Ukai (鵜飼い)

"Ukai" is one traditional fishing method used to catch ayu (sweetfish) by using a cormorant. In Japan, Ukai has been practiced in various places such as Gifu, Aichi, Kyoto, and Ehime Prefectures, among which especially Ukai in the Nagara-gawa River is the most famous one.


Ukai has an old history; in the section on Emperor Jinmu in "Nihonshoki," there is a description about the division of Ukai, 'there was a man who caught fish by making yana (a fish trap), and the Emperor asked him about it. He answered that he was a child of Nihemotsu (Hoshotan), who was the founder of the division of cormorant farming in Ada,' and in "Kojiki" there are also songs and ballads on Ukai.
There is also the Emperor's song as 'the army of Ukai SHIMATSUTORI.'
In addition, in the section of 600 in "Zuisho" (the Book of the Sui dynasty), Ukai was introduced as a strange fishing method which an envoy from the Sui saw in Japan.

In "Wamyosho" there is a description about Ukai in the Katagata District, Mino Province, in "Shukaishakubekki" there were 37 Ukai houses and in "Shinsenminoshi" there were 9 villages in Ukai, Katagata District. In the Bunmei era, there is a record outlining Kaneyoshi ICHIJO's stay at Shoho-ji Temple (正保寺) when he watched Ukai. In the Engi era there were 7 Ukai houses on the bank of the Nagara-gawa River, and FUJIWARA no Toshihito, Kokushi (a providence governor), made the 7 Ukai houses present ayu to the Emperor, who appreciated it and gave him seven villages of Katagata District as compensation for Ukai, so that they came to be called the seven Ukai villages. When MINAMOTO no Yoritomo was routed with Yoshitomo at the Heiji Revolt, he got separated from Yoshitomo and wandered around the banks of the Nagara-gawa River, and stayed at the house of Hakumyo, the head of Ukai and satisfied his hunger by eating delicious ayu sushi there. When he went to Kyoto as Udaisho (as full general) in 1192, he called a child of Hakumyo to repay an old kindness and ordered him to send ayu sushi to Kamaukura every year. In 1564 Nobunaga ODA saw Ukai at the Nagara-gawa River and gave the name of ujo (a cormorant master) to each Ukai and treated them the same as takajo (a falconer) and gave 10 bales of rice as stipend for each house. In 1615 Ieyasu TOKUGAWA saw Ukai and was impressed by the taste of ayu baked on hot pebbles, so that it became a custom to present ayu to Edo Castle every year and 21 Ukai houses were each given 10 ryo as a salary. When presented, ayu were sent with three seals bond of roju (an administrator) to Edo for two days and nights. After that, Ukai declined to 12 houses in 1805, but it recovered again by giving those 12 houses 120 goku and 532 ryo and 2 bu every year. Although Ukai declined temporarily at the time of the Meiji Restoration, ayu of Ukai was often ordered and presented to daizenshiki (the Office for meals in the Imperial Court) during Meiji Period, and in 1890 a total of 1471 ken in Furutsu, Nagara Village, Inaba District and each village of Mugi and Gujo Districts was incorporated as an ayu fishing ground for the Imperial Court by Imperial Household Ministry.

The fish caught by Ukai are not hurt and are very fresh because it is unconscious from being in the esophagus of the cormorant. Therefore, Ukai ayu were particularly-prized as special present so that Ukai had been preserved by the Shogunate and the daimyo (Japanese territorial lord) after the Azuchi-Momoyama Period. The securing of ujo and the fishing grounds was very important for the daimyo, and it was concerned with their honor.

However, Ukai was not necessarily an efficient fishing method so that Ukai, which lost supporters from among the daimyo after the Meiji Restoration, disappeared all over the country one after another, and only a few Ukai presently remain.

Today's Ukai is mostly practiced in the tourist industry rather than as a direct way to earn a living as tourists enjoy watching it from a roofed pleasure boat. For example, Ukai held in the Hiji-kawa River in Ozu City, Ehime Prefecture, began as 'Ozu sightseeing Ukai' in 1957. However, Ukai also is an important aspect of preserving intangible cultural heritage at the same time.

