I am a huge fan of Japan, and have travelled there many times. I eat sashimi, I watch sumo, and I’m regularly mocked by my friends for pronouncing “karaoke” correctly. But there is one element of Japanese culture that leaves a sour taste in my mouth, and that’s whaling. I have to admit, I’ve never tried whale meat – sorry, I mean, never conducted valuable primary whale research – so I don’t know what I’m missing. But then again, I’ve never eaten human either, for similar moral reasons.
And what’s more, the vast majority of Japanese people have never eaten whale either. According to an Asahi Shimbun survey from 2002, 96 per cent of Japanese have never eaten or rarely eat whale. And despite the protestations that it’s a vitally important part of their culture, the lack of consumption has resulted in a substantial stockpile. And as a result a lot of the whale meat has started to be used for dog food. The Japanese Government has launched a campaign to try and encourage people to eat it, with a pamphlet series amusingly entitled “Scrumptious Whale Meat!”, but it’s failing. And no surprise – why bother with boring old whale meat when you now have universal access to the Teriyaki McBurger?
Kazuo Shima, Japan’s former delegate to the International Whaling Commission was quoted in the SMH on Saturday as saying that the West had tried to turn the whale into the equivalent of a sacred cow. He’s spot on. We want whales to be inviolate because many species are endangered, and the harpooning process is inherently cruel, resulting in a painful death. And we shouldn’t apologise for that. There are times when it’s important to maintain cultural relativism, and respect different countries’ right to devise their own norms, but there are times when, frankly, one particular set of values is purely and simply better – in the case of the death penalty, for instance. Whaling, similarly, is one practice that simply shouldn’t be tolerated.
What’s more, the cultural argument seems fairly bogus. We aren’t talking about a flotilla of small, traditional fishing boats using centuries-old techniques, like the Inuit whalers do. It’s a modern, mechanised fleet, hunting thousands of kilometres from Japanese waters with a high-powered, high-tech explosive harpoon that kills more than 1000 whales. So really, the only bit of the cultural practice that is actually alive and well is the killing bit.
Shima accused the West of propagating WWII propaganda in portraying Japan as the villain. And while some uncomfortable memories remain around the region, the bottom line is that people do perceive Japan as the villain here, not because of the history, but because of its present actions. There’s no point in arguing really, the simple fact is that whaling tarnishes Japan’s reputation, much as nuclear testing tarnished France’s in this region, and the only way around that is simply to stop.
Whenever I see footage of the Japanese whaling ships, I’m always amused because, if we’re talking about propaganda, Japan’s is so transparent. The word “RESEARCH” is painted in massive letters on the side, as if that somehow would reverse our perception that there isn’t any scientific justification for slaughtering nearly a thousand minke whales. Honestly, what do you learn about the 935th dead whale that the first 934 didn’t tell you?
Besides, scientific advances must always be weighed against ethical considerations. It’s perverse to say that to properly research a species, you need to kill large quantities of them year after year. It’s not surprising that most people in the West think Japan’s whale research is primarily into how delicious they taste when lightly grilled in soy sauce.
Shima admitted that one of Japan’s primary motivations was pride. That seems more convincing than the spurious research argument. And that’s what needs to change. Of course Japan should be proud of its culture – most of it is wonderful. But Australia and other Western nations will never give ground on this, so it’s come to the point where one antiquated practice, which doesn’t even cater to modern Japanese culinary tastes, is doing Japan’s reputation tremendous damage.
This year’s whale hunt, with the now-annual pitched battles between the Japanese vessels and Sea Shepherd has descended into farce. Capturing protesters, the throwing of stink bombs, and the accusation of “terrorist attacks” from the Japanese – it’s a whole lot of hassle just for a bunch of whale meat. Which is a brilliant strategy by Sea Shepherd, aboard its amusingly but aptly named ship, the Steve Irwin, which also gets uncomfortably close to its quarry. Personally, I’m probably more comfortable with the less provocative Greenpeace approach, but you have to admire Sea Shepherd’s chutzpah. The Japanese have complained today that our Government has given the environmental groups “limousine service”. Long may it do so.
Whaling has become purely a matter of principle for Japan, an obsession apparently disproportionate to its importance that even determines Japanese foreign policy, with aid being parcelled out to smaller nations in return for support at the International Whaling Commission. This behaviour, which smacks of bribery, is beneath a nation which is widely respected for its modern-day pacifism in world affairs. What’s more, it must be costing Japan a fortune to keep producing this food that virtually no one wants to eat. Is it really worth infuriating the rest of the world and detracting from the reputation of an otherwise magnificent culture just so Japanese dogs can eat leftover whale?
Culture isn’t destiny. Just because your country has always done something doesn’t mean it needs to keep doing it. The area where I grew up in Sydney, around Neutral Bay, has a rich heritage as a whaling port – in fact, I grew up in Whaling Road. But guess what? We stopped doing it. It isn’t that hard. Just as Britain needed to give up its empire, and India needs to continue working towards giving up the caste system, Japan needs to admit it’s time it gave up whaling. That way, those like myself who have great affection for Japan need not have our affection so significantly blemished.