Will Japanese Whaling Stop By Itself?

Whaling off the coast of the Goto Islands, by Hokusai

Japan likes whaling, and the world hates them for it. That’s a very brief description of the current situation. But even though whaling seems like an inherent part of Japanese culture, it’s not really that popular there, and it may soon come to an end out of its own.

Whaling has been controversial since the 1960s, when Kiwi biologist Paul Spong showed the public that orcas are intelligent and emotional creatures. Shortly after, in the 70s, Save the Whales became the OG of all animal rights movements, with well-known organisations like National Geographic, WWF and the Humane Society adopting the cause as their own. More recently, Sea Shepherd has become a TV darling, with their grey and black boats tracking down Japanese whaling vessels and blocking their routes. The anti-whaling campaign has also benefited indirectly through the awareness The Cove and Blackfish provided for dolphin hunting and captive orcas.

Minke whales dragged aboard the Nishin Maru
Minke whales dragged aboard the Nishin Maru ©cc by-sa 3.0 ACBPS

In the anti-whaling narrative, Japan is the big bad guy. When the International Whaling Commission (existing mostly of non-whaling nations) voted in 1982 to install a ten year moratorium on whaling, Japan decided to keep whaling, under the guise of ‘scientific research’. But, as an Australian politician put it, “What is it after 20 years that they’ve discovered? That whales go well with soy sauce?” Ironically though, it may just be the international condemnation which is keeping the whaling industry alive.

Unlike what most people think, whale meat isn’t all that popular in Japan. It had a brief stint after the Second World War, when whale was included in school lunches, but since then its popularity has declined. By the early 2000s only 4% of surveyed Japanese said they sometimes ate it, with the rest eating it rarely or not at all. So what the what with all that whaling?

Whale meat on sale in Tokyo
Whale meat on sale in Tokyo | ©cc by 2.0 Stefan Powell

Turns out it’s mostly the government who likes whaling. That and the crony fishing industry. Most of the pro-whaling NGOs and activist groups were once whaling industry organisations. Info talks and platforms are infested with former bureaucrats, and funded by local or national government agencies. But to be a legitimate cause, you need supporters, and to get supporters you need to create a sense of uniqueness, an “us vs. them”. So the story of pro-whaling goes that Western imperialist forces are cracking down on ancient indigenous traditions. With practically the whole world condemning whaling, all that had to be done was forge a historical legacy for the whaling industry.

whaling is a reinvented tradition

As Anders Blok of MIT says: “prior to the late 1970s there were no mentions of “culture” in connection with whaling. In this sense, whaling is a reinvented tradition, whose symbolic importance has been growing exponentially in tandem with its industrial decline.” The pro-whaling campaign in Japan hired a team of anthropologists to study the “cultural aspects of its coastal minke whaling operations.” This way, Japan managed to deliver 33 research papers to the whaling commission, between 1986 and 1994. This research was then used in media and brochures. Artifacts that serve to prove a long history of whaling are presented in musea all over the country. They even started holding “whale festivals”.

For the older generation, which still remembers the whale meat in school lunches, that tradition may seem real; but Japanese youngsters? They couldn’t care less. The efforts by the government aren’t really working. Maybe the only thing that’s working is the idea of “us vs. them”, and that’s as much the fault of sneaky politicians, as it is of the international community which thinks of Japanese people as cruel whale-slaughtering bastards. Let’s start by ending that.

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