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A rational conversation on whaling

Special To The Japan Times

The International Court of Justice’s March ruling against Japan’s scientific whaling program was not as decisive as whaling opponents had hoped. Scientific whaling is likely to continue in some form, alongside coastal whaling and small cetacean hunts.

The “Whale Wars” are, therefore, also likely to go on, pitting environmental and animal rights nongovernment organizations and anti-whaling governments against Japan’s whaling establishment.

We can expect little change in either side’s positions. There will be the usual arguments about culture, environmental values, science and morality; and while such arguments may rally home front support, they are ineffective at changing minds, let alone fostering mutual understanding.

A recent call by former Asahi Shimbun reporter Akira Ozeki for a more philosophical approach to the whaling debate should therefore be welcomed. On both sides, there is a need for housekeeping to tidy up the muddled common-sense beliefs framing their arguments. With better organized thoughts, all parties could, as Ozeki hopes, “fight each other with reason,” come to a compromise and make concessions — though at present his hopes do seem rather optimistic.

And as Ozeki rightly suggests, many Western, humanitarian opponents of whaling like myself do have to tidy up their thinking. Less reflective carnivores protesting the cruelty of whaling need to look more closely at factory farming methods that deliver cheap animal protein to their dinner plates, at often appalling costs to animal welfare.

Humanitarian opponents of whaling argue that cetaceans, like some primate species, have special cognitive and emotional capacities that justify respecting them as persons. It may or may not be valid to derive cetaceans’ moral personhood from evidence of such capacities, and differences in those capacities between different cetacean species also need to be addressed.

The question arises of how to accommodate growing evidence of cognitive and emotional capacities in other animals including livestock animals. If whaling critics are consistent in acknowledging this evidence, they must rethink their principles for humans’ duties to animals (and not just cetaceans) and adjust their dietary preferences and moral judgments accordingly.

How can they achieve this adjustment? That depends on how much they think different cetacean species and other animals eaten by humans meet the emotional and cognitive criteria that they associate with personhood, or with other morally significant categories like sentience. They could do as philosophers like Peter Singer recommend, become humanitarian vegetarians, and campaign against both livestock meat farming and whaling.

Or, like the philosopher Roger Scruton, critics could deny personhood to animals and maintain their humanitarian credentials as ethical meat eaters. Then they could oppose factory farming and inhumane slaughtering methods for both livestock and cetaceans.

Either way, they can dodge accusations of hypocrisy leveled at them by whaling advocates.

Environmental arguments against whaling need to be disentangled from humanitarian arguments, and measured against objective data on the populations of different cetacean species and the impacts of whaling on ecosystems. Assuming strong International Whaling Commission oversight, an environmentally sound commercial hunting of certain species could be envisaged. Yet, Japan’s whaling advocates also need to do some housekeeping, and it goes beyond Ozeki’s recommendation that they abandon the rhetoric of scientific rationality. There are issues with notions of a national “whaling culture” and “a Japanese culinary culture of eating whale” that advocates like Ozeki use rather uncritically.

The general problem, first faced by theorists of a national “Japanese culture” like Kunio Yanagita a century ago, is how convincingly to repackage local folk-cultures as parts of a national whole. In the present case, the problem is how to unify older, regional whaling traditions in some Japanese fishing towns with their hunting practices, cuisines, folklore and spiritual beliefs, together with modernized coastal and pelagic whaling such that we can conceptualize a distinctly Japanese national whaling culture and cuisine stretching back hundreds of years.

Yes, anthropologists have highlighted historical continuities and regional affinities suggestive of such a national culture. Early whaling technology was spread by mobile whaling teams from towns like Taiji to other parts of Japan. Folk-Shinto whale cults and Buddhist rites for appeasing whale spirits were practiced in whaling towns, and those same towns also provided crews for the 20th-century whaling industry.

However, there is little that is culturally distinct about Japan’s 20th-century coastal and pelagic whaling industries, when whaling became a national enterprise. Shinto and Buddhist rites for whales persisted, providing a spirituality missing in other whaling industries. But such practices provided no basis for any moral argument against environmentally unsustainable or inhumane whaling practices. For just like its Western and Soviet counterparts, Japan’s modern whaling industry hunted cetaceans with ruthless efficiency.

Up until the 1960s, overcapitalized whaling fleets from Japan and other nations competed in an orgy of destruction known as the “Whaling Olympics,” harvesting whale oil for domestic and export markets and driving some species to the brink of extinction.

The only difference is that Japan’s whaling industry also produced meat for human consumption. During this period, long-standing beliefs formed in the minds of fisheries bureaucrats about the importance of whaling for national food self-sufficiency.

Yet, whale meat has been a regional, minority cuisine for much of the history of Japanese whaling. It was only eaten on a national scale after World War II, and consumption declined steeply during the 1960s-’70s era of rapid economic growth, as consumer preferences shifted to more prestigious livestock meats.

There is no custom of nationwide participation in whale meat consumption as there is for seasonal foods like unagi (eel); and unlike sushi or sashimi, whale meat has little visibility as a “national” Japanese food, since few consume it regularly now.

Today there is little to justify regarding it as an important part of national cuisine, let alone as an important ingredient in Japan’s food security policies.

So for Western and domestic critics, the cultural justifications for whaling ring hollow, arguments for the importance of whaling in protecting Japan’s food self-sufficiency and “cultural cuisine” are muddled and anachronistic, and an air of defensive nationalism hangs over pro-whaling advocacy.

It strikes critics as incongruous when whaling advocates from the world’s third-largest economy complain of “cultural imperialism” from the “West.”

