A Contribution to The Japan Observer Vol 7/7 July 2001

Gloomy Debate on Greedy Whaling:

Is the debate about whaling really a conflict of interests between Japan and Western countries?

Every year when the IWC meeting comes to a close, the news articles that are presented about whaling appear frequently in Japan. Media reports are mainly from the government controlled industry of information, so in this season we'll have to deal with those one-sided or highly biased reports. Generally the controversy on whaling is accepted as a conflict of interests between Japan and Western countries. Those who support whaling argue that the conflict is between Japanese who try to maintain what they claim to be their cultural traditions, and Westerners who not only lack understanding of other cultures but also impose their cultural values on others. On the other hand, there are arguments that Japan is an "environmental predator" or behaving like a "gang of thugs" who continue environmental degradation for the sake of optimal use and bully domestic environmental and conservation groups to "keep silent" on the issue.There are also arguments on whether the habit of eating whale meat is really a tradition and if the government allows anything or legitimizes it it is named a "tradition." But it must be understood also that the labeling of Japanese as "environmental predators" or other not so endearing terms is certainly making the problem worse. There is no miniscule percentage of Japanese who say "the conservation of whales is going too far" or "the Western nations are imposing their cultural values on us" when faced with the high-handed attitudes of the anti-whaling advocates. It is clear that it must be the choice of the Japanese people which is indispensable in solving the problem of whaling (and dolphin hunting). From this we have to shift the focus of discussion from "Conflict between Japan and anti-whaling Westerners "to "Conflict between the advocates for Industrial development and exploitation and the advocates for environmental protection." From this focus we need to pave the way for a fair discussion within our own country.

The Clever Substitution

Recently, a documentary film entitled "Underlying motive behind conservation of sea turtles/Following the confusion caused by the economic policy of the great nation" got the 'Galaxy Award,' which is given by the Media Association of Japan. The content of the film was mainly criticism of the eco-shrimp-nets and the export of sea turtles in regard to the economic problems of Cuba. In other words the film was a report of an example of "environmental protection going too far." In the film they argued that Southeast Asian fisherman are in tight economic condition which is aggravated by the compulsory introduction of the newly developed shrimp net that keep sea turtles from being caught accidentally. The second point they argue about in the film is the international trade of Hawkbill turtle and US sanctions on Cuba. From these two points, the film attempts to prove that environmental protection groups are trying to take advantage of environmental problems suffered by improverished countries and earn money by making arguments that have "no scientific credence," and that the U.S is seeking methods to utilise these types of situations to dominate the global economy. This special 'turtle-free net' may have resulted in a reduction of the number of shrimp caught and may also serve to augment the negative influence the US has had on smaller and developing nations.

However, the main problem here is whether it's possible for us to solve the north-south problem in terms of the use of natural resources both commercially and in a sustainable way that respects international conservation efforts of endangered and threatened species. In regard to this point, the film doesn't even let us have the choice of argument. Also during the program the director himself appears on the screen and says "The U.S. has foisted CITES in order to deflect international criticism relating to its use of chemical defoliants during the Vietnam War. When discussing the problem of whale conservation, these kind of arguments always bubble to the surface with the same old rhetoric: "the U.S. is on the side of anti-whaling to hide away the perpetration of its own environmental crimes in Vietnam." Fundamentally, protection of whales or other wild life and former U.S. government policy relating to a past conflict should be discussed as separate issues. But here these two arguments are replaced with each other intentionally. By watching this replacement of arguments, Japanese of middle and advanced age who have supported the economic growth of the post-war period may feel relieved saying, "I'm not the one to be blamed." Instead of taking environmental problems seriously and thinking how to cope with them, these people just feel opposed to the Western nations by seeing them as people who impose their own values. From this they draw the intended conclusion that their media has foisted upon them and thus the purpose is achieved. No further analysis is made of the issue.

The Japanese and Whaling

The whaling industry argues that Japanese have been eating whale meat traditionally since the time of the ancients. In trying to prove this, evidence is produced by exhibiting whale bones used during the Jomon period. However, the reality is that it was not until the post World War Two period, when due to acute food shortages, and with permission of Allied GHQ, that Japan started large scale whaling activities in the Antarctic Ocean in 1946. The whale populations were already in decline when Japan started its commercial whaling. In order to make it a viable industry, Japan purchased foreign whaling ships which had ceased commercial harvesting of whales when it no longer became a profitable trade to those whaling countries who previously indulged in it. During that lean period, whale meat was cheaper compared to the other types of meat. It also became an important source of protein for the Japanese. But as soon as the market for the other types of meat reopened and became more viable, the demand for whale meat decreased sharply, and by 1950 there was a problem of over-supply. But despite this, the whaling industry never ceased to expand, and so the surplus of whalemeat became a source for the school lunch meals for children. Also the industry pushed forward with processed foods made from whale meat. One of them was fish-meat-sausages. These sausages were kept from decaying by AF2(a preservative which is not used anymore because there is strong suspicion that it has had an adverse impact on human health and a suspected cause of birth deformity). The inclusion of this preservative could enable the meat to be transported in normal temperatures. And so these fish-meat-sausages appeared on the markets in suburbs where food circulation wasn't good, and these types of markets spread all over Japan. Thus the great fishing industries were able to build, establish and expand their basis of legitimacy and viability.

