It was hardly the result the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) hoped for, or expected.
In a survey of 1,200 Japanese people across the country, conducted in October 2012 by the Nippon Research Center, more people supported the hunting of whales than opposed it. Of those aged between 15 and 79, 26.8 percent said Japan should continue hunting whales; while 18.5 percent said it should stop. It seems the government, which has said it expects to go ahead with this year’s Southern Ocean whale hunt, has a mandate for its actions.
Beluga whales — which earlier this year were reportedly found to have learned to imitate human speech — might cry out in protest at the plight of their Antarctic cousins.
But hang on: What about the 54.7 percent of respondents to the survey who said they had “no opinion” on the matter?
I don’t want to reinforce a national stereotype, but could it be that the people who said they had no opinion were merely refraining from being the nails that stick out?
IFAW put the best spin they could on the findings, emphasizing that 88.8 percent of people surveyed had not bought any whale meat in the last 12 months, and that only 11 percent of those who support whaling said they offered “strong” support. Pretty apathetic support, then.
And if the appetite for whaling is weak, the appetite for whale meat is weaker still. The Mainichi Shimbun daily newspaper reported that the Fisheries Agency (which comes under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) will next year sell whale meat directly to restaurants and individuals, in what appears to be a desperate attempt to get rid of its huge and expensively stored stockpile and raise badly needed funds to cover the losses made by the whaling project.
It will also increase the amount of whale meat it distributes to schools. Perhaps children — who generally still do what they’re told and eat what they’re given — are the government’s only real hope. Japan’s “research whaling” project, whereby the Fisheries Agency, which exploits a loophole in the global moratorium on commercial whaling, costs the government ¥4.5 billion to ¥5 billion per year.
According the IFAW figures, eco-friendly whale watching generates $2.1 billion (¥173 billion) for Japan’s coastal communities. Everyone knows that no useful scientific data is gathered in the whale hunt. Even in cold economic terms, it seems more profitable to watch cetaceans than to kill them.
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for this newspaper about Japan and attitudes toward whaling. After reviewing the evidence that the public perception of cetaceans has changed over the last few decades, and acknowledging that it’s understandable that Japanese people would be annoyed by foreigners complaining about what they do, I ended by hoping that Japanese people would themselves tell their government that whaling and dolphin-drive fisheries such as the ongoing one in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, infamously featured in the Oscar-winning 2010 documentary, “The Cove” — are morally wrong and should be stopped.
Japan’s neighbors seem to agree. In South Korea, a proposed plan to conduct “scientific whaling” has been canceled. South Korea announced at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Panama in July that they wanted to press ahead with a whaling program, but afterward sustained international pressure, Seoul has apparently backed down.
Perhaps change in Japan is slowly happening, and perhaps it will be driven as much by economic factors as a change in public feeling.
Then there are other economic and political factors to consider. Japan is engaged in a dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands, and Japan is learning to cope with having lost its status as the world’s No. 2 economy to China. Factors like this bring out people’s nationalist feelings.
Fisheries Agency officials and advocates of Japan’s right to hunt whales always point to Japan’s “tradition” of whaling, as if that validates it. Modern whaling only started in Japan about 100 years ago, when Juro Oka founded Nihon Enyo Gyogyo K.K. (eventually renamed Hogei K.K).
Oka, the father of modern Japanese whaling, said in 1910: “I am firmly convinced that we shall become one of the greatest whaling nations in the world. The whaling grounds round Korea and Japan offer unlimited possibilities. … The day will come when we shall hear one morning that whales have been caught in the Arctic and in the evening that whales are being hunted in the Antarctic.”
How times have changed. It’s unimaginable nowadays that someone would boast of plans to catch huge, magnificent animals from the last natural wildernesses on Earth. Yet Oka’s prophecy has come true — the Antarctic is where Japan conducts its whale hunt.
Given that beluga are unlikely to actually learn to speak up on behalf of all whales (you can read about Noc, the beluga who can imitate human speech, in the journal Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.044) it’s left to others. The militant conservationist group Sea Shepherd will again harass the Japanese fleet. Sea Shepherd have mustered support from, of all people, members of the band Aerosmith.
And Japan is facing a legal challenge from Australia, which brought a lawsuit two years ago to stop Japan whaling in the Southern Ocean. Now New Zealand has joined them. In November, New Zealand said it wants to have its views in the whaling case heard as an interested third party. The Minister of Foreign Affairs said that the government will use all avenues possible to try and stop Japan from whaling.
Last year, harassment from Sea Shepherd was cited as the reason Japan ended the whaling season early. But a year ago the government said that ¥2.28 billion ($29 million) of the emergency funds made available following the Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami it triggered on March 11, 2011, would be used to maintain the whaling fleet.
This supposedly humanitarian fund may be being bled to redden waters in the Southern Ocean, but it seems that however cold tsunami survivors in Tohoku may be huddled in their temporary quarters, Japan’s intrepid hunters will be catching whales for some time to come.
Rowan Hooper (@rowhoop on Twitter) is the News Editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human).”