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Sunday, May 26, 2002


Pro-whalers living on a harpoon and a prayer

The increasing media flurry over the upcoming World Cup must be frustrating to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, which had been preparing for a year to make sure that this past week would be their moment in the spotlight. As the de facto hosts of the 54th annual plenary session of the International Whaling Commission that was held in Shimonoseki, the ministry and its adjunct, the Institute of Cetacean Research, were counting on the hearts and minds of the nation to be with them.

While the goal of the ministry was to persuade the IWC to lift at least part of the worldwide ban on commercial whaling, the main thrust of its activities was to persuade the Japanese people that what they are doing is in the nation's interest.

Of course, it's generally accepted, though rarely mentioned, that the only interests the ministry and the ICR are promoting are their own. As with most bureaucratic entities in Japan, the ICR is mainly concerned with justifying and maintaining its own existence. Without a whaling industry to regulate and research, the institute's officials would be counting anchovy populations.

The ICR's most powerful weapon going into the meeting was supposedly its research statistics, which anti-whaling forces waved aside as being essentially meaningless. These statistics were outlined in advertisements in all the daily newspapers last Monday (including The Japan Times), stating that there are plenty of whales and that, in fact, these creatures are now eating so many fish they're "causing problems for the world's fisheries." According to the ICR, whales have an unfair advantage over, say, commercial trawlers, because "whales are far better at catching fish than humans."

In addition to assigning insidious purposes to whales' dietary behavior, the advertisement further anthropomorphizes the mammals with cute illustrations of cartoon whales gobbling fish with a smile, beaming proudly (presumably because of their usefulness as "a food resource"), and even waving happily next to a Japanese flag, as if they were theme-park mascots.

Aside from the confusing mix of data contained therein (confusing because of poor copywriting rather than poor science), the ad probably will not persuade anyone already disposed against whaling to change his or her mind. In any case, it seems aimed at Japanese people, since Japan is the only country in the world where animals can be simultaneously adorable and edible. In other words, Willie is just as cute as Babe, and just as delicious.

Turned on its head, this aspect of "culinary culture" is central to the pro-whaling forces' complaint. Aside from questions of conservation, they say that the United States opposes the resumption of commercial whaling simply because they don't like to see whales killed, a position that, given America's huge livestock industry, the ministry says is hypocritical.

The media have generally been sympathetic to this aspect of the argument. TV Asahi's "News Station" aired a lengthy report on the first day of the meeting last Monday. Statements made by a British delegate that whaling is inherently cruel were contrasted with footage of kangaroos being culled. A reporter visited Alaskan Eskimos who called whaling "part of our identity." One Eskimo man even encouraged Japanese whalers to stand up for "their culture."

It requires a bit of anthropological abracadabra to make a viable connection between an indigenous localized people who kill whales for sustenance and economic communities who kill whales for a living, but the point being made in the "News Station" report wasn't an irresponsible one. There are only five remaining whaling ports in Japan. What harm could they do?

Probably none, but based on the dubious legality of the "research whaling" that Japan conducts, the IWC's position seems to be that once you give pro-whaling forces an inch, they'll take the whole harpoon. That's why it's important for the ministry and the ICR to convince the Japanese people that they are historically a whale-eating race and that their right to eat whatever they want has been compromised by the IWC (not to mention all those gluttonous whales). They need public sentiment on their side to make their claims meaningful.

According to ministry and media surveys, most Japanese say they "want to eat whale," which is probably the same as saying they want to eat doughnuts. The vast majority of Japanese aren't militant about their right to eat cetaceans. If it's there, great. If it's not, no big deal. Boomers tend to associate the "whaling industry" with the meat they were served in school lunches because it was a cheap source of protein at the time. Japan's pro-whaling factions are counting on this "nostalgia" factor to boost their cause, but not all middle-aged people have fond memories of the gristly whale meat and the malodorous "bacon" they were forced to eat.

To put the issue into gross perspective, consider the recent brouhaha in South Korea about restaurants that serve dog meat. When FIFA asked the South Korean government to somehow hide these establishments from the gaze of sensitive foreigners visiting for the World Cup tournament, the restaurants were up in arms, saying that such a request was tantamount to cultural imperialism.

FIFA's lack of tact aside, dog meat is not really part of Korea's "culinary culture." Koreans grudgingly ate dog during economic hard times, when more desirable sources of protein were scarce. The few restaurants that still serve it are holdovers, oddities. They are the ones who screamed foul at FIFA's request. Like the ICR, they just want to protect their livelihood in a nation that doesn't care about them.

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