Racist undercurrents taint whaling rhetoric

Seeing uncomfortable parallels with past anti-Asian campaigns in Australasia debate


Sea Shepherd’s Web site describes him as “the first New Zealander to be taken as a prisoner of war from the Southern Ocean to Japan,” and there is no doubting Peter Bethune’s popularity in this country. His trial in Tokyo earlier this year for interfering with Japan’s annual whale hunt dominated New Zealand media, and direct action at sea connects with long-standing cultural currents to do with whales and whaling.

Last month Wellington was covered in posters advertising a benefit gig for Sea Shepherd, headlined by prominent bands. The tiny grouping of nationalist demonstrators who turned out to protest Bethune in Tokyo were a major news item in New Zealand; the campaigns in the Antarctic each whaling season are given daily coverage and commentary. Whaling is a big deal, and an emotionally and culturally central issue.

And yet, for all the intensity and depth of that support, the debate around whaling exists in a strangely ahistorical and decontextualized space, a self-righteousness sealing itself off from examination or self-reflection. The whales in question are often referred to here as “our whales,” suggesting a debate as much about ownership and dominion of the seas as any narrower environmental concern. And, for all that these associations may be unwelcome, they point to unsettling traditions in the history of Japanese-Australasian relations.

There is a worrying undercurrent of anti-Asian racism that permeates Sea Shepherd’s publicity and arguments. Most people, rightly, oppose whaling. The Sea Shepherd campaign connects this genuine environmental concern to much older, and dangerous, currents of thought in Australian and New Zealand politics: nationalism, especially “left” nationalism, and the racism that accompanies it.

Facing an environmental challenge like the slaughter of endangered whales, we start to see a choice between an internationalist approach, stressing the potential for a politics that can unite, and a nationalism that turns genuine concerns into props for reactionary and toxic ideas. Australian Green Sen. Bob Brown — with his talk of “our” whales, as if New Zealand and Australia owned these creatures, and his anti-immigrant comments — re-enforces a long tradition of anti-Asian racism in this part of the world.

The directions that kind of nationalism can travel are made clear, if unintentionally, in Sea Shepherd’s self-presentation. At a rally held on Parliament grounds in March I heard Paul Watson bark out to the crowd that “a government which can’t defend its flag at sea has lost its sovereignty!” Dressed all in black and flanked by two imposingly large New Zealand flags, the imagery and rhetoric would have fitted just as easily into a rally of the far right as at a gathering of environmentalists. These nationalist parallels are a common, and insistent, theme in all the material produced around whaling, and yet, amid a local media commentary set on permanent outrage against Japanese ignorance and immorality, its connotations go undiscussed.

My point here is not to do with the arguments around whaling itself but, rather, to do with the context in which those arguments are made, and the historical memories upon which they draw. This aspect of the debate — the way it fits into where it happens, how it both draws on and in turn shapes and continues local discourses on race, on racism, and on local anti-Asian sentiment — is almost wholly lacking from even considered commentary.

Opposition to whaling is universal across the political spectrum in Australasia, and what political capital there is to be made from the issue comes by way of competing bouts questioning the vociferousness or vigor of other parties. That all of this happens, and that it draws on this history, goes by unremarked. But that context is instructive.

Sea Shepherd has chosen to draw on imagery from the Pacific War, modeling its campaign logo on “the legendary Flying Tigers who fought the Japanese Imperial Forces in China” and taking their name — Operation Waltzing Matilda — from “the unofficial national anthem of Australia.”

If this media campaign is merely opportunistic and naive then it is, at best, dangerous and regrettable. If, however, it is conscious evocation, then Sea Shepherd’s rhetoric is far more sinister. Nationalist mythology to the contrary, the Pacific War, in the words of historian Tom O’Lincoln’s forthcoming study of the war, “was a ruthless power struggle between rival empires.” The death and suffering Australia and New Zealand helped bring to the Asian world — culminating, of course, in horrific and criminal atrocities in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki — are a warning to ordinary people the world over, and surely, most of all for a putatively progressive organization, not part of a tradition to be embraced.

Since the Pacific War anti-Asian racism has appeared time and again in Australian and New Zealand life — from the White Australia policy in the last century to populist anti-immigrant political campaigns in both countries during the 1990s — and with violent and dangerous consequences. In toying with this rhetoric Sea Shepherd takes up a dishonorable heritage.

Striking, too, is how blatantly these associations are made when considered against how little they are discussed or considered. Compare these quotes:

• “We in Australia confidently approach our task. We stand ready, with freedom in our hearts . . . we shall throw the Japanese back where they belong.”

• “Throw the Jap back where he belongs”

• “There is only victory or defeat for the whales, and we do not intend to see the whales defeated, nor do we intend to let the murdering barbarian butchers win.”

The first quotes are from Australian government posters produced during World War Two; the third is from a Sea Shepherd leaflet distributed in March. From war movies and comics to the populists’ campaigns of recent times, there is plenty of material and cultural memories out there for talk of “barbarian butchers” to make heavy allusive work.

The echoes are so obvious, the dehumanizing provocation so blatant. The “murdering barbarian butchers” of today are the “Japs” of 60 years ago, the “Nips” of racist attacks and outrages of the recent past, the “foreigners” hated by racists in settler colonies founded on dispossession and dislocation and determined to forget their own foreignness.

“Japan” and “Japanese” appear at least 20 times in Sea Shepherd’s Antarctic Campaign Report, an anxiously insistent racializing of a campaign that, officially at least, presents itself as being about environmental issues only. This, surely, is the language of racism, of poisonous nationalism and, if it came from a neo-Nazi grouping, it would be denounced as such.

And yet, one lunchtime this March, a crowd of good-natured environmentalists, respectable figures — including Green MPs — and campaigners heard it all without so much as a murmur. Prominent actors and musicians raise funds and lend their names to aid the organization.

It’s not only in the ocean that Sea Shepherd are playing a dangerous game.

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