Commentary / Japan

A rational conversation on whaling

Special To The Japan Times

The International Court of Justice’s March ruling against Japan’s scientific whaling program was not as decisive as whaling opponents had hoped. Scientific whaling is likely to continue in some form, alongside coastal whaling and small cetacean hunts.

The “Whale Wars” are, therefore, also likely to go on, pitting environmental and animal rights nongovernment organizations and anti-whaling governments against Japan’s whaling establishment.

We can expect little change in either side’s positions. There will be the usual arguments about culture, environmental values, science and morality; and while such arguments may rally home front support, they are ineffective at changing minds, let alone fostering mutual understanding.

A recent call by former Asahi Shimbun reporter Akira Ozeki for a more philosophical approach to the whaling debate should therefore be welcomed. On both sides, there is a need for housekeeping to tidy up the muddled common-sense beliefs framing their arguments. With better organized thoughts, all parties could, as Ozeki hopes, “fight each other with reason,” come to a compromise and make concessions — though at present his hopes do seem rather optimistic.

And as Ozeki rightly suggests, many Western, humanitarian opponents of whaling like myself do have to tidy up their thinking. Less reflective carnivores protesting the cruelty of whaling need to look more closely at factory farming methods that deliver cheap animal protein to their dinner plates, at often appalling costs to animal welfare.

Humanitarian opponents of whaling argue that cetaceans, like some primate species, have special cognitive and emotional capacities that justify respecting them as persons. It may or may not be valid to derive cetaceans’ moral personhood from evidence of such capacities, and differences in those capacities between different cetacean species also need to be addressed.

The question arises of how to accommodate growing evidence of cognitive and emotional capacities in other animals including livestock animals. If whaling critics are consistent in acknowledging this evidence, they must rethink their principles for humans’ duties to animals (and not just cetaceans) and adjust their dietary preferences and moral judgments accordingly.

How can they achieve this adjustment? That depends on how much they think different cetacean species and other animals eaten by humans meet the emotional and cognitive criteria that they associate with personhood, or with other morally significant categories like sentience. They could do as philosophers like Peter Singer recommend, become humanitarian vegetarians, and campaign against both livestock meat farming and whaling.

Or, like the philosopher Roger Scruton, critics could deny personhood to animals and maintain their humanitarian credentials as ethical meat eaters. Then they could oppose factory farming and inhumane slaughtering methods for both livestock and cetaceans.

Either way, they can dodge accusations of hypocrisy leveled at them by whaling advocates.

Environmental arguments against whaling need to be disentangled from humanitarian arguments, and measured against objective data on the populations of different cetacean species and the impacts of whaling on ecosystems. Assuming strong International Whaling Commission oversight, an environmentally sound commercial hunting of certain species could be envisaged. Yet, Japan’s whaling advocates also need to do some housekeeping, and it goes beyond Ozeki’s recommendation that they abandon the rhetoric of scientific rationality. There are issues with notions of a national “whaling culture” and “a Japanese culinary culture of eating whale” that advocates like Ozeki use rather uncritically.

The general problem, first faced by theorists of a national “Japanese culture” like Kunio Yanagita a century ago, is how convincingly to repackage local folk-cultures as parts of a national whole. In the present case, the problem is how to unify older, regional whaling traditions in some Japanese fishing towns with their hunting practices, cuisines, folklore and spiritual beliefs, together with modernized coastal and pelagic whaling such that we can conceptualize a distinctly Japanese national whaling culture and cuisine stretching back hundreds of years.

Yes, anthropologists have highlighted historical continuities and regional affinities suggestive of such a national culture. Early whaling technology was spread by mobile whaling teams from towns like Taiji to other parts of Japan. Folk-Shinto whale cults and Buddhist rites for appeasing whale spirits were practiced in whaling towns, and those same towns also provided crews for the 20th-century whaling industry.

However, there is little that is culturally distinct about Japan’s 20th-century coastal and pelagic whaling industries, when whaling became a national enterprise. Shinto and Buddhist rites for whales persisted, providing a spirituality missing in other whaling industries. But such practices provided no basis for any moral argument against environmentally unsustainable or inhumane whaling practices. For just like its Western and Soviet counterparts, Japan’s modern whaling industry hunted cetaceans with ruthless efficiency.

Up until the 1960s, overcapitalized whaling fleets from Japan and other nations competed in an orgy of destruction known as the “Whaling Olympics,” harvesting whale oil for domestic and export markets and driving some species to the brink of extinction.

The only difference is that Japan’s whaling industry also produced meat for human consumption. During this period, long-standing beliefs formed in the minds of fisheries bureaucrats about the importance of whaling for national food self-sufficiency.

Yet, whale meat has been a regional, minority cuisine for much of the history of Japanese whaling. It was only eaten on a national scale after World War II, and consumption declined steeply during the 1960s-’70s era of rapid economic growth, as consumer preferences shifted to more prestigious livestock meats.

There is no custom of nationwide participation in whale meat consumption as there is for seasonal foods like unagi (eel); and unlike sushi or sashimi, whale meat has little visibility as a “national” Japanese food, since few consume it regularly now.

Today there is little to justify regarding it as an important part of national cuisine, let alone as an important ingredient in Japan’s food security policies.

So for Western and domestic critics, the cultural justifications for whaling ring hollow, arguments for the importance of whaling in protecting Japan’s food self-sufficiency and “cultural cuisine” are muddled and anachronistic, and an air of defensive nationalism hangs over pro-whaling advocacy.

It strikes critics as incongruous when whaling advocates from the world’s third-largest economy complain of “cultural imperialism” from the “West.”

Even worse, those critics argue that both cultural and scientific justifications for whaling are just rhetorical cover for a sordid reality — the reality of Japan’s Fisheries Agency cynically using those justifications to maintain its influence and funding, and the reality of pork-barreling politicians dispensing subsidies to their whaling and fisheries constituencies.

It’s rather tragic that the same old obsessions with food self-sufficiency and culture also motivate subsidies to fisheries, for they are now behind Japan’s contribution to a globally disastrous “fishing Olympics.”

So whaling advocates should also rethink their beliefs. Perhaps it would be best for them to retreat from talk of a national whaling culture, question the domination of the whaling debate by JFA and nationalist agendas, and argue for sustainable commercial whaling and small cetacean hunting in whaling towns like Taiji and Ayukawa.

Still, given the gloomy economic and demographic prospects of those towns and low domestic demand for whale meat, Japanese whaling faces an uncertain future.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University.

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