The fishing method

The person who is engages in Ukai fishing is called Usho or ujo. Its costume is a traditional style of Kazaori-eboshi, a kind of eboshi (formal headwear for court nobles), ryofuku (clothes for fishing), bib and a grass skirt. The number of cormorant used for fishing is different from the scale and fishing method of Ukai fishing in each area. For example, while in kachi-u (cormorant fishing on foot) one ujo uses one or very few cormorants, in the general Ukai on a small boat one ujo uses 5 to 10 cormorants at a time. The fishing period is approximately from late spring to early autumn, and it often begins with the opening of the fishing season of ayu.

In Ukai, the ujo builds a bonfire at the bow of small boat with a flat bottom and makes cormorants swallow ayu, which come close to the light. With a rope tied around it's neck, a cormorant can not completely swallow the ayu that is bigger than a certain size, and the ujo makes the ayu spit it out. Ujo decides the size of ayu to catch by the way of tying the rope and smaller ayu enter the cormorant's stomach.

However, if ujo continues fishing using the same cormorant of Ukai, the bird gradually loses its drive. Therefore, ujo sometimes gives a holiday to their cormorants.
(The relationship between Ukai and cormorant is also described in the article on cormorant.)

Usually Ukai is held on days except for the day with a full moon from the middle of May to the middle of October. The reason why it is not done on the day with full moon is to prevent ayu confusing the moon with the bonfire.

The cormorant used for Ukai is a Temminck's cormorant, and all Ukai of the 11 places in Japan except for Arida City, Wakayama Prefecture and Masuda City, Shimane Prefecture use the Temminck's cormorant which is caught on Ishihama Beach in Hitachi City, Ibaraki Prefecture (former Juo Town). In addition, the common cormorant is preserved as a natural treasure, but in Aichi and Gifu Prefectures the reduction of ayu caused by an over abundance of common cormorants has become serious so, it is allowed to got rid of some of the cormorants in Gifu Prefecture.

The former fishing method

Cormorants are caught on Shinojima Beach at the Chita Peninsula in Owari Province in winter on the way migrating south.

The way to catch them is to make a decoy cormorant sightless temporarily by sewing its eyelids closed.

Putting this on an outcrop and placing torimochi-hago (a trap with birdlime) around it, ujo catches migrating cormorants which come close to it.

This is called shima-u (island cormorant), which is bigger than common cormorant, and is about 2 shaku high, 8 or 9 sun long of neck length and weighs 650-860 monme.

The cormorant which is caught is carried to the place where Ukai is held with its eyelids sewn temporarily, and it has it's flight feathers on it's wings cut in half and is trained gradually, swimming tethered with rope.

It is usually used for 12 to 13 years.

The Ukai boat is 12m 90cm long, 10m 80cm of siki, 1m 29cm wide in the center and 63cm deep, approximately.

The pole which tomonori (a rower at the stern) uses is 450cm long (tomozao (a stern pole)) and the one which nakanori (rower at the center) uses is 323cm long (nakazao (a center pole)).

A rudder at the stern is 285cm long and a rudder at the center is 235.6cm long.

A sail is 378cm long and 361cm wide.

Sho (a mast) is 500cm long.

However, sail and sho are used only when a boat rows upstream and there is no direct relationship with Ukai.

Matsushiki (pine stand) is a board to hold firewood for kagari (bonfire holder) and there is big and a small one.

Tanawa (a hand rope), a rope to tie cormorant, is made by plying hinoki (Japanese cypress) fiber and is 303cm long.

A cord, 'tsumoso,' which is made of whale fiber, 36.3cm long, is spliced to the top of the rope and is tied to the cormorant's neck using a Shimada knot.

Hakekago (a throw up basket) is a bamboo basket where the cormorant spits ayu into, and is 39.4cm caliber and 37.9cm deep.

