Rethinking Japan’s whaling

by Chikako Nakayama

“Man is what he eats.” It was written by a philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, in the middle of the 19th century. Originally in German, the verbs in his saying rhymed like a pun (Der Mensch ist was er isst).

Feuerbach investigated the relation between diet and people’s well-being and pointed out that human beings are “equal in their stomachs” in the sense that they are physiologically constructed by the nutrition they have taken in.

What he wrote carries social and political implications. Of course, people get different foods, depending on where and how they live. In this sense, his saying can also be interpreted as emphasizing the differences among regions, countries and social classes as reflected in the difference of diet.

Now, in our age of globalization, the increase in the range and volume of free trade worldwide has tremendously expanded the possibility of our daily meals and changed dietary cultures. This change itself is not a problem. It can imply a cosmopolitan ideal of stomachs. And unique traditions of food and dishes in different regions and countries have become more valuable as commodities for economic exchange.

The problem occurs when the recognition of some dietary cultures or traditions by the international community as special or valuable will impact them negatively, rather than positively, and leads to disturbing their preservation in their original forms.

In relation to Japanese dietary culture, we remember two pieces of recent news: The one is the UNESCO decision in December 2013 to register traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku) on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, and the other is the ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the end of March 2014 that Japan’s Antarctic whaling program is excessive and cannot be justified as scientific.

As to the former, the prestige deriving from the Intangible Cultural Heritage designation has ignited the “animal spirits” of the Japanese food industry and tourism to a welcoming mood related to the Tokyo Olympic Games of 2020 while the latter is causing several exaggerated reactions corresponding to the schematic conflict of “globalization versus nationalism.”

Certainly whale had traditionally been one of the ingredients of nutrition in several dietary cultures including some areas of Japan. But since the 1980s, the danger of extinction of some groups of whales became recognized as a serious problem and the international community decided to allow only whaling of a limited scale that serves as scientific research. Australia, having officially ceased commercial whaling in 1979 and opposing all commercial whaling, claimed in 2010, with the backing of New Zealand, that Japan’s whale hunts were commercial in nature. The ICJ ruling in March affirmed Australia’s claim.

For those who claim that whale has been an indispensable element of traditional Japanese cuisine, the ruling was a pity and disappointing. “Patriotic” people who take it as an invasion of national sovereignty dare to host an all whale-meat party as a demonstration. Mildly conservative people insist on the plurality and diversity of food cultures, which include eating kangaroos, dogs, rabbits and hares, boars, etc., and pose an innocent question of why whale eaters are the only target of harsh criticism.

In contrast, Rakuten, which manages one of the biggest online shopping websites in Japan, decided to stop all sales of whale meat by the end of April in accordance with the ICJ ruling. But the result was that demand for whale meat on their website became much larger and consumers of whale meat started leaving comments on the website such as “My grandmother was happy to eat whale after a long time”… “This is the first time for me to eat it. Tasty!”

Those exaggerated reactions are either politically or commercially motivated and have little to do with the intangible cultural heritage.

Apart from such motives, many Japanese seem to be originally indifferent to the question of whether they can get whale meat or not. But it must be kept in mind that such reactions could affect the lives of those who still live by whale hunting on a local and small scale — in Miyagi, Chiba or Wakayama, for example — being carried out under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

They would suffer a lot if their many business partners decided to stop all the sale of whale meat like Rakuten did. The livelihood of these people is not directly related to the Antarctic whale hunting but nevertheless cannot be free from the influences from international issues such as Japan’s scientific whaling in the Antarctic Ocean and the ICJ’s ruling.

In this sense, it is not diplomatically advisable just to repeat the official line about Japan’s whaling as was done in the past. The international community will take it as political expedience and stubbornness, which would cause deeper antipathy toward Japan.

The more resolutely our government behaves over the whaling issue, the more severe the lives of those who rely on small-scale coastal whaling will become in the end.

Having been encouraged by the decision of UNESCO to put washoku on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, the government and others concerned may try to promote particular dietary cultures of Japan internationally only for the purpose of economic gain. But we must be careful that such interventions do not lead to the deformation of such dietary cultures and the deterioration of the lives of people who are earning a living in and preserving such cultures.

Chikako Nakayama is professor of economic thought at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.