Blood & Guts

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

“Blood & Guts” by Australian journalist Sam Vincent is a behind-the-scenes investigation into whaling and a tale of two countries. Australia is on one side, united in its love of whales and its condemnation of Japan, which has refused to stop killing whales in the Antarctic despite (or perhaps in spite of) global and legal condemnation. Add in the “divine actions” of animal rights activists and it makes for a great story. If only the story were that straightforward.

Blood & Guts, by Sam Vincent.
Black Inc, Nonfiction.

Vincent admits as much in the prologue. Once back on dry land after returning from 3½ months at sea with Sea Shepherd — whose mission is to prevent Japanese boats from killing whales — Vincent struggled to explain the essence of the conflict to his editor. “What this conflict is about is much harder to explain than what it’s not about, because it sure as hell is not about whales,” writes Vincent.

Instead, it is about — among other things — nationalism, symbolism, modernity, racism, hypocrisy, tradition, face saving, history, reality TV, politicking, conservation, vote-getting, cronyism, chauvinism, the cult of personality and the cult of whales. And money. Oh, and it’s also about killing whales for scientific purposes.

The genesis of Vincent’s book grew out of travel writing assignments in Greenland and Iceland. The latter, incidentally, kills more fin whales than Japan does. Norway kills even more, but both nations do so in their own waters, thus avoiding the direct action of activist groups such as Sea Shepherd, and the wrath of Australia through the international courts.

Vincent’s own heritage was also a reason to re-examine whaling.

“I had grown up taking it for granted that whaling was this horrible thing, that it was a black-and-white issue and that all whales were on the verge of extinction,” he says in an interview with The Japan Times. “Perhaps it was more complicated than I had been led to believe.”

What really set the book in motion was a visit to Ayukawa, a port town in Miyagi Prefecture, in 2012. It was one year after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which had — in a matter of hours — managed to do what the environmental movement had failed to do in more than a quarter of a century: nearly kill the town’s whaling industry. “I went there without really knowing what I was doing,” Vincent says. “I envisaged writing a piece for an Australian newspaper and asking locals what they thought about rebuilding the whaling industry after the tsunami, but I found it quite hard to glean much from the locals as an Australian. That made me think there is a book in this, that Australians perhaps underestimate the fact that we are the most vocal critics of whaling.”

Access is what every journalist wants (and needs) and Vincent got it, not through locals in a Japanese fishing town but through Sea Shepherd, a slick media machine, capable of turning a bump with a Japanese whale-hunting trawler into an epic smashup. Access was also granted at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which ruled in March that Japan was contravening the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling through its scientific killing program.

In Japan, however, access proved difficult to attain. Vincent’s book features only one interview with a whaler, long since retired — but it wasn’t for want of trying. Vincent was mostly forthright and honest with his interview subjects, admitting to his time aboard Sea Shepherd, but doors stayed closed, lips locked. On one occasion in northern Tohoku, Vincent commits subterfuge, declaring himself Norwegian, in order to engage an employee from the Fisheries Agency.

Still, the lack of access doesn’t detract from the focus of the book: Why does Japan continue whaling and why does Australia care so much about ending the practice? “In Australia there is a lot of energy and interest spent trying to work out why Japan keeps doing this (whaling). What I find more interesting is why Australia cares so much?” Vincent says.

He believes Australians care more about it than Japanese people do — whales unite Australians. They help politicians win votes and referencing them can establish your green credentials. They’re also emblematic of Australia’s selective memory and are part of a wider civilizing narrative — whales used to be hunted but now they must be saved. “After the ICJ issued its ruling in March I was really fascinated by the kind of self-congratulation that ran through Australian society, about saving ‘our whales,'” he says.

And as for Japan, why does its government maintain a whaling fleet when public consumption is at record lows, when it’s clearly a diplomatic thorn in the government’s side, and when most of the world is either baffled or aghast by a loss making tax-funded circus thousands of kilometers from Japan? As more than one Japanese observer puts it to Vincent: Japan isn’t pro-whaling, it’s anti-anti-whaling. And Sea Shepherd has it pinned in.

Vincent is self-deprecating and it’s clear from his many references that this is a book aimed at Australians. However, in light of the dearth of Japanese publications about whaling — especially ones that include arguments from both sides — it would be welcome if a Japanese publisher had the spine to take “Blood & Guts” on board.