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Japan scores whaling own goal

by Shaun O'dwyer

Special To The Japan Times

Ghanaian philosopher Anthony Appiah once said something very interesting about how group cultural consciousness develops. It isn’t that cultural differences give rise to collective identities, he said. It’s the opposite; collective identities — and their anxieties — give rise to a sense of cultural difference.

So when a nation’s conservative politicians and intellectuals feel their national identity threatened by influxes of foreign ideas or by foreign criticism, they may search for, even create, cultural differences to reassert it.

The creation and stubborn defense of Japan’s “whaling tradition” against critics of Japan’s whaling industry is one example of this. In the wake of the ICJ’s ruling for Australia against Japan’s Antarctic scientific whaling program, some reflection on this tradition is in order.

The story of its creation has often been told by scholars like Jun Morikawa, and it isn’t unique. In other whaling countries like Iceland and Norway, whaling advocates have also rebranded their modern whaling industries as old national traditions, bound through “national memory” to the highly localized whaling practices of the past.

They and their Japanese counterparts also share a prickly national pride about whaling.

Fueling this reactive pride were shared experiences of frustration for these countries’ whaling lobbyists in the 1970s. Environmentalists were swinging world public opinion against the whaling industry, and they appeared to be hijacking the agenda of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

In Japan’s case, frustration turned to outrage when anti-whaling activists splashed red dye on Japanese IWC delegates in 1978, 1979 and 1981.

All parties to this whaling controversy understand that the controversy is connected to wider issues about global fisheries conservation.

Perhaps two things set Japan’s rearguard whaling policy apart: Japan’s whaling advocates can tap old and deep reserves of resentment against perceived Western contempt, and insensitive foreign activists have fed that resentment.

Japan Fisheries Agency bureaucrats, keen to maintain their funding and influence, have also been mobilizing a political consensus behind them to sustain deep sea whaling as “scientific whaling.”

So, in Japan, whaling policy and its cultural justifications are less challenged. Funds flow in to help the Japan Fisheries Agency prop up the whaling industry, and even more funds are pumped into Japan’s “whaling diplomacy” at the IWC.

It’s difficult for critics to point out that modern whaling has little to do with the old coastal whaling traditions of some Japanese fishing towns; that apart from a brief postwar consumption boom, whale meat occupies a tiny niche in Japanese cuisine; that cetaceans might be more self-aware than we had thought; and that the Japan Fisheries Agency is using “scientific whaling” as a cloak for corrupt rent-seeking.

It’s difficult for these critics because once whaling was framed as a long-held Japanese tradition, criticism and talk of “invented traditions” could be dismissed as cultural imperialism.

This rhetoric helped deflect foreign criticism. It also marginalized Japanese critics, who can find themselves labeled as “anti-Japanese.” Some, like Morikawa, had trouble finding Japanese publishers for their books. With Japanese critics sidelined, it is easier to sell the idea that anti-whaling criticism is something ill-informed foreigners do, from their different cultural perspective.

The public humiliation and prosecution of two Greenpeace Japan activists in 2008 went beyond such marginalization, however, to become an own goal for Japan’s whaling establishment.

In 2007 Greenpeace Japan had been contacted by a former employee of the scientific whaling program, who testified to widespread whale meat embezzlement, meat wastage and unscientific conduct. After further investigation by two Greenpeace activists, Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, Suzuki went to a shipping depot in Aomori and seized a package of whale meat illicitly sent by a whaling ship crew member. They notified police, then held a press conference in May 2008 to air their allegations of corruption and theft in the scientific whaling program, presenting the whale meat as evidence which they planned to hand over to the authorities.

Sato and Suzuki thought prosecutors would sympathize with their public interest motives and act on their allegations. They hoped to start a long conversation to shift public opinion, by focusing it on the criminality and waste of taxpayers’ money in the scientific whaling program.

Things didn’t turn out as they hoped. Japan’s government and bureaucracy, long set in their statist and paternalistic ways, have never been very tolerant of activist nongovernmental organizations. Worst of all are activist NGOs that pursue their social change agenda against government agencies. Greenpeace Japan was now in their crosshairs.

Prosecutors’ and media attention soon shifted to the activists’ “theft.” In June 2008 Sato and Suzuki were arrested in a blaze of publicity. They were then subjected to a lengthy detention and interrogation process that drew adverse international press coverage, and protests from Amnesty International.

In 2010 they were convicted with suspended sentences. In the meantime, they had been criminalized in the minds of much of the Japanese public.

Fisheries Agency officials took some reputational hits from Greenpeace’s allegations, so they must have been relieved to see it on the ropes. But they still had to reckon with Sea Shepherd and the Australian government.

