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Figuring out the science behind research whaling

by Jake Adelstein

Japan has a unique concept of science that doesn’t seem to be accepted in the Western world. Both the esteemed academic journal Nature and the International Court of Justice have essentially handed down rulings over the past year that question the standards of research in Japan.

As far as the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems to be concerned, science requires that you kill the subject of your study and then sell the meat for consumption — especially when talking about whales. This doesn’t bode well for any plans to measure the general fitness of the country’s youth and, perhaps more worringly, one hopes the Institute of Cetacean Research doesn’t start studying the country’s aging population.

It’s also worth noting that scientific truth seems to depend on how bad you want it to be true. The last two scientific papers that allegedly reported the discovery of an easy way to make stem cells were retracted by Nature, the academic journal that published them. The papers were found to be full of errors.

The research had been done at the government-backed Riken. The lead scientist, Haruko Obokata, became a major celebrity, until problems with the research started coming to light.

Obokata says she will prove the methodology is real even though independent scientists have not been able to reproduce the work described in her articles. The inability of scientists to replicate the results calls into question the veracity of any of the claims she has made.

The incident has also raised questions over the rigor of scientific research in general in Japan.

Similarly, the International Court of Justice ruled in March that the country’s whaling expeditions in the Antarctic lacked scientific vigor and was not scientific research. In other words, to study the whale population and its health by killing whales and then selling the meat isn’t scientific research. The court ruled it was akin to commercial whaling disguised as whale research.

At first Japan seemed to accept the decision as it didn’t inflict too much damage on its overall catch figures. Indeed, the Antarctic whale catch represents only 20 percent of the country’s total annual whale take.

But then, as always, Abe couldn’t resist a chance to harpoon himself in the foot. Last month, he told a parliamentary committee he wanted to resume commercial whaling “so we may obtain scientific information indispensable to the management of whale resources” — which you have to admit is new tactic. It’s like saying, “Up until now our research whaling was actually commercial whaling but we can do commercial whaling and make it more scientific.”

The Japan Whaling Association recognizes that nonlethal research can provide some data but claims whales have to be killed in order to really understand what’s happening with them. “A large range of information is needed for the management and conservation of whales, such as population, age structure, growth rates, age of maturity, reproductive rates, feeding, nutrition and levels of contaminants,” it says on its website. “This type of important information cannot be obtained through small DNA samples or analysis of organochlorine, but only through lethal research.”

Lethal Research. It sounds like a movie that will be opening this Halloween. The same institute also concluded that whales eat up to 500 tons of fish a year — that’s five times the amount we humans eat.

The ultimate conclusion is simple: The whales are eating all of our fish. If we don’t kill whales, we will have no blue fin tuna, no sushi and we will all starve to death. I’m sure the whales are probably responsible for the eel shortage as well. And damn those whales that sneak into freshwater rivers and devour our unagi!

The main problem with whale research — funded mostly with taxpayer dollars — is that the data is dubious. There are no third parties overseeing the experiments, nor has much of it been subject to peer review or been published in scientific journals. I have a feeling that if it were published, it would end up being retracted only a few months later.

Japanese officials have suggested making the whale hunts “more scientific” to satisfy the International Court of Justice. Isn’t that pretty much the equivalent of putting a giant altimeter in the cars at Disney’s “Tower of Terror” ride and renaming it “Tower of Altitude and Terror Study”?

Every year the amount of whale consumption in the country declines, while the stockpile of whale meat now is close to 5,000 tons. Considering the declining demand and abundance of supply, why does Japan still spend millions of dollars sustaining this industry?

The whale research that would be of most interest to me is an investigative piece into which politicians are getting donations from the whaling industry, the relationship between retiring Ministry of Fisheries bureaucrats and the industry, and a full account of who gets government subsidies for research. While we’re at it, perhaps the government could ask its citizens if they wish to pay taxes to sustain the whale industry? (We live in a democracy, allegedly).

The Institute of Cetacean Research, supported by Japan, has written several papers on the “health benefits” of balenine (midazole dipeptides) found abundantly in whale meat that are supposed to cure fatigue. That’s part of Japan’s scientific research and a mascot has even been created to represent this incredible substance. If it’s valid research, perhaps they should submit it to Nature magazine? I’m sure it would stand up to peer review.

As an omnivore, I can’t say I’m opposed to eating whales. Endangered animals should obviously not be eaten, but I am opposed to breaking international law in the name of science.

And just maybe, given enough time, the government will once again redeem its stature in the science world by finding an easy way to make stem cells. Perhaps even from whales?

But only after they have been killed and eaten.

You just have to believe.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.

  • Christopher Glen

    This is a pure ad-hominem attack on your part, Mr Mboma. Japan’s government is bucking a dying trend – and would win themselves many kudos around the world by putting an end to it. The only thing they have to lose is their misplaced sense of nationalistic pride

    • OniLX

      i wouldn’t call it nationalistic. i’d call it nostalgic. there are a lot of people in government who grew up on whale meat (a relatively new thing to the Japanese diet by some historical accounts). one might account for the huge stockpile as proof to it being a dead trend that is being kept on life support by people like Shinzo Abe. I’m not sure about your point on the ICJ ruling, Mr. Mboma.