Whaling Need not be Made into Giant Whale of an Issue
Under international pressure to halt practice, Japanese remain
obstinate even though whaling makes little sense; time has
come to compromise
Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor, Foreign Press Center Japan, and Lecturer, Waseda University)
The practice of whaling is essentially a forgotten issue for
the Japanese. In no sense is the whale an indispensable thing
in their everyday lives.
However, it takes a forefront position in their minds when
Japan comes under attack from Western nations for killing this
animal. Given the apparent insignificance of whaling in
practical terms, their largely emotional reaction to the
criticism appears disproportionately sharp and stubborn.
It even resembles a mini clash of civilizations, and this
always intrigues me. For on the international stage, Japanese
are known for their inclination to stay silent or vague on
many potentially more important issues. But on whaling, they
True, Japan has a centuries-long history of whaling, but
Japanese whaling in earlier times was limited to coastal
fishing. This is different from American whaling, which was an
open-sea operation at its height in the 19th century. In fact,
one purpose of Commodore Matthew Perry's expedition to Japan
in 1853 was to ask the Japanese to supply water and fuel for
American whaling vessels operating in the Pacific Ocean.
It was after World War II that Japan's factory-ship whaling
fleets started traveling as far as the Antarctic Ocean in
large numbers and brought back a significant amount of whale
meat, which served as an important source of animal protein in
the postwar period of food shortages.
All of that is long past. Japan today is a country with an
abundance of food, clearly visible in the food sections of
Tokyo department stores. As an industry, whaling has
diminished almost to the point of disappearing. Few people
vehemently claim to live on whaling, except for coastal
fishermen catching small cetaceans not subject to regulations
by the International Whaling Commission. Whale meat is
negligible in the national diet, except as a rare item of
And so, one wonders why the Japanese government is so adamant
in pressing for the right to hunt whales in open seas, in
defiance of growing international opposition as seen in IWC
debates and at the expense of good relations with several
countries - such as Australia and the U.S. - that are
otherwise Japan's good friends.
There is not domestic lobby for whaling to speak of. Nor is
there explicit public demand for the government to take a
strong stand in IWC debates. It is scarcely a topic in
parliamentary debate or an election issue.
The Japanese claim in justifying killing a significant number
of whales in open seas is scientific research on the animal.
But what kind of research is actually being conducted, what
its outcome is and how it is actually utilized is not widely
known. Regardless, it does not attract much public interest
Japan legally catches about 1,000 whales a year for "research
purposes." The meat is commercially sold, amounting to around
¥7 billion ($76 million) - ¥10 billion at most - compromising
less than 1% of Japan's entire fishing output, according to an
article by Tomohiko Taniguchi in a recent issue of Wedge
magazine. Only one whaling company, which is virtually
governmental, is in operation. The number of people employed
in the entire whaling business is about 330.
Japan's clear goal is to get commercial whaling authorized in
the open seas - a practice internationally banned since 1988.
But as things stand now regarding the Japanese diet or
commercial circumstances, commercial whaling seems unlikely to
make sense. Moreover, there is little hope that such a change
can occur under the prevailing international opinion.
It is also puzzling that there is no serious discussion among
Japanese over whether whaling should be continued.
Sporadically, letters to the editor in newspapers express
opposition to whaling - some on ecological grounds and some on
diplomatic grounds - while others express resentment against
what is viewed as Western arrogance to impose their values on
The issue boils down to a difference in viewpoints as to why
whaling should or should not be banned. Is it an ethical
question, like preventing cruelty to animals or standing
against the killing of living creatures? Or is it an
ecological matter, maintaining the planet's biological
diversity or protecting precious species?
I am personally against unnecessary killing of what I see as
precious animals like elephants, tigers, and whales. But in
some parts of Africa, years of protection have reportedly led
to an overpopulation of elephants. If that is the case, should
elephants above an appropriate number (for humans) be
eliminated? Or should any kind of life be preserved? Is this a
matter of absolute value of ethics?
So far, as whales are concerned, there does not seem to be an
agreement on where the truth lies. Even among Japanese
themselves, there is no solid consensus on the value of
And so, this can be seen as a question of Japanese insistence
on their cultural identity and their ensuing determination not
to cave in to the imposition of foreign, especially Western,
values. While whaling is usually a matter far from the
Japanese mind, they are aroused by the Western criticism. High
handed protests by the likes of the Sea Shepherd Conservation
Society - an aggressive ecological organization that
physically attacks Japanese whaling vessels - are seen as
outrageous and only serve to push Japanese to stubbornly
assert their position on whaling.
Some may detect a streak of dark nationalism in this. The more
Japanese come under attack by Westerners, the more implacable
they become in defending their values and cultures.
Exhibits at the whale museum in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture -
one of the traditional whaling bases in Japan - marvelously
depict the culture of whaling in coastal waters that used to
be, and still is, embedded in the lives of local people.
However, it seems to me that such traditions do not justify
killing a large number of whales in the open ocean.
The chairman of the IWC recently proposed a compromise plan to
allow Japan to catch minke whales in its coastal waters, which
has been banned for two decades, in exchange for phased
reduction of whaling in open seas, eventually to zero in five
It is high time that Japan considered accepting this idea for
the time being.
(Originally appeared in the February 23, 2009 issue of The
Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)