period.

At the end of the 18th century, a sturdy canvas sail called the Matsuemon sail was invented. This could not be torn, even by strong winds so it became possible to make two round trips a year between Osaka and Hokkaido. This led to the spread of Kitamae-bune to places beyond Hokuriku. Ship owners began sailing short and middle distances more frequently. Furthermore, in the 19th century, the shogunate took the East Ezo area (from Uchiura Bay to the east of Hokkaido) under his direct jurisdiction, so merchants who shipped products to Edo began trading there. This led to the Kitamae-bune trade being diversified.
In actuality, the height of Kitamae-bune activity was in the Meiji era. During the Edo period, the Matsumae clan only permitted ships to enter the ports of Matsumae, Esashi and Hakodate. However, from the third year of the Meiji era (1870) it became possible to trade at any port. One reason for this was advances in ship design, especially the use of multiple sails like those on Western-style sailboats.

Kitamae-bune Finished Its Role

However, in the late 1880s (the Meiji-era 20s), the profits earned by the Kitamae-bune began to gradually decline because of better means of communication. In these times, the only means of communicating was by letter, which was very slow. The Kitamae-bune sailors exploited this by gaining an understanding of the variations in the price of commodities from region to region and then exploiting these differences to make big profits. However, the emergence of telegraphic communication and its widespread use meant information about prices became common knowledge, which ended the monopoly Kitamae-bune sailors had on price variations.
In 1891 (the 24th year of the Meiji era), the Tohoku main line between Tokyo and Aomori was fully developed. Once the Tsugaru Straits were crossed, the route between Hokkaido and Tokyo was connected directly. In addition, this period saw the gradual spread of steamships, which were capable of safely shipping cargo in large quantities. In the late 1890s (the Meiji-era 30s), Kitamae-bune slowly disappeared. The danger presented by the Russo-Japanese War in the seas around Hokkaido ended the era of the history of Kitamae-bune.



The Organization and Management of Sailors

A diagram of a ship's ema (a wooden plaque on which people write wishes, prayers or dedications) that explained the role of sailors. (Source: (Nippon Marine Science Foundation publication "Kitamae-bune")

1 year of Kitamae-bune

February in the lunar calendar (March in the current calendar) is the season when the Kitamae-bune set sail. Although many vessels left Osaka, some ship owners docked their ships to protect them against the winter in Akita, Sakata, Niigata and other places. Thereafter, they sailed to Osaka and were known as Nobori-ichiban-bune" (the first Osaka-bound ships of the year). They then headed for Hokkaido again. The ships arrived in Hokkaido from the end of April to early May. When August arrived, the ships were loaded with products from Hokkaido and departed for Osaka again. According to records in Hokuriku, where many Kitamate shipowners were located, they sailed through the Seto Inland Sea via the Shimonoseki Straits to moor their ships in a tributary of Osaka's Yodogawa River ahead of the typhoon season. All sailors other than the ship's head boatman returned home on foot. The sailors who returned to their hometown continued their employment by doing daily chores or other tasks they were asked to do in the ship-owners' houses, such as cleaning, clearing snow, making rice cakes, etc. Records indicate they looked forward to going to toji (the act of going to therapeutic hot springs) for about 10 days on their days off.

Role of the Crew

On the other hand, the boatman who remained in Osaka had an important role. They had to purchase goods ready for loading in the spring of the following year, as well as selling any unsold cargo. It was around the time of the New Year that the sailors could return to their hometown.
There were usually 11 to 13 people sailing on Kitamae-bune ships which could load one thousand koku of rice. The head boatman of the ship supervised everything from the ship's operation to the trading of goods and control of the crew.
Beneath the ship's head boatman there were three important posts called "sanyaku" (three roles). First, there was the "omoteshi" (supervisor), which is the navigator of today. It was his responsibility to chart the course regardless of it being day or night and to inform other sailors of the route to their next destination. Next, there was the "oyaji" (boatswain), who was in charge of the operation of the sails, rudder and all other deck operations.
The third person of the sanyaku was the "chiku" (chief clerk). He had the important role of overseeing the deliveries of the shipments, looking after the accounts, consulting with the boatmen, and depositing and withdrawing money. The Kitamae-bune ships were usually involved in large monetary transactions and so the chiku had a big responsibility. General seafarers were called "kako". Their jobs included the "katamote" (who assisted the omoteshi), the controller of the rudder, and the "ikarisabaki" - the sailor responsible for lowering and raising the anchor. The ikarisabaki was usually a seasoned, veteran sailor. Finally, there was the "kashiki" - the chef who was in charge of the cooking. He got up early in the morning to cook rice and remained onboard when the ship docked in a port to look after the ship.

