Just this month the Pacific Maritime & Heritage Center in Newport, Oregon, unveiled a collection of nearly twenty flags, which they bill as the largest known collection of these objects in the United States, as well as the country's first public exhibition of tairyōki. On Saturday, August 10, Sachiko Otsuki, a collections specialist with the Lincoln County Historical Society, treated members of the public to a gallery talk on the topic of these flags, which were procured from Newport's sister city of Mombetsu, Japan. With her background in the history of Japanese art, she was able to enlighten the crowd about the specifics of the flags' symbolism, making the talk particularly informative and enjoyable.
Tairyōki (大漁旗; lit., 'big catch flags'; also commonly called tairyōbata) date back to at least the 1660s and began as simple pieces of cloth signaling that fishermen had made a good catch and that they were grateful. Over time, and especially during the period of growth after World War II, the flags evolved significantly, and by the 1960s, the more decorative designs seen today became common.
Today's flags typically display the kanji 大漁 (tairyō; 'big catch') and 祝 (shuku or iwai; 'congratulations') along with the name of the flag's donor and the name of the fishing vessel, all accompanied by any of various pictures traditionally symbolic of luck and abundance, including:
chidori—a plover, representative of flying high and overcoming the waves
Ebisu—one of the Shichifukujin, or seven deities of luck; specifically, he is the patron of fishermen and merchants
goshiki—the Buddhist-influenced color combination of blue/green, red, yellow, white, and black/purple
hinode—sunrise, symbolizing a bright start
ichifuji nitaka sannasubi—lit., 'first Mt. Fuji, second a hawk, and third eggplants'; this refers to a common belief that if you dream of these three things, especially on New Year's Eve, you will have good luck
noshi—a mark symbolizing a gift, which was originally made from pressed abalone and added to an offering; dried and stretched, the abalone implied longevity; under the influence of Buddhism, which prohibits the killing of animals, the abalone noshi was replaced with ones made from paper or other materials, or with graphical representations such as the one seen at the left edge of this flag (above)
shōchikubai—the pine tree, bamboo, and plum blossom; a traditional good-luck trinity
tai—the sea bream; represented with large eyes, it is called the medai and, in a play on words, is the harbinger of auspicious occasions, or medetai.
takara—assorted treasures, such as a ball, coral, a golden hammer, a peach, or a roll of fabric
takarabune—a boat containing the treasures mentioned above
After returning from a fishing journey, the tairyōki flown during the boat's time at sea are retired, with the expectation that new flags will be flown on the next voyage. The flags then end up serving in a variety of roles: tarps, rugs, restaurant decorations, souvenirs, etc. Recently, members of a student delegation to Newport from Mombetsu visited the nearby town of Siletz, and during a cultural exchange ceremony with members of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, they performed traditional Japanese dance incorporating tairyōki into their costumes.
The history and symbolism of these flags is far richer than summarized here. Unfortunately, the custom seems to be little known in the West and information can be somewhat difficult to find, but this exhibit is a good place to start. The Pacific Maritime & Heritage Center currently plans to maintain this exhibit for a full year until June, 2014. If you ever find yourself in the Newport, Oregon area, do stop in and take a look at these beautiful big catch flags.
Further information about tairyōki, this exhibit, and the museum in general can be found by writing or visiting:
Pacific Maritime & Heritage Center
333 SE Bay Blvd.
Newport, OR 97365
333 SE Bay Blvd.
Newport, OR 97365
The center is operated under the auspices of the Lincoln County Historical Society, which can be reached by telephone at (541) 265-7509. The Historical Society and the PMHC both maintain a Web presence at http://www.oregoncoast.
Follow guest blogger T. W. King on Twitter @tokidokizenzen.