Shifting from its more confrontational strategies of the past, Greenpeace hoped in 2008 to change people’s minds about whaling through public inquiry. Sea Shepherd’s strategies remained unchanged, and it zealously applied itself to thwarting Japan’s Antarctic whaling fleet operations.

And Australia, one of Japan’s closest friends in Asia, demonstrated this month in the ICJ’s adversarial legal forum what everyone already knew. Japan’s scientific whaling program, which in nine years has produced thousands of tons of warehoused, frozen whale meat and two refereed papers, is not especially scientific.

While the Japanese government’s response to the ICJ ruling was restrained, the mass media largely toed the party line. “Japan’s culinary culture in crisis” cried one Fuji television news caption.

Newspapers interviewed whale restaurant owners and whaling industry insiders, who vowed to protect Japan’s culinary culture and whale meat cuisine. A government-linked source told Sankei News that Sea Shepherd might be invigorated by the ICJ ruling to more actively continue its targeting of Japan’s coastal whaling and tuna fisheries.

The debate Greenpeace Japan hoped to initiate six years ago could have exposed to the Japanese public the weaknesses in the “cultural” and “scientific” arguments for Japan’s Antarctic whaling program, encouraged greater governmental accountability and fostered more informed reflection on sustainable fisheries and the future of whaling.

The Japanese government’s control-freak attitude to dissent saw off that possibility. So after the ICJ ruling, it’s come to this: a siege mentality, a heightened sense of cultural difference, a feeling that foreign governments and NGOs have imposed “their”values on “us”through gaiatsu (external pressure).

I think Junichi Sato should have the last word here. He told me this: “The ICJ ruling has become a wake-up call for the Japanese public on whaling in the Southern Oceans. Now we need to move beyond this debate as world oceans are in crisis. It’s high time for the Japanese public together with citizens all over the world to stand up to save the marine ecosystem.”

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University in Tokyo. He has published research on patriotic memory.

  • hudsonstewart

    Well said.

  • AnimuX

    Another laughable response from pro-whaling antagonists who continue to deny reality while arguing in favor of Japan’s whale poaching and demonizing protesters.

    Your first and second points are basically meaningless accusations that reflect a total lack of reading comprehension. The author not only considered the position of anti-whaling groups but wrote a critical evaluation of their efforts into the article. The author also made repeated reference to significant literature on the subject — particularly Jun Morikawa whose book, “Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics, and Diplomacy”, is an extensive evaluation of the government’s involvement in promoting the whaling industry. In other words, he’s done much more research than you.

    Your third statement is simply factually incorrect. While there are some Japanese people who participate in the whaling industry and therefore are opposed to ever stopping, time and time again it has been revealed that most people in Japan are simply uninterested. Though many are opposed to government spending on whaling according to what was reported widely when the government raised taxes for tsunami reconstruction and then redirected that money to unrelated projects including Antarctic whaling.

    Fourth, there is indeed a lack of discussion within Japanese media on this topic outside of nationalistic propaganda as the Greenpeace Japan example quite clearly showed. A scandal involving government officials using whale meat from the ‘research programs’ for private personal profit was uncovered and the whistleblowers were effectively demonized and silenced by the government.

    Furthermore, foreign opposition to whaling is a matter of a century of international discourse — with the original restrictions on whaling to prevent the extinction of the blue whale dating back to the 1920s — and not simply a modern populist movement in certain western nations. It is intellectually dishonest to suggest that after a century of commercial whaling nearly wiped out every large species of whale that Japan is now being treated unfairly following so many decades of continuous regulatory violations.

    Fifth, Japan’s whaling has nothing to do with tradition. At the start of the 20th century Japan’s whalers adopted Norwegian modern industrial methods (ie: not traditionally Japanese), technology, and even some actual Norwegians to crew the first of Japan’s modern whaling ships. This was all done for the purpose of mass producing whale oil for export to foreign countries — for profit. Morikawa explains that whale meat was only ‘nationally’ ever a substitute source of protein during WWII food shortages. Today, hardly anyone in Japan eats whale and if the government did not include it in compulsory school lunches then most Japanese children would never know the taste of it. So much for ‘tradition’…

    It’s quite pathetic when someone so clearly woefully uneducated on the history of modern whaling — and completely obsessed with slamming anyone who opposes whaling for any reason — particularly Sea Shepherd activists — will then attempt to claim a position of superior knowledge about this subject.

    • Amethyst

      Very well said AnimuX!!!

  • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

    Nothing but respect for those who place value on the lives and feelings of animals. Such thinking has a long established and venerable tradition, e.g., various Tao and Buddhist sects which are strictly vegetarian.
    However, trying to impose (a subset of those) vegetarian values on another using force and group on group shaming seems so obviously in conflict with the humanity of the core goal, not to mention certain to fail.
    It’s hard not to wince when Shaun asks others to show some humiliation and self-reflection, while unable to show sufficient himself.