A Sailor's Lifetime

A sailor's career usually started from the age of 14 or 15 years old by helping with the cooking on the ship. Over the course of their voyages, the sailor was promoted to the positions of kako, ikarisabaki, kataomote, etc, until they eventually reached the position of sendo or sanyaku. Most sailors holding the position of sanyaku or of a ship's head were largely in their 40s and 50s. It normally took around 30 years to move from the position of kashiki (cook) to the most senior posts. The ship's head is split into two terms - the "okisendo," who is hired by the ship's owner; and the "jikanorisendo," who simultaneously serves as the ship's owner and the ship's head. Since the head of a Kitamae-bune ship was also responsible for its transactions, it was essential he could read, write and use an abacus better than most people. This meant that more intelligent sailors were often promoted to the position of ship's head. If the ship had a competent omoteshi and oyaji, the voyage would be successful. Some of the sailors who were promoted to higher positions were in their thirties, while others in their fifties never progressed beyond the position of lower-class sailors. The career advancement of the sailor was based on merit.

From the Okisendo (Ship’s Master) to the Ship-owner

The cost of constructing a Kitamae-bune ship that had the capacity to carry 1,000 koku of rice was about 1,000 ryo. Even a second-hand ship cost as much as 500 ryo. Despite the high cost, there were countless people who became shipowners. However, the salaries of the Kitamae-bune sailors were not so high that they could save a lot of money. The sailors of the Higaki-kaisen and Taru-kaisen that sailed between Osaka and Edo had a salary of between 30 to 40 ryo a year. In comparison, a master carpenter (which was an attractive job at that time) was one of the best-paid occupations in Japan, with an annual income of about 25 ryo.
Conversely, the boatmen of the Kitamae-bune had only two or three pay packets per voyage. The ship's head was allowed to load his own products on the ship, amounting to about about 10% of the owner's shipment. When the profit of a Kitamae-bune ship carrying 1,000 koku reached a thousand ryo, the ship's head could earn 100 ryo per voyage. This calculation was called "homachi-kasegi (the profit of the ship's head from additional goods while in port). Although this system was not allowed on other shipping routes, it was established early with the Kitamae-bune ships.
There was also a bonus payment called "kiridashi" that the sanyaku sailors were eligible for. The ship owner distributed 5-10% of sales to his sailors. In this way, the sailors were careful to handle the ship's cargo, and they ensured that the ship's head did not give priority to his own products. This was seen to be a well-established management method of ensuring quality among employees. This system facilitated a mechanism for people to save money even before becoming a sailor. As such, there were plenty of people who wanted to work on the Kitamae-bune, despite any dangers. In the Edo period, the social system was very harsh. This made the Kitamae-bune a "dream life" in which ordinary ordinary people could become a millionaire if they had the courage to journey on rough seas and had a business mindset.



A General Trading Company that Operated Kitamae-bune ships

Kitamae-bune photographed by Yonezo Ida, a photographer in Obama, from the end of the Meiji period to the Taisho period. (The old photographs are owned by the Ida Family and provided by the Wakasa History Museum in Fukui Prefecture).

Matsumae clan which was built on trade

The round trip between Osaka and Hokkaido was the basic Kitamae-bune route. Before arriving in Hokkaido, it was normal to buy anything that could be sold at the various ports of call. The ships were fully loaded with herring, kelp etc. on the way back to the Seto Inland Sea. This depended on the special circumstances of Hokkaido's only Daimyo territory, the Matsumae clan.
In Hokkaido during the Edo period, when rice could not be grown, there was insufficient rice to be able to serve as a staple food and for straw. People from Hokkaido had to source most of their everyday straw goods from Honshu. Such items included nawa (straw rope) and waraji (straw sandals). People from the Matsumae clan made their money by selling to the Omi merchants. They acquired food such as salmon from Hokkaido's Ainu people, which they got by bartering. The Matsumae clan originated because of trade.

