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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 16:49 03/01/2009
March 1, 2009

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 stand out.

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.

Times change

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 delicacy.

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 anyway.

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 Japanese.

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?

Big questions

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 whaling.

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 years.

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.)

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