Morobuta is a tray to place ayu on, which is made by hinoki (Japanese cypress) and 21.9cm wide, 36.4cm long and 4.5cm deep.

Kagari is made by iron and hikago (a fire basket) is 30.3cm deep, 18.1cm bottom caliber and 42.2cm caliber, and it is put on the bow with a shaft of 227cm long.

Matsu-wariki (chopped pine), is used for the bonfire, it is pine firewood, 36.3cm long, and 5 bundles weighing 22.5kg each are provided on each boat.

A torch is made by pine wood and resin and is used as needed.

A cormorant basket is a container to carry cormorant, woven by sakitake (chopped bamboo) of 0.9cm wide into a basket of 3.0cm square with 1 line long and 2 lines wide, and its cover is made by shibuita (1.2cm - thick) of hinoki.

A dividing board is put in the center of the basket and two cormorants each, a total of 4 cormorants, are put in.

A keeping basket is used to put two cormorants each in after they are used, and is made the same way a cormorant basket is made.

Ayu grow a little 50 days after the beginning of spring (the first day of spring according to the lunar calendar), and begin to go up to fresh water from the mouth of a river, and grow up to about 9cm long in May. Each Ukai house starts preparation before that, and ujo does fishing from the upper reaches to the lower reaches after the moon sets on the day of a waxing half moon and before the moon rises on the day of a waning half moon because Ukai is done only in the dark of night, avoiding moonlight. The 12 boats of Ukai fish divided into two groups, but sometimes they pitch a fishing camp together and do fishing at the same time (karami - work together).

On one Ukai boat there is one ujo, one nakanori, and two tomonori, that is, a total of four persons, and ujo uses twelve cormorants at the bow, nakanori uses four cormorants at the center and tomonori is in charge of piloting a boat at the stern.

Ujo notices the moment when a cormorant swallows ayu, pulls the cormorant up immediately and makes it spit out into the hakekago. Sometimes all the cormorants swallow ayu at the same time, but ujo takes care of them without delay. Being in charge of very busy operation, ujo takes care to add firewood to the kagari or pilot the boat jealously.

Imperial cormorant fishing

Ukai on the banks of Nagara-gawa River in Gifu City and Seki City, Gifu Prefecture, is performed by ujo of shikibu-shoku, Imperial Household Agency. There are 6 ujo in Nagara, Gifu City and 3 ujo in Oze, Seki City, and these are all succeeded by heredity. In the Ukai of Nagara-gawa River, one ujo conducts fishing using 12 cormorants at once.

The origin of Ukai of the Nagara-gawa River can go back to about 1300 years and it had been done during the Edo shogunate and the Owari-Tokugawa family. After the Meiji Restoration it was once patronized by the house of the Imperial Prince Arisugawanomiya, but in 1890 it belonged to shuryo-ryo (the Division of Imperial Hunting) of Imperial Household Ministry and was under direct control of the Imperial Household Ministry (present Imperial Household Agency). Therefore, "Goryo Ukai" is the Ukai patronized by the Imperial Family, and in a narrow sense it refers to fishing done at the fishing grounds for the Imperial Household Agency eight times from May 11 to October 15 every year. The ayu caught at Goryo Ukai is not only presented to Imperial Palace, but also dedicated to Meiji-jingu Shrine and Ise-jingu Shrine.

Other Ukai fishing methods

The Ukai held in the Fuefuki-gawa River, Fuefuki City, Yamanashi Prefecture and in the Arida-gawa River, Arida City, Wakayama Prefecture is called 'Kachi-u.'
This is the Ukai in where ujo uses one or two cormorants and conducts fishing by fording a river without using any boats.

The Ukai held in the Takatsu-gawa River, Masuda City, Shimane Prefecture is the only Ukai called 'hanashi-ukai' all over the country, in which cormorant fishing is done without using a rein. In addition this Ukai is done to win ujo's livelihood so that its stance is different from that of other sightseeing Ukai. In order to prevent indiscriminate fishing, the fishing period is determined to be from the autumn when general Ukai finish to the next spring.

