Hiroto Kawabata is one of the few people who bring a measure of equanimity to the whaling debate, where knee-jerk reactions are often the rule and reasoned debate the exception.
A former television reporter and now a writer, Kawabata spent nearly six months traveling to the Antarctic and back aboard a Japanese whaling vessel during the 1992-1993 research whaling season.
Kawabata has watched whales. And he has eaten them.
During the voyage to the Antarctic, he was impressed with the stories and the work of whalers, some of whose ancestors where whaling during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Likewise, Kawabata found watching whales breach an equally moving experience.
Ultimately, after much research and more thought, Kawabata concluded that, when viewed through the lens of each side’s unique perspective, those who fight to continue whaling and those who fight to end it are both right.
“Both positions make sense,” he said. “Neither is inherently contradictory.”
This clash of perspectives — wildlife preservation versus the use of marine resources — is the source of conflict, he said.
“The Japanese government wants to maintain a robust marine ecosystem while also taking whales,” he said. “That is what it says is its ultimate goal, but it is not trusted by the world.”
Meanwhile, Greenpeace and other antiwhaling groups focus on protecting ecosystems and the environment.
But despite their opposite premises, these two sides have something in common.
“Most people agree that we can’t let whales become extinct,” he said. “But there are those, like Japan, that believe whales should be used and those that think they should not, such as America.”
Kawabata believes, however, that the frigid relations between opposing sides in the whaling debate may be starting to thaw out.
A recent policy paper by World Wildlife Fund Japan acknowledged that it might accept commercial whaling if it is conducted under stringent safeguards. Kawabata also participated in a series of informal lectures sponsored by Greenpeace in the runup to the International Whaling Commission meeting under way in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
“I think there are people out there who want to compromise,” he said. “The new WWF policy would have been impossible 10 years ago . . . as would the Greenpeace seminars.”
According to Kawabata, most Japanese are indifferent to the whaling debate.
“There is really no interest in this issue, especially among people my age,” he said. “I am 37 years old and my generation basically thinks of whale as something that we were served in school as kids.”
Kawabata is also critical of the news media.
“In the 1980s, the Japanese media would write that Greenpeace was ludicrous,” he said. “It was only in the 1990s that it even addressed the position of not taking whales.”
Kawabata also believes the world tends to forget the significant historical facts behind Japan’s commercial whaling program.
“It was Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied powers in the wake of World War II, who overcame resistance from other countries and let Japan send out a whaling fleet to the Antarctic,” he said.
MacArthur’s move was intended to supply protein-rich food to the poverty-stricken populace.
“It is easy for countries that don’t whale to criticize Japan,” he said. “They don’t feel the pain.”
Campaigning against whaling is a comparatively easy way for nongovernmental organizations to solicit donations, he said, adding that they could instead be fighting against the over-consumption of beef and its attendant environmental problems.
Kawabata sees a double standard at work here and said he is puzzled over why the whaling issue has taken on such symbolic significance.
“Logically, I can see a future in which whaling occurs or it doesn’t and in neither case would it impact the overall happiness of the future of mankind,” he said.
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