Stop Blubbering About Whales

Some uncomfortable truths for the anti-whaling movement

It is June 1978. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is holding its 30th Annual Meeting in London. With camera crews and journalists in attendance, the main focus is on the disagreements between the delegates from the whaling and ex-whaling countries, but in the background there is also a restless chorus provided by representatives from anti-whaling pressure groups. Some of these people take their whales very, very seriously. One group, with the connivance of a BBC TV camera crew, are able to infiltrate the Conference Hall. These dedicated or fanatical activists are about to launch their own 'Pearl Harbor' – a surprise attack on the Japanese delegation.

Bypassing delegations from European whaling nations, like Norway, Iceland, and the USSR, they head straight for the appointed villains – the Japanese delegation. Suddenly there is uproar as blood-red dye is sprayed all over the Japanese delegates. Mr. Hazumi, a diplomat from the Foreign Ministry, and his female interpreter are the two most severely drenched, as a shrill voice sanctimoniously shrieks, "This is the blood of the whales you have killed!"

Like some ghoul from a Japanese horror story, the 43-year-old interpreter stares back, her then long black hair matted, dripping with blood-red dye.

"What's wrong with our traditional food habits?" she roars back, now no longer interpreting diplomatic smalltalk as the cameras continue to roll. "There are plenty of Minke Whales in the seas and you have no right to assault me like this for eating abundant whale meat!!"

The interpreter that day was Shigeko Misaki, daughter of Kozaemon Kimura, the Japanese Minister for Agriculture and Forestry during the period of US occupation, who took the decision, with the permission of General Douglas McArthur, to revive the postwar Japanese whaling fleet in order to provide Japan's half-starved population with much needed protein and nourishment. After a career that saw her act as an interpreter and advisor to Japanese delegations at IWC meetings for three decades and serve as a counselor for international relations at the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo for eight years, the semi-retired 72-year-old has now co-authored The History and Science of Whales, an English language book published this year by the Japan Times. Written with Masayuki Komatsu, a commissioner for Japan at IWC meetings, the book strives to present the facts of whaling, rather than the emotional arguments that the anti-whaling lobby has used so effectively to dominate the debate on whaling.

The IWC is the international organization that regulates whaling. Established in 1946, its original stated purpose was to "provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry." Since then, the influence of the anti-whaling movement on founder members like the UK and the USA, has seen the IWC change into a body that seeks to serve the interests of anti-whaling NGOs, leading to tensions between whaling and ex-whaling countries, both of which have actively recruited countries that have no historical connection with whaling or even geographical connection to the sea, into the IWC. Present members include landlocked Switzerland, Austria, and Mongolia.

Twenty-nine years on from that incident in London, a lot has changed. Except for Norwegian whalers hunting whales in the waters off Norway, all commercial whaling has stopped. One thing hasn't changed, however: Japan is still widely seen as the prime villain. Greenpeace, the largest NGO opposing whaling, doesn't send its increasingly sophisticated anti-whaling fleet to the North Sea and the Artic to challenge Norway's whalers. Instead it sends it halfway round the World to challenge Japan's research whaling fleet in the Antarctic Sea. This raises the possibly that there is an element of transferred or sublimated racism in the tactics of the anti-whalers.

"In a way, our negative whaling image is connected to our image of mistreating POWs in WWII and militarism in China," Misaki says of Japan's negative whaling image. "This is so tightly knit within this concept. The modern generation has nothing to do with WWII, but through whaling and our image as bad killers we are still connected to it. For some people whaling makes us seem like Nazis."

Although commercial whaling stopped when Japan accepted the IWC's moratorium on whaling in 1987, Japan is still able to catch an unlimited number of whales under international treaty as part of an ongoing 'scientific survey' into the number, size, and age demographics of certain species of whales, most notably Minke Whales, the smallest species covered by the IWC, that is reported to be flourishing. In 2005, Japanese whalers killed 1,243 whales, of which 1,078 were Minke. A population estimate by the IWC at the end of the 1980s, when commercial whaling had ceased, placed the Minke population at between 510,000 and 1,140,000 whales. Given natural growth of about 5% a year, minus the few hundred whales taken for survey reasons each year, the population can now be expected to be over 2 million.


Although meat from the whales killed by Japan's scientific survey ends up in restaurants in Japan, the whales taken are also subjected to scrupulous scientific analysis, with 100 different measurements being taken. Critics merely see this as a cynical ploy by the 'dastardly' Japanese to exploit a loophole in international agreements to keep commercial whaling going by the backdoor. As Misaki is no longer directly employed by the Japanese government or the Japanese Whaling Association she can comment very frankly on these issues.