The regions where Ukai is performed

Fuefuki City, Yamanashi Prefecture (Fuefuki-gawa River)

Gifu City, Gifu Prefecture (Nagara-gawa River) Ukai by ujo, Shikibu-syoku of the Imperial Household Agency.

Ukai in the Nagara-gawa River

Seki City, Gifu Prefecture (Nagara-gawa River) Ukai by ujo, Shikibu-syoku of the Imperial Household Agency.

Ukai in Oze

Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture (Kiso-gawa River)

Ukai in the Kiso-gawa River

Uji City, Kyoto Prefecture (Uji-gawa River)

Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture (Oi-gawa River)

Arida City, Wakayama Prefecture (Arida-gawa River)

Miyoshi City, Hiroshima Prefecture (Basen-gawa River) the only Ukai who use common cormorant with white body.

Masuda City, Shimane Prefecture (Takatsu-gawa River)

Iwakuni City, Yamaguchi Prefecture (Nishiki-gawa River)

Ozu City, Ehime Prefecture (Hiji-kawa River)

Hita City, Oita Prefecture (Mikuma-gawa River)

Asakura City, Fukuoka Prefecture (Chikugo-gawa River)


At the age when Ukai was described in 'Zuisho' (600), it was an uncommon fishing method, but later cormorant fishing was also established in China.

According to theory, the record of Ukai in China goes back to a passage in a poem written by Ho TO (712-770).

Every house raises monster crows.

Eat yellow fish for every meal.

It is translated as 'every house keeps cormorant and eats yellow fish for every meal,' which is said to mean Ukai. However, there are many divergent opinions against the theory that monster crows mean cormorant, and even if it meant cormorant, yellow fish were considered as sturgeon so, that it is difficult to think that a cormorant swallows such big fish like a sturgeon; therefore, the theory that this poem is an evidence of Ukai remains in doubt.

The oldest certain record is a description that the fishermen in Toto (city of Taihei-fu (Taihei district) (太平府), Anki-sho (Anki province)) 'use very alert cormorant for fishing' in "Seiiroku (清異録)" (965) written by Koku TO (陶穀), a literary man in the 10th century. In addition, in the text in which Chin HAN, a literary man in the latter part of the 11th century, wrote, there is a description about a fishing method almost as same as the one which was done in China in the 20th century.

The difference between Ukai in China and that in Japan are as follows.

While a Temminck's cormorant is used in Japan, a common cormorant is used in China.

In Japan the cormorant for fishing is an adult bird which is captured and disciplined, but in China it is completely domesticated.

Both in Japan and China a ring is put around the neck of cormorant to prevent the bird from swallowing the fish, but in China a cormorant is not tied to a rope and comes back to ujo by itself, which is different from that in Japan.

While in Japan Ukai has remained stylized so that usually only ayu are caught, in China Ukai has continued as a general fishing method so that any size of fish which cormorant can get are caught.

From these points, Berthold Laufer guesses that Ukai in China developed independently rather than obtaining the know-how from Ukai in Japan, which started earlier than in China.


In Europe from the end of 16th century to the beginning of 17th century, Ukai spread as a sport mainly among the people of the Court in England and France. There are records that in 1609 Ukai was performed before Louis XIII, King of France, when he was the Crown Prince, and that in 1618 a grower barn and pond for cormorant, osprey, and otter of James I, King of England was planned to be built in Westminster.

However, it should be noted that these Ukai did not succeed the know-how of fishing method from Japan and China, but that it was conducted by almost the same method of Taka-gari falconry. A blindfolded cormorant was led to fishing ground and a blindfold was removed only at the time of fishing. A cormorant was carried in the arms of the owner using leather gloves. Ukai in Europe was dominated by the aristocracy.

South America and others

An earthenware with a description of Ukai, which was estimated to be around the 5th century, a hundred years earlier than the age of Ukai in Japan, was excavated from the Chancay Valley in Peru and housed in the Amano Museum in Lima City.