Something fishy in whaling debate

Ecoterrorists are actually likely to prolong Japanese whaling, says Australian anthropologist Adrian Peace. Pearce has an excellent coverage of the Japanese viewpoint but rather inexplicably overlooks something very basic about all East-Asian socities: Face. If the Japanese yielded to the ecoterrorists, it would be a huge loss of face -- and as such will be strenuously resisted. So as long as the ecoterrorists keep up their publicity-hungry antics, the Japanese will continue whaling

IF the profits were high and it required a substantial labour force, it would be possible to understand why the Japanese run the gamut of international condemnation at this time of year. But whaling nowadays entails minimal economic return and directly employs only a few hundred workers. A number of social scientists, Japanese and non-Japanese, have tried to explain why this intensely capitalist country persists in this seemingly irrational economic behaviour. The main points they make are worth thinking about.

The first explanation lies in the realm of Japanese culture and national identity.

When the International Whaling Commission holds its annual meetings, the intensity of the media gaze provokes pro-whaling claims about the Japanese being involved in this maritime industry for several centuries. But it is not necessary to go that far back. In the early 20th century, canned whale meat became a staple food for the Japanese military, while in post-war years the entire population acquired almost half of its animal protein from whale meat.

Older Japanese believe whale meat has saved them from famine. Subsequently, it became a regular item in lunch boxes (obentos), while for many people today whale meat in the form of sushi and other dishes is a special treat.

So the notion of an exceptional and distinctive whale eating culture (gyoshoku bunka) is a significant one which Japanese discourse (nihinjin roh) incorporates into a sense of national identity, for a unique population. As the anti-whaling movement has become the dominant international discourse, the consumption of whale meat has become a significant counter symbol of belonging to an inimitable Japanese tribe. As one anthropologist puts it: "The whaling issue serves to strengthen much-cherished Japanese myths about their identity, which itself helps fuel one form of Japanese nationalism."

The second explanation is that the Japanese do not think about whales in a manner similar to Western societies. Japanese categorise whales as fish, rather than as mammals, and this is indexed by the fact that the character (kanji) for the whale (kujira) has two parts, the first being the sign for a fish (uo-hen).

The Japanese do not raise strident objections to other societies' routine ways of eating. So on what grounds do Australians so vehemently object to the situation in Japan? The typical Japanese response is that cattle, pigs and chickens are often reared under horrendous conditions throughout their brief, caged lives, while whales live long ones in complete freedom. In this light, it is difficult to see why it is morally questionable to kill a whale rather than to slaughter a pig for much the same purpose; but easy to specify which population makes its food source suffer most. This explanation specifies the political hypocrisy of the West.

At another level, the Japanese do not see whales as having intrinsic value. Consequently, they look upon current conflicts in the Southern Ocean as little more than a political sideshow, and express minimal interest in non-government organisations such as Greenpeace that claim otherwise.

The third explanation directs attention to more rudimentary questions of the organisation of the Japanese state. Since whales fall in the category of fish, they are under the aegis of Japan's Fisheries Agency. Not only is this a notoriously conservative part of the Japanese state, it is also dominated by the ideology of science which it practices to the exclusion of all other ways of thinking about the world.

The Fisheries Agency and its ministry strive to ensure that their scientific understanding of whale stocks, and thus the continuation of whaling, is not somehow watered down by the politically responsive and ideologically liberal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its position is also informed by the threat of a domino effect on other fish supplies: if the whaling industry is curtailed by external pressure, then dolphin, tuna, salmon and the rest will quickly come under threat too. Since the organisation of whaling in the Southern Ocean is directed by the Fisheries Agency, it is hardly surprising that the hunt proceeds, whatever the level of international outcry.

The fourth explanation is the most radical. It is argued that an alliance of senior politicians and public servants, a prominent media agency and other media figures mobilised the government and popular opinion behind whaling to maintain the status quo. This is not to say that whale meat was not part of Japanese cuisine. It is claimed, however, that those considerations most likely to sustain governmental and popular support behind whaling were strategically packaged for popular consumption to realise maximum political effect in society.

This strategic management of meaning began in the aftermath of the 1982 moratorium over commercial whaling. Industry representatives, concerned politicians and powerful figures in the Fisheries Agency and its ministry set about persuading, cajoling and seducing influential media representatives into adopting and then broadcasting select perspectives on whaling and the consumption of whale meat.

Once again, the relative autonomy of major institutions within the modern state was integral to the success of this calculated approach. What was critical was the distinctive political arrangement known as the kisha kurabu system in which editors, journalists and the like are incorporated into select political circles, with all the material and other perks this entails, to ensure they report faithfully what their political and industrial masters tell them.

This political arrangement thrives, according to this line of argument, because scientific specialists in particular are accorded a high level of infallibility. Their findings are broadcast without qualification or critique. As it worked to promote and privilege a particular set of understandings about Japan's whale eating culture and the threat to it from abroad, the kisha kurabu exercise especially exploited this unqualified deference towards scientists in the Fisheries Agency.

The twist to this fourth explanation is that, while at the outset the goal was to end the 1982 moratorium on commercial whale fishing, current arrangements have come to serve national interests. The Japanese can kill a substantial number of whales each year; there is little serious opposition inside the broader society; and the many government subsidies that have become available since 1982 to prop up an industry that is commercially non-viable continue to flow unabated.

There is some truth to all of these explanations. Militant action by the Australian government is most likely to reinforce a broadly nationalist response from the Japanese people and a narrowly bureaucratic one from those who effectively determine the country's whaling policy. This is not to suggest militancy is a poor option, only that it is more likely to draw out the conflict instead of foreshortening it.


Posted by John Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.). For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. To keep up with attacks on free speech see TONGUE-TIED. Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me here

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