The district of Ningyōchō, a name that literally translates to “Doll Town,” is named after its past as feudal Tokyo’s center of puppetry and theater arts. Starting in the first half of the 17th century, the area attracted a number of kabuki and bunraku troupes, as well as merchants and craftsmen dealing in dolls and puppets with the said entertainers.
Today, as you explore the quaint district you might come across a lifelike sculpture of a whale emerging from the concrete ground with a big smile. Created by artists Hiroshi Matsubashi and Hirotsugu Nakata in 2002, the monument can be found on a side street occupied mostly by office buildings. While it may seem rather random and insignificant to the location, it actually represents an essential role in traditional Japanese puppet-making.
An intangible cultural heritage designated by UNESCO, bunraku is a form of performing art where puppets are given life and display subtle emotions throughout the play. This is largely thanks to the special strings that manipulate them, made from baleen, the filtering “teeth” found inside the mouths of baleen whales.
Sometimes incorrectly referred to as whalebone, this material mostly consists of keratin, the same substance that makes up our hair and fingernails, as well as hooves and tortoise shells. As such, baleen is known for its light and flexible, yet strong and durable nature, and was once commonly used around the world up until the early 1900s.
Nowadays, however, the material is rarely used due to the environmental issues that surround whaling, something for which Japan is notorious. While baleen is still used to some extent for making traditional musical instruments, fishing rods, and other goods, its scarcity has driven some manufacturers to turn to alternative materials such as fiberglass and polyacetal.
That being the case, it may be a matter of time until the bunraku strings are also made from something other than baleen, perhaps thanks to new inventions and technology. And when that day comes, the whale monument of Ningyōchō will be a little-known testament to the outdated art of Japanese puppet-making, overlooked by most passers-by as it is today.