The Kombu Road

For the past couple of years, I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to think about how the islands that I am obstensibly writing my dissertation on are routed to places outside through regional and global commodity circuits.  This is really ironic since I never — never — stopped complaining about studying commodity circuits in my world history seminars.  (Sorry, Terry;  You were right.)  I should have thought more carefully about the payoffs of writing histories of movement.

There are couple of reasons why I have become interested in the history commodity circuits. First, it provides me with a meaningful excuse to write “transnational” somewhere in my dissertation without feeling guilty that I am only putting it in there because of academic fashion.  Second, it allows me to cross borders, worlding things that might seem peripheral or particular to the Ogasawara Islands or Japan.  This is not only limited to my dissertation writing.   I also want to write commodity circuits into my lectures in Japanese history.  Anytime that I can disrupt the imaginary of “Japan” in my students’ heads the better.

Image courtesy of Google Earth

One way that I try to get my students to rethink the space of “Japan”  is by  twisting geographical space of the Japanese archipelago sideways.  In my introductory seminar to Japanese history as a graduate student, one of my advisors introduced me to a marvellous map produced by Amino Yoshihiko.  Amino twisted the map of the Japanese islands to their side as to reorient the reader into thinking about how “Japan” was not as an island apart from Asian mainland, but connected to it.  The map I think makes cultural, trade, biotic connections between the Japanese archipelago and the other landmasses around it more imaginable for students, and I usually show them something like it at the beginning of the semester before I talk about the movements of things and people.

One of the more interesting commodity chains that illustrated this interconnectivity is the kombu (Saccharina japonica) trade, which connected the northern part of the Japanese archipelago through North East Asia trade network.  While kombu grows mainly in the Okhotsk Sea, it is consumed throughout North East Asia (China, Korea, and Japan).  In Japan, its highest consumption rates per household belongs to the  southernmost prefecture in the Japanese archipelago: Okinawa.  Why is kombu from the island of Hokkaido used in the cooking of food from Okinawa?

Map of the "Kombu Road"

The kombu trade, which sometimes goes by the name “Kombu Road” (kombu rôdo), was first established sometime during the  Muromachi period (1336-1573).  The Matsumae clan (Matsumaehan) transported the seaweed  by boat from Ezôchi (present day Hokkaido) to the port of Wakasa, which was Kyoto’s major port on the Sea of Japan.  (Unfortunately, the map to the left doesn’t show the port.)

The trade was pushed further southward at beginning of the Edo Period (1603-1868), once the economic power of merchants from Osaka increased.  From this time, konbu began to be transported through the Seto Inland Sea (Setonaikai) through the shipping lane called the “Western line” (Nishimawari).   This was well established route also went through the Japan Sea by Kitamabune, which were cargo ships that sailed that body of water during the to  Kyûshû during the Edô period.

Kombu was routed to China through two ports.  One was through trading port of Nagasaki.  The other was enabled by the Shimazu clan of Satsuma domain, which began to export kombu to the Qing China through the existing tributary trading network that went through Ryûkyû Kingdom.

About Colin

Ph.D candidate in modern Japanese history at University of California, Santa Cruz
This entry was posted in Dissertation research, environmental history, Japan, Japanese history and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Kombu Road

  1. Pingback: A Short History of Feather Hunting on Uotsurijima, Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands | Colin Tyner, the Labour of Nature, and Island Life

  2. Fascinating article – I was making this very point in an introductory lecture on East Asian art last week, but I didn’t have the map to illustrate this for my students. I remember well a guest lecture by Prof. Amino at UC Berkeley about 20 years ago – I’ve found all of his books fascinating.

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