Many people from the whaling industry argue that the whaling industry has been in decline just because of the moratorium on whaling. But as one can see the whaling industry has had to shift to hunting Minke whales owing to the lack of great-sized whales such as the Blue, Fin, Right, Humpbacks well as the Sperm whales. In truth, owing to overexploitation or rampant decimation of the great whales, the whaling industry has been in crisis.

Arguments of the Japanese Government and the Whaling Industry

It is quite ambiguous why Japan has to insist on whaling so much. One reason, it is argued, states that whaling has become a fortress for deep-sea fisheries, and there is an inherent fear that if Japan were to comply with international anti-whaling pressure the entire edifice of the fishing industry in Japan would collapse. The logic of this thinking is taken that the Japanese fishing industry would suffer from a kind of domino effect where the next target would be to curtail the commercial fishing of Southern Blue Fin tunas, itself a highly lucrative trade. But in terms of whaling, there seems to be more disadvantages than advantages for Japan regarding the economics of whaling. Until recently, the industry has asserted, thereby justifying itself, that whaling and the so-called cultural habit of eating whales have become a Japanese tradition. This would be a highly questionable assertion given the fact that there is a decreasing demand for whale meat on the domestic market owing to high prices and that whale meat consumption is widely viewed as unacceptable. But despite this there have been systematic campaigns, where the editors of major newspapers and even the scientific "experts" assert their "liberal" views by exhorting that Japan should "not yield to foreign pressures." These words appeal to the citizens feelings easily, dispelling any reservation they may have. Ironically in the background of this movement there stand two points of fact. One is that the whaling industry has become something that has nothing to do with everyday life for the vast majority of Japanese. So most people don't have a direct interest in whaling. Second, this movement for whaling has awakened the subconscious envy and antipathy against Western nations, especially the U.S. There is also some confusion which is being deliberately foisted upon the Japanese people by their government and industries. If whaling is really only for traditional practice, it should only be done in the coastal areas. But they actually insist on whaling in international waters. In the IWC meeting in 1996, it was Japan who immediately opposed the proposal made by Ireland which stated "with the exception of coastal area whaling, high-seas area whaling should gradually be abolished." If Japan insists that whaling and eating whale meat is traditional, it would be an easy matter to comply with this proposal.

Another argument of the Japanese government and the industry is that the "extinction of whales is an exaggeration of the anti-whaling environmental groups and actually the numbers of whales are increasing, particularly the Minke whales are increasing like cockroaches and they are overwhelming the Blue whales by snatching what they eat." And actually most Japanese who don't have special interests in whale-problems believe them and say, "If the whale numbers are on the increase too much, we can capture them." This argument has expanded to the level of saying,"Whales which have increased too much will desrtroy the marine eco-system." This may appear as ludicrous to one with even a marginal knowledge of marine ecosystems, but this view is adopted by the Japanese media and is accepted as both a plausible argument and serious justification to the harvesting of whales on a commercial basis. Many people have taken to heart the argument which states that "As whales eat five to six times as much as human beings, soon we'll be out of sardines and sauries." (this point of view may provide a hint of the standards of the Japanese school education system). There are similar arguments that are applied in Canada in order to justify commercial sealing. Hence Japan is not alone in employing such tactics which are obviously intended for propaganda purposes.

In truth, Japanese are using ocean-resources far more compared to other countries, but whether it is consumed a lot or not depends on the species. The popular fish for consumption, such as tunas, bonitos and salmon that are sold in the markets, are actually mostly imported. Sardines are mostly used as oil, fertilizer and fodder. Also, the sardine haul has generally changed to mostly imported ones. Sardines are mostly used as oil.fertilizer and fodder. Also, the sardine haul generally changes dramatically, so it is not easy to specify what causes the haul changes. Thinning out whales might help some fishermen, but won't recover what indiscriminate fishing has caused. There are many other arguments from Japan such as "It is not fair that the number of anti-whaling countries are overwhelming in the IWC as the organization is a WHALING comission", "As investigation whaling is permitted in the whaling treaty, it is illegal to oppose it", "The economic sanctions of the U.S. are racial discrimination", "The U.S. is destroying the forests via Mcdonalds. Capturing whales are better for the environment." These arguments all stray from the main point. They are arguing from premises that it is a natural right for Japanese to capture whales. But finally there are discussions among many viewpoints on whaling -problems in Japan these days.

