Ever wonder why landlocked nations such as Mali, Mongolia and Laos with no tradition of whaling are members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC)? According to Jun Morikawa, the Japanese government sponsors the membership of third-world countries in the IWC to boost support for Japan’s pro-whaling initiatives. This vote-buying, however, has done little for Japan’s image.

WHALING IN JAPAN: Power, Politics and Diplomacy, by Jun Morikawa. Hurst and Company, 2009, 169 pp., £15.99 (paper)

Whaling has become Japan’s diplomatic scarlet letter, doing significant damage to the nation’s international standing while alienating some of its closest allies. No other single government policy provokes such international opprobrium, and it is puzzling why the government harpoons its own green credentials and undermines national interests over such a marginal issue, one that most Japanese have long stopped caring about. Since 1986, Japan has killed more than 12,000 whales in the name of its research-whaling program.

Morikawa explains the politics of whaling and how elite bureaucrats sustain an industry that is out of touch with global environmental concerns and what he calls Japan’s “silent majority.” Whaling, he argues, is partly about budgets and discretionary authority, but even more so about the creation of amakudari (sinecures for retired bureaucrats). The Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries (MAFF) actively cultivates a whaling lobby in the Diet to ensure continued appropriations. Since even before the moratorium on whaling in 1986, the industry has depended on government subsidies. So too does the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), the organization responsible for conducting scientific research through whaling, which also engages in marketing and public relations and establishes international pro-whaling networks.

The author believes that the battle over whaling has grown more acrimonious principally because Japan has become a more belligerent advocate for the resumption of commercial whaling. Tensions have also mounted over the harassment of the Japanese whaling fleet by eco-activists determined to disrupt the annual hunt. Ironically, Morikawa argues, the Sea Shepherd’s confrontational tactics have enabled the Japanese government to rally domestic support for a program that has otherwise aroused little enthusiasm among Japanese.

While there is talk of a compromise that would involve Japan concentrating on coastal whaling, there is concern on the Japanese side that making concessions on whaling in distant waters might be a first step toward restrictions on its far more important global fisheries industry. Recent efforts to limit the catch of endangered Atlantic blue-fin tuna have set off alarm bells in Japan, which does not bode well for a deal on whaling.

How has whaling come to be used as a talismanic symbol of Japanese identity and a touchstone of nationalism? Morikawa excels in debunking some of the myths frequently served up to justify the industry. Whaling advocates claim that the practice itself and consumption of whale meat are deeply embedded traditions in Japan, and assert that anti-whaling activists are guilty of cultural imperialism. Morikawa counters that modern commercial whaling bears little resemblance to the small-scale subsistence whaling that, until the dawn of the 20th century, was limited to certain coastal regions.

Japan’s whale-eating culture was also very limited in scope and, according to Morikawa, is “an invented tradition, only lasting 20 years from the end of WWII to the early 1960s.” During the U.S. occupation, whale meat became part of the national school lunch program, explaining why Japan’s aging baby boomers evince a nostalgic nationalism over the issue.

The author draws our attention to the ICR-orchestrated media campaign aimed at convincing Japanese that whaling is part of their national identity. The ICR also tries to spur whale consumption, but to little avail. A major problem for whaling advocates is that Japanese consumers are not buying even heavily subsidized whale meat; one third of the meat harvested through “scientific research” remains unsold. This means that the proceeds from selling the meat do not cover the costs of conducting the whaling.

It is costly, both financially and in terms of public relations, to maintain growing stockpiles of whale meat that nobody wants to eat. Desperate to increase consumption, the ICR and MAFF are behind efforts to reintroduce whale meat to school lunch menus around the nation, putting school children at risk by serving them food laced with harmful toxins. In Morikawa’s view, the media in Japan — with the sole exception of the Japan Times — has done little to educate the public about the problems of whaling and dangers of whale consumption, essentially toeing the ICR line. One can only hope that this is not another Minamata in the making.

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