Ghanaian philosopher Anthony Appiah once said something very interesting about how group cultural consciousness develops. It isn’t that cultural differences give rise to collective identities, he said. It’s the opposite; collective identities — and their anxieties — give rise to a sense of cultural difference.

So when a nation’s conservative politicians and intellectuals feel their national identity threatened by influxes of foreign ideas or by foreign criticism, they may search for, even create, cultural differences to reassert it.

The creation and stubborn defense of Japan’s “whaling tradition” against critics of Japan’s whaling industry is one example of this. In the wake of the ICJ’s ruling for Australia against Japan’s Antarctic scientific whaling program, some reflection on this tradition is in order.

The story of its creation has often been told by scholars like Jun Morikawa, and it isn’t unique. In other whaling countries like Iceland and Norway, whaling advocates have also rebranded their modern whaling industries as old national traditions, bound through “national memory” to the highly localized whaling practices of the past.

They and their Japanese counterparts also share a prickly national pride about whaling.

Fueling this reactive pride were shared experiences of frustration for these countries’ whaling lobbyists in the 1970s. Environmentalists were swinging world public opinion against the whaling industry, and they appeared to be hijacking the agenda of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

In Japan’s case, frustration turned to outrage when anti-whaling activists splashed red dye on Japanese IWC delegates in 1978, 1979 and 1981.

All parties to this whaling controversy understand that the controversy is connected to wider issues about global fisheries conservation.

Perhaps two things set Japan’s rearguard whaling policy apart: Japan’s whaling advocates can tap old and deep reserves of resentment against perceived Western contempt, and insensitive foreign activists have fed that resentment.

Japan Fisheries Agency bureaucrats, keen to maintain their funding and influence, have also been mobilizing a political consensus behind them to sustain deep sea whaling as “scientific whaling.”

So, in Japan, whaling policy and its cultural justifications are less challenged. Funds flow in to help the Japan Fisheries Agency prop up the whaling industry, and even more funds are pumped into Japan’s “whaling diplomacy” at the IWC.

It’s difficult for critics to point out that modern whaling has little to do with the old coastal whaling traditions of some Japanese fishing towns; that apart from a brief postwar consumption boom, whale meat occupies a tiny niche in Japanese cuisine; that cetaceans might be more self-aware than we had thought; and that the Japan Fisheries Agency is using “scientific whaling” as a cloak for corrupt rent-seeking.

It’s difficult for these critics because once whaling was framed as a long-held Japanese tradition, criticism and talk of “invented traditions” could be dismissed as cultural imperialism.

This rhetoric helped deflect foreign criticism. It also marginalized Japanese critics, who can find themselves labeled as “anti-Japanese.” Some, like Morikawa, had trouble finding Japanese publishers for their books. With Japanese critics sidelined, it is easier to sell the idea that anti-whaling criticism is something ill-informed foreigners do, from their different cultural perspective.

The public humiliation and prosecution of two Greenpeace Japan activists in 2008 went beyond such marginalization, however, to become an own goal for Japan’s whaling establishment.

In 2007 Greenpeace Japan had been contacted by a former employee of the scientific whaling program, who testified to widespread whale meat embezzlement, meat wastage and unscientific conduct. After further investigation by two Greenpeace activists, Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, Suzuki went to a shipping depot in Aomori and seized a package of whale meat illicitly sent by a whaling ship crew member. They notified police, then held a press conference in May 2008 to air their allegations of corruption and theft in the scientific whaling program, presenting the whale meat as evidence which they planned to hand over to the authorities.

Sato and Suzuki thought prosecutors would sympathize with their public interest motives and act on their allegations. They hoped to start a long conversation to shift public opinion, by focusing it on the criminality and waste of taxpayers’ money in the scientific whaling program.

Things didn’t turn out as they hoped. Japan’s government and bureaucracy, long set in their statist and paternalistic ways, have never been very tolerant of activist nongovernmental organizations. Worst of all are activist NGOs that pursue their social change agenda against government agencies. Greenpeace Japan was now in their crosshairs.

Prosecutors’ and media attention soon shifted to the activists’ “theft.” In June 2008 Sato and Suzuki were arrested in a blaze of publicity. They were then subjected to a lengthy detention and interrogation process that drew adverse international press coverage, and protests from Amnesty International.

In 2010 they were convicted with suspended sentences. In the meantime, they had been criminalized in the minds of much of the Japanese public.

Fisheries Agency officials took some reputational hits from Greenpeace’s allegations, so they must have been relieved to see it on the ropes. But they still had to reckon with Sea Shepherd and the Australian government.

Shifting from its more confrontational strategies of the past, Greenpeace hoped in 2008 to change people’s minds about whaling through public inquiry. Sea Shepherd’s strategies remained unchanged, and it zealously applied itself to thwarting Japan’s Antarctic whaling fleet operations.

And Australia, one of Japan’s closest friends in Asia, demonstrated this month in the ICJ’s adversarial legal forum what everyone already knew. Japan’s scientific whaling program, which in nine years has produced thousands of tons of warehoused, frozen whale meat and two refereed papers, is not especially scientific.

While the Japanese government’s response to the ICJ ruling was restrained, the mass media largely toed the party line. “Japan’s culinary culture in crisis” cried one Fuji television news caption.

Newspapers interviewed whale restaurant owners and whaling industry insiders, who vowed to protect Japan’s culinary culture and whale meat cuisine. A government-linked source told Sankei News that Sea Shepherd might be invigorated by the ICJ ruling to more actively continue its targeting of Japan’s coastal whaling and tuna fisheries.

The debate Greenpeace Japan hoped to initiate six years ago could have exposed to the Japanese public the weaknesses in the “cultural” and “scientific” arguments for Japan’s Antarctic whaling program, encouraged greater governmental accountability and fostered more informed reflection on sustainable fisheries and the future of whaling.

The Japanese government’s control-freak attitude to dissent saw off that possibility. So after the ICJ ruling, it’s come to this: a siege mentality, a heightened sense of cultural difference, a feeling that foreign governments and NGOs have imposed “their”values on “us”through gaiatsu (external pressure).

I think Junichi Sato should have the last word here. He told me this: “The ICJ ruling has become a wake-up call for the Japanese public on whaling in the Southern Oceans. Now we need to move beyond this debate as world oceans are in crisis. It’s high time for the Japanese public together with citizens all over the world to stand up to save the marine ecosystem.”

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University in Tokyo. He has published research on patriotic memory.

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