Serious Contamination of Whales: The Impact of High Levels of Poisonous Chemical Substances on Whales

In autumn 1999, a report was submitted by scientists from Japan, England, and the U.S. at the 'Environmental Toxicology Symposium' about the high levels of PCB and mercury contained in marketed whale meat. At the same time, the scientists demanded that the Ministry of Health and Welfare and other ministries warn the public of the possibility of danger to health in eating whale meat. The data from the report was taken by randomly buying meat, blubber, processed and canned whale meat from 6 supermarkets, department stores, and fish markets, and examining their DNA. Of the 130 specimens, the 116 that were identifiable by DNA analysis were tested for levels of heavy metals such as mercury and cadminium, and organic compound substances such as PCB and DDT. 61 of the 116 turned out above the standard level of contamination. In Japan, local fishermen catch more than 20,000 dolphins according to an annual quota established by the National Fisheries agency. The dolphin meat is usually sold as whale meat. After the moratorium, the price of whale meat jumped up so that local fishermen hunt dolphins to sell as whale meat. The high level of contamination was especially seen in those toothed whale-dolphin which in one case even contained over 1000 times its standard. The PCB levels were also above the standard in the meat of whales from not only the coastal waters but all bodies of water. The contamination of coastal toothed whale was especially heavy; the consumption of coastal toothed whale meat, 1 gram(average) is enough to exceed the approved amount. On receiving this information, the consumers group named Safety First was started in order inform the government, civilians in areas where whale meat is consumed, and the whaling industry of the danger of whale meat consumption. This resulted in a temporary decrease in the distribution of whale meat. The government was unwilling to cooperate, stating that whale meat is not a commonly consumed food in Japan. In an interview from the Mainichi Shinbun, the person in charge of the fisheries department stated that the average consumption amount of the Japanese per year is less than 1 gram. This contradicts his former comments. Even if the Japanese consumption level is low, it does not eliminate the fact that whale meat is indeed circulated, and in certain areas, it is consumed regularly. Also the danger is especially strong in women who are either pregnant or have the possibility of being pregnant in the future. The government of Denmark has given out a warning on the dangers of mercury on the fetus' brain, saying that the danger is more serious than it was previously considered to be. It is extremely important that information and warnings are released as soon as possible. Also, we need to consider the dangers of chemical contamination towards the whales themselves. Despite this, the whaling industry claims that the contamination issue is a fake story made up by the anti-whaling groups.

Future of the whale issue

We cannot tell if the number of whales are really increasing, but in any case it is quite difficult to cope with questions such as, "Why don't you let even a small number for capturing?" or "Show scientific data for your anti-whaling argument". The ones who mention these opinions who are for whaling try to protect their vested rights and it is tough work to get them to change their mind. Japanese tend to cling to the idea that "natural resources belongs to nobody in the first place so it's first in first served." Under this logic they make no distinction between the territorial waters and the high seas . The comment given by the secrtary Komatu in the last IWC meeting clearly would summarise both the attitude and mentality of official policy in Japan. "In the end, they all die whether we capture them or not, so don't you think it's a waste then? They all become trash of the sea if we waste them (waste means not killing them for use as resource)." We have to make them understand the idea that the high sea is not an area just for the whalers but it belongs to the whole world. Also, we must let them know that the idea of controlling the number of whales(which are an important part of the overall marine ecology) by human hands for the so-called "protection of the eco-system. These types of attitudes have always threatened the global environment. Even if Japan mentions to capture just a small number of whales for commercial purposes, allowing the possibility of reopening the whale meat market internationally would invite the possibility for illegal capturing and marketing to expand. Even now where there are only limited markets, many cases of illegal whaling and circulation such products are being reported. We have to understand that we Japanese are largely responsible for all this. Concerning the nationalistic pride of middle and advanced aged people, I think the best way of changing their attitudes is to shift ideas within ourselves and pulling out of whaling by our own efforts, rather than giving way under the pressure of foreign countries. Luckily, many young people love to swim with the wild dolphins and go whale watching these days. This young generation who have never eaten whale meat probably have the same sensitivities as those of the foreign countries who oppose whaling. I wish these young people would get involved in the whale issue more aggressively, and protest against the high sea area whaling. And I hope they would succeed in making captivity and commercial exploitation of whales and dolphins shrink and vanish in the future.

This article was edited by Craig Gibson and John McLaughlin.