Even worse, those critics argue that both cultural and scientific justifications for whaling are just rhetorical cover for a sordid reality — the reality of Japan’s Fisheries Agency cynically using those justifications to maintain its influence and funding, and the reality of pork-barreling politicians dispensing subsidies to their whaling and fisheries constituencies.

It’s rather tragic that the same old obsessions with food self-sufficiency and culture also motivate subsidies to fisheries, for they are now behind Japan’s contribution to a globally disastrous “fishing Olympics.”

So whaling advocates should also rethink their beliefs. Perhaps it would be best for them to retreat from talk of a national whaling culture, question the domination of the whaling debate by JFA and nationalist agendas, and argue for sustainable commercial whaling and small cetacean hunting in whaling towns like Taiji and Ayukawa.

Still, given the gloomy economic and demographic prospects of those towns and low domestic demand for whale meat, Japanese whaling faces an uncertain future.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University.

  • phu

    This got off to a shaky start (it seems to assume that all whaling detractors lean at least partially on the “personhood” defense, which is not true), but improves steadily from there.

    “Perhaps it would be best for them to retreat from talk of a national whaling culture, question the domination of the whaling debate by JFA and nationalist agendas, and argue for sustainable commercial whaling and small cetacean hunting in whaling towns like Taiji and Ayukawa.”

    Absolutely spot on, in my opinion. Japan’s difficulty with eel conservation is much more understandable, but still needs to be addressed; whaling just doesn’t actually matter that much, as pointed out here in several logical ways.

    If Japan is going to ignore the IWC’s moratorium, which seems likely to continue, perhaps Japanese politicians should consider repurposing their subsidies for the “Institute of Cetacean Research” to actually research whale populations humanely (like the rest of the world) and use its results to inform careful quotas for sustainable fishing rather than simply lying enough to provide cover for whatever Japan feels like doing.

    Of course, considering the fundamental lack of interest in whale meat in Japan, it’s hard to call even this worthwhile. Given the Japanese government’s impending budget shortfall (which has necessitated steps like the ever-unpopular sales tax hike[s]), it hardly makes sense to continue providing government funding for something that provides no gain people actually use — and, in fact, continuously creates further budget drain thanks to the necessity of storing all that unwanted whale meat.

  • KenjiAd

    Because the anti-whaling people do things that make TV news, they are
    inadvertently helping the Japanese whaling industry to rally people against what
    could be perceived as interference by Imperialistic westerners.

    If all the anti-whaling people just sit and do nothing, the Japanese whaling industry will shrink and die quickly, because frankly, no one in Japan cares about it otherwise.

    I disagree that “rational” debate is called for or possible, in that this whaling debate is fundamentally emotional and thus irrational.

    How smart a whale is, isn’t a concern at all to people who considers whales basically as big “fishes” (I know whales are mammals, thus the double quotes). In fact, such argument does come across, and probably is, hypocritical, especially coming from someone eating sirloin steak with blood streaming out of it.

    As you pointed out correctly, the Japanese argument of whaling being their culture would sound as rational to anti-whaling people as the Creationism would to biologists. Neither the whaling=culture theory nor the Creationism is based on evidences. But wait a minute, how can the biologists logically persuade the Creationists that they are “wrong”? We are talking about different beliefs here.

    The only common ground that the Japanese whaling industry and anti-whaling people may be able to agree on, is the level of sustainable hunting. Even the whaling industry would hopefully understand that it’s not nice to go to a park and start butchering cute ducks people are watching.

    • Shaun O’Dwyer

      That’s pretty much what I was concluding, Kenji. But with declining domestic demand for cetacean meat, and a souring of international sentiment against the captive dolphin trade, it’s hard to see why whaling or dolphin drive fisheries will be worth it anymore for towns like Taiji or Ayukawa in the future. And that’s without mentioning their aging, shrinking fisheries workforce.

  • highpriestess

    the pacific ocean is dying, Fukishima has completely decimated the sea life, people should not be eating anything coming from Japan or the Pacific ocean which is filled with cesium, and strontium and radiation

    • phu

      Hahaha, wow, a truly Shock and Awe campaign of internet stupidity. We’ve been killing the Pacific with pollution, overfishing, and abuse of all sorts for a long time, but only now that there’s radiation involved do people like you come out of the woodwork.

      Yes, it’s positively FILLED with cesium! There’s no water left! All of the fish are dangerously irradiated! Everything edible in Japan is contaminated! And it’s all the fault of nuclear power!

      Please, grow up. You’re not helping anyone, and your ignorance might be contagious in addition to being palpable.

      • highpriestess

        You can eat all you want!! go ahead, China has already stopped getting any fish from Japan and the pacific Northwest is a dead zone….Seals are hemmoraging and having seizures along the California Shoreline…so I say to Phu, Bon appetit…

  • José Truda Palazzo Jr.

    Your call for rationality would be welcome if it weren´t late and naive at this point. Japan has been called to the table for a rational discussion on whaling many times, and each and every time it refused even to loistem properly to reasonable proposals to settle the issue. It insists on ravaging whale populations far, far away from its own waters and infringing upon other nations´ rights to manage and USE whales non-lethally – an issue that your article entirely ignores. The whaling issue is less about perceived cultural values and more about a hyper-developed nation insisting on pillaging marine resources halfway around the world, using blatant bribery and corruption of poor nations to support it as the main tool. Let´s stop being so naive and calling Japan by its true name, a terrorist State which leaves no stone unturned to rape our shared global ocean resources. Time to stop it once and for all.

    • Terry Towling

      Do you, by any chance, have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about?