BBC BLOGS - Richard Black's Earth Watch
« Previous | Main | Next »

Whaling words: Into the new

Richard Black | 10:32 UK time, Monday, 29 March 2010

Few things drive people who would like to see whaling end to distraction quite as much as the lack of engagement with the issue across Japanese society.

Their argument goes like this: continuing whaling is clearly not in the best interests of Japan as a nation, raising opprobrium in countries that are otherwise its friend while gaining virtually nothing in the way of meat; so even though whaling might be in the interests of the Fisheries Agency, which implements policies domestically and represents the country internationally, why don't other parts of the government or wider society weigh in, stand up for their interests, and get the practice shelved?

Demonstration_against_Sea_ShepherdActivists have made such arguments long into many a frustrated night. But still, within Japanese society, criticism of whaling is pretty much confined to the Tokyo outposts of Western NGOs.

Last year saw the publication of a book that adds something to the picture. It's called Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics and Diplomacy, and it's written not by anyone from the conservation community but by a Japanese academic, Professor Jun Morikawa, who's based at Rakuno Gakuen University near Sapporo and specialises in studying Japan's relationship with Africa.

I read the book earlier this year, and have just been to hear the professor lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Summing it all up in one single blog post is not a simple task, because the thesis he outlines runs from the desks of Tokyo bureaucrats to the forests of Africa and the waters of the Antarctic.

But theses are some of the key points:

• Whaling is of no real importance to Japan, producing 0.2% of all the meat eaten in the country
• The authorities claim to base their arguments for whaling on science, but in fact invest heavily in emotive messages - for example, that whaling is an integral part of the national culture
• There is no national culture of whaling in Japan; there are local cultures, but there are also local cultures that regard whales as gods, where killing them would be unthinkable
• Successive governments have placed a high priority on ensuring a plentiful supply of fish through diplomacy, often building relationships with developing countries possessing productive coastal waters
• One part of these relationships is backing for Japan's position in all aspects of international affairs, from supporting its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council to voting with it in the International Whaling Commission
•The industry is perpetuated by the practice of amakudari, where retiring bureaucrats go on to take jobs in businesses that their successors are supposedly regulating
• Japan is a major consumer of all kinds of wildlife, sometimes destructively
• The status quo is helped along by a compliant media, while organisations such as Sea Shepherd also lend a hand by giving the Fisheries Agency ammunition with which to label anti-whaling groups as anti-Japanese

OK: I think I've got most of the important bits.

Most of these arguments - even the last, behind closed doors - have been made before, but mainly by Western environmentalists.

The potential importance of Jun Morikawa's book is that his background is not in the environmental movement, but in the academic study of politics and foreign relations; and that he is Japanese, and of an age and status that generally garner respect.

Whereas anti-whaling sentiment is often characterised in Japan as having cultural imperialist and even racist roots, the reasoning of a Japanese professor cannot be so easily categorised.

Whale_tailIn some ways, Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics and Diplomacy forms a counterpoint to another book published in 2008 with an even longer title - The Power of Words in International Relations: Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse.

If you're thinking that this doesn't sound like an easy read, you'd be right.

It's an unashamedly academic tome; the author, University of Sydney-based Dr Charlotte Epstein, comes - like Jun Morikawa - from the disciplines of politics and international relations rather than biology or conservation.

What she attempts to do is to plot, through analysing the language used about whales and whaling down the years, the transformation of the whale in Western society from a real living thing that real hunters caught in the oceans to an idea, an icon - the "superwhale", intelligent, kind, endangered - a totem of humankind's relationship with the environment.

One of the examples in the book is an advert that ran in the Los Angeles Times of 1974, advocating a boycott of Japanese goods.

With Dr Epstein as sushi-chef, the advert is sliced into morsels indicating how it transformed objective reality into a message better suited to the aims of the anti-whaling movement of the time - and to the US government of the time, for which Japan was the biggest economic rival and the Soviet Union the biggest military rival.

The juxtaposition of the phrases "The Japanese are the biggest whale killers" and "More than 2,000,000 whales have been killed in the last 50 years", for example, creates the impression that Japan was responsible for that toll; whereas history tells us that Norway and the UK played much bigger roles.

Here again: "Modern whaling is a savage, ruthless exercise, nothing like the romantic days of 19th Century whaling... the terror-stricken whales are... blown up in agonising death by grenade-tipped harpoons..."

There is no evidence, however, that the whales targeted in the19th Century lolled back with contented smiles and welcomed the hunters to throw their harpoons as soon as they realised how romantic a pursuit it was.

Romantic_whalingIt won't have escaped your notice that the "romantic" era lauded in the US-based advert was dominated by US fleets; and you'll probably have realised also that grenade-tipped harpoons were designed to kill whales in a few minutes, rather than the hours to death typical during the "romantic" Yankee whaling era.

Dr Epstein follows this pattern of discourse through blow by blow, as western NGOs and Western politicians shaped an identity of whalers as people who were both cruel and - more importantly - Japanese.

The relevance to the present is that this is the genesis of the identity of whaling that still pervades Western culture, distortions and all.

If it's hard to sum up the Morikawa book in a few sentences, it's doubly hard with the Epstein, which is much longer and which attempts to cover two fields - whaling and the language surrounding whaling - in one go. if you're enticed, you'll just have to read them.

So why might these books prove to be important?

It isn't about whether the authors are right or wrong - some readers will find plenty to abhor in the first and love the second, other readers will have it the other way round, and often interpretations of history and definitions of the right course of environmental action are matters of opinion anyway.

Where their importance potentially lies is in bringing fresh analyses to an arena that has in recent years become sterile and entrenched, and in which both sides arguably could benefit from a little more self-reflection and a little less easy bombast.

Professor Morikawa would clearly like his book to be taken up and discussed among a wider Japanese public - many of whom, from my own experiences, don't know anything about whaling apart from what they read in the newspapers (the compliant newspapers, to take his critical description), which is mainly articles about the latest "anti-Japanese" shenanigans in the Southern Ocean.

He'd also like to facilitate greater participation in discourse about Japan's whaling policies across the wider political classes, empowering ministries such as Foreign Affairs, Economy and Environment to become involved in the rights and wrongs of an issue in which he believes the official definition of "the national interest" is completely at odds with reality.

For that to happen, he'll have to publish a Japanese edition of his book - so far, he says, publishers are not queuing up to make this happen.

Charlotte Epstein's book has clearly not shifted opinion much in Australia, which remains the most implacable foe of Japanese whaling. So perhaps Jun Morikawa's won't in Japan either.

One other thing unites the two books: both will make for uncomfortable reading among the sectors that they criticise, explicitly or implicitly.

But this is part of their importance; and so is the fact that they are both cogently-argued theses coming from outside the the circle of "usual suspects".

Arguably, such contributions are sorely needed as we approach the June meeting at which governments inside the IWC will have to decide whether to embrace a limited, predictable amount of commercial whaling in place of the current stand-off.


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.