The Necessities of Rice and Salt

Rice was a product that that was very much in demand by the Ainu, even if they had to barter for it. The rice production across western Japan was collected from Daimyo (lords) along the coast of the Japan Sea and sent to Osaka's rice market as a tax. Although Kitamae-bune ships purchased rice when sailing out of Osaka, the rice harvests of the Daimyo were also bought in Tsuruga, Niigata, Sakata, etc. They assessed market prices and bought rice that was cheap and then sold it when prices were high.
In addition, the salt from the Setouchi was sold everywhere as soon as Kitamae-bune ships went to the Sea of Japan. This explains why Shiota (a salt-harvesting place) regularly spread inland from the Setouchi. Legend has it that this was because, "There are many shallow beaches and many sunny days." The role of the Kitamae-bune ships cannot be overlooked. As the salt markets were expanded by the Kitamae-bune ships, producers were able to increase production volumes with increased confidence. Furthermore, Hokkaido salmon that until that time had only been dried, could now be processed into salted salmon. In the nineteenth century the shogunate had gained direct jurisdiction of the east half of Hokkaido. This meant ships could sail directly from Hokkaido to Edo so people in Edo could have salted salmon with their breakfast.

Cotton, Old clothes

In the early Edo period, the fully-fledged cultivation of cotton began in Kawachi, Osaka Prefecture. The cotton was woven with threads through the process of crimping, which was more flexible than using stronger hemp and other fabrics. The cotton had excellent properties of hygroscopicity (the ability to absorb or attract moisture from the air), which revolutionized clothing. However, as cotton is a tropical plant and cannot be grown in northern countries, it was warmly welcomed even if it was in the form of old clothes or remnants of cloth. This became an essential item for the Kitamae-bune.

Iron, Japanese paper, stone ......

In the Edo period, about 80% of Japan's iron was produced in the Chugoku Mountains. It was called "Tatara Steel" and was made from sand iron. The iron was transported by the Kitamae-bune to be processed into agricultural tools such as hoes and sickles, and everyday items like pots, rice cookers and other things that supported people's lives. It also brought about the development of the cutlery industry in various places. Paper was also produced in different places and became an important product thanks to the fact that Kitamae-bune ships carried raw materials such as kozo (the paper mulberry plant) and mitsumata (a plant used to make Japanese paper).
Stone was also an important cargo. It was loaded as ballast to stabilize the ship. During the era when trade with Hokkaido was conducted only by Omi merchants, Shakudani-ishi stone was the only stone used. This was loaded in the Mikuni area of Sakai City, Fukui Prefecture. Once the Kitamae-bune ships started sailing from Osaka, granite was also loaded in various ports along the Setouchi and became a common cargo. In addition, it can be said that ships bound for Hokkaido carried all kinds of goods for the home, from ceramics, lacquerware and candles, to sweets and dolls. In this sense, Kitamae-bune had become a general haulage and trading company.

Large Profits from Herrings on Ships Bound for Osaka

However, it is important to remember where the one-thousand ryo profits (now about 60 to 100 million yen) of the Kitamae-bune came from. Trips made by the Sengoku-bune, the Kudari-bune ships that sailed out of Osaka only made a profit of one hundred ryo. The remaining 900-ryo profit was made by the ships bound for Osaka. The biggest commodity was herring. When spring arrived and the sea changed color, herrings from Hokkaido were shipped down the coast to be made into fertilizer. The fish were boiled and then squeezed to extract fish oil. The remains were then fermented. This was sold at five times the purchase price, sometimes even 10 times. It can be said that this herring trade was the secret behind the large profits made by the Kitamae-bune.

Nagasaki Tawara-mono (Delicacies Put in Straw Bags) and Konbu

A large amount of dried abalone, sea cucumber and shark's fin were also loaded on ships bound for Osaka. Since these three delicacies were packed in tawara (straw bags), they became known as "delicacies in straw bags" and were exported from Nagasaki to China. In addition, a large amount of kelp was exported to China. This had curative effects for diseases caused by abnormalities of the thyroid hormone. These medicinal herbs were effective for a disease called Graves' disease, which was common in the inland area of Mainland China.
The benefits of the Kitamae-bune are evident today in various forms. One is its effect on food. Although Japanese people had been eating kelp in Japan for a long time, thanks to the large amount carried by Kitamae-bune ships, the soup stock derived from kombu, which is a key ingredient of a lot of Japanese food, became standard in cooking for common people. Example konbu dishes the Kitamae-bune helped to spread include konbu-rolled kamaboko from Toyama prefecture, oboro-konbu (a konbu colloquially known as shredded sea tangle), and dishes like anago (conger eel) and konbu roll.