In the upcoming Australian general election, there is one issue that the major parties unanimously agree on: opposition to Japanese whaling. Voters are overwhelmingly antagonistic to whaling and Australian politicians have demonstrated an increasing willingness to listen to public opinion.

In May, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia was taking Japan to the International Court of Justice over Tokyo’s annual Antarctic whale kill. At the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Morocco the following month, Australia was at the forefront of those opposed to lifting the 25-year ban on commercial whaling.

In Japan too, tensions have risen. Last month, a court found activist Peter Bethune of antiwhaling group Sea Shepherd guilty of violent and obstructive behavior. Meanwhile, protests against the Oscar-winning U.S. film “The Cove” led to theaters in Tokyo and Osaka cancelling screenings. Last year, the Australian town of Broome, sister city of Taiji, where “The Cove” was filmed, suspended ties that went back to the early 1900s (relations were restored two months later).

In contrast to Australia, whaling policy is not a major issue for Japanese voters. A 2006 Greenpeace poll found that a surprising 39.2 percent of respondents had no view on whaling. However, the issue is of great interest to the political and administrative classes. According to Midori Kagawa-Fox, a whaling “iron triangle” of bureaucrats, politicians and big business is the driving force behind Japan’s whaling policy.

PR is crucial to maintaining such vested interests. The Institute of Cetacean Research, for example, spends far more on public relations than actual research. The tone of its campaigns tends to be overtly nationalistic, suggesting that eating whale meat is an issue of “culture” and “tradition.” A 2001 Cabinet Office survey asked respondents if they knew that Japan had been using products derived from whales since the Jomon Period — that is, since prehistoric times. Almost one in four Japanese said that they did.

Certainly, Japan, like many other countries, has a long history of whaling. The practice of whaling is mentioned in the Kojiki, an 8th-century collection of songs and poems detailing the mythical origins of Japan. Organized open-boat shore whaling began in the 1570s, and by the 17th century local whaling industries had begun to develop.

However, a national tradition of mass whaling only began after the Second World War, due to food shortages and encouraged by U.S. Occupation forces. By the mid-1960s whale meat had become more popular than any other kind of meat, though its popularity was to plummet thereafter.

There are a number of problems in arguing that catching and eating whales is Japanese tradition. Particularly problematic is the notion of “Japan” itself. Although the term Nihon has a long history, it held little meaning to most outside southwestern Honshu until the Meiji Restoration of 1868. That today the notion of “Japaneseness” seems natural and indispensable is a testament to the ideological success of a nationwide education system established during Japan’s rush to modernize.

The point that Japan, as a single unified entity, is a relatively modern concept is well illustrated by a scene in “The Last Samurai.” Taka (Koyuki) tells Algren (Tom Cruise), who helps her carry a heavy bundle inside, that Japanese men do not do that kind of thing. Algren replies that he is not a Japanese man.

When students are asked to spot the error in the scene, they are typically at a loss. In fact, even in the 1870s, “Japanese” would not have referred to themselves as ea collective, especially culturally.

Up until the postwar period, whaling was only a “tradition” in a handful of coastal communities such as Taiji. For example, Japan has repeatedly lobbied the IWC to give Japanese coastal communities that have traditionally depended on small-type coastal whaling special hunting quotas. However, the application specifies only four coastal communities, suggesting that this is a local rather than a national tradition.

Today, the argument that Japan has a distinct whale-eating culture is difficult to maintain. A 2006 survey by the Japan Research Center asking how often people eat whale found that only 4.7 percent of respondents ate it “sometimes.” Almost two-thirds answered that they had eaten it many years before — no surprise given that whale meat was common in school lunches in the postwar period. Young people, as a simple show of hands in any classroom illustrates, are even less likely to eat or have eaten whale. The key point here is that “culture” and “tradition” not only vary between different regions and classes but also change over time.

Historically, the culture and values of a small (but often powerful) class in a society has often been extended to the whole populace in the process of nation-building. For example, in Japan, one of the main processes through which modern Japanese identity came to be accepted as social reality was known as “samuraization.” Through this process, characteristics such as loyalty, perseverance and diligence said to be held by a small (but elite) segment of the population — the samurai — were gradually extended through propaganda, education and regulation to cover the whole of the population.

The iron triangle’s promotion of whaling as Japanese “tradition” or “culture” is trying to do a similar thing. Here, vested interests are striving to revive a (dying) regional custom by framing it in terms of national identity, pride and patriotism. Thus, proponents of whaling are attempting to extend the customs and values of a small segment of the population to the nation as a whole.

This building and maintenance of the “imagined community” is by no means limited to Japan. But, in Japan’s case, given the history of domination and control by the West, the (re)construction of national identity may be especially necessary. As The Independent’s Michael McCarthy has argued, given Japan’s subordination to the U.S. on almost all other matters, whaling provides a rare issue on which it can adopt an independent stance representing a uniquely “Japanese” interest.

For Australian voters, a limited lifting of the ban on commercial whaling in four Japanese coastal communities might not be entirely unpalatable. The problem for most Australians is undoubtedly whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. And here is the crunch: Whaling in the Antarctic only began in the 1930s, so any arguments for “tradition” are clearly invented.

Very similar arguments can be seen in the bluefin tuna debate. In March, Japan successfully lobbied against a ban on all commercial bluefin fishing, arguing that Japan’s “food culture” was under attack. However, bluefin, like whale, did not become a staple until the postwar period; until then Japanese sushi chefs had typically regarded bluefin as too smelly, dense and bloody. At a time when Japanese are eating less bluefin, Japan Times writer Philip Brasor (Media Mix, March 21) has suggested that the “culture” argument was being used to protect the interests of a small group of commercial enterprises, regardless of demand. Nevertheless, “tradition” remains a powerful argument, one that is difficult to challenge without appearing to disrespect a nation’s culture.

To sum up, there may be some truth to the perception in Japan that the country is being unfairly singled out, even discriminated against. In the media, the whaling controversy is almost always about Japan: Stories about “whale burgers” are invariably about Japan and not white European whaling countries such as Norway and Iceland. Nevertheless, Australian voters are understandably annoyed when Japanese ships come into their backyard — the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary — to kill whales, an act that was declared illegal by an Australian court in 2008. If Australia’s Torres Strait Islanders started hunting dugong around Okinawa in the name of “tradition,” the absurdity of cultural arguments supporting Japan’s whaling in the Southern Ocean would become quickly apparent.

Chris Burgess lectures in Japanese and Australian studies at Tsuda College. Midori Kagawa-Fox’s paper was published in Japanese Studies (2009, 9:3)

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