"We call it 'scientific research' because it has been approved by the IWC committee," she says. "And Article 8 of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling – the charter of the IWC – definitely says that the proceeds from marketing the by-products of the scientific catches should be utilized to help with the costs of research."

But, as usual, there is more to this morality play than meets the eye. Much of the behavior of the Japanese on the whaling issue has been conditioned by how they themselves have been treated and by the anti-whaling lobby's own dirty tricks, hypocrisy, and double standards.

"Because we are under America's nuclear umbrella, we cannot act independently," she says. "We are speaking Japanese all over the Japanese islands, but we are forced to think in the American way – except on the whaling issue. In a way the whaling issue is an outlet for our frustration at having to act as Americans. To keep our whaling going satisfies a certain sector of the population of Japan that we are doing what we want, not what the Americans want."

As a veteran of many IWC meetings, Misaki has direct experience of the way America forces Japan to 'think in the American way.' To get Japan to accept the moratorium on commercial whaling, the American delegation used the Alaskan ‘bottom fisheries’ quota as bait. Used for making kamaboko and oden, the fish caught here by trawling the bottom of the Alaskan seas were worth ten times more than Japan’s Antarctic whaling operation at the time.

"We were taken for a ride by the Americans," Misaki comments. "The Americans are always very clever and very aggressive. They said, 'You'll have the bottom fisheries for a long, long time.' They didn't say permanently, but they said a long, long time, and we very naively believed them. The following year, after we had agreed on the cessation of whaling, they halved the quota, and, then, in two years they erased the entire quota."

Another reason the Japanese caved in to American pressure was because they successfully managed to split Japan’s fishing and whaling lobbies.

"The Americans are very clever," Misaki says with grudging admiration. "In any area of debate, they just cause the opponent's camp to split in competition, so that they will make the decision by themselves. The Japanese government just weighed it in the balance. If whaling were lost there would only be a very small economic impact."

The clincher was 'scientific whaling' and the clear suggestion that research whaling would be available under Article 8 as a replacement for commercial whaling.

"It was a very implicit suggestion. I interpreted, and I can attest that it was a suggestion by Dr. Evans, who was a commissioner at the IWC from the United States, that Article 8 provides for research whaling, and research whaling provides for the by-products to be commercially disposed of."

So, if the anti-whaling NGOs want someone to blame for Japan's 'research' whaling, they can blame their own anti-whaling American government.

Misaki still regrets the decision to switch to research whaling, as it forces the remains of Japan’s once proud whaling fleet to play a game of cat and mouse with ever more sophisticated anti-whaling fleets that seek to disrupt operations by dangerous confrontational methods. Although a lot of important data is gathered on whale numbers and population structure, the fact that several hundred whales then end up on Japan’s dinner plates creates an image of insincerity and deceit that does Japan a great disservice.

"I really admire the attitude of the Norwegian government," Misaki says, referring to that country's commercial whaling policy. "I wish the Japanese government acted like the Norwegians, because they are very staunch about their position as hunting whales openly and commercially in a sustainable way. Because they think whales are so abundant. And they are trying to help the fishermen in the off season to make a living."


The debate on whaling has two levels. On one level it is a practical debate about protecting species and restoring the numbers of those species that are most depleted like the Blue Whale, of which the IWC estimates there are only 1,700 animals left, to the levels where they can be hunted again. But, on the other hand, it is a much more emotional and irrational debate about whether hunting whales is in some way evil and cruel.

On the first level, there is already considerable evidence to suggest that certain species of whales, like the Minke Whales, have more than recovered their numbers. Even in the era of large scale whaling, when the Blue Whales and Sperm Whales were being driven to the brink of extinction by unrestricted whaling, Minke were seldom hunted on account of their small size. Compared to the Blue Whale, which on average weighs 90 tons and is 28 meters longs, the average Minke is a mere 6.6 tons and only 10 meters long. Misaki claims that the high number of Minke makes it more difficult for other species to recover their numbers.

"I think Minke Whales should be culled because they are really taking up a lot of space and krill from the Antarctic sea," she says. "Right Whales from the South African coast are being forced to migrate to the Western Australian coast because Minke have become so abundant that the Right Whales can't get enough to eat. If you want the bigger whales to come back, I think they should be killed."

Regardless of disagreements about whale populations, with whale hunting as restricted as it now is, it is only a matter of time before their numbers recover enough to permit sustainable commercial whaling. The chances of this happening have also been improved by the pro-whaling countries gaining a majority at the 2006 IWC meeting at St. Kitts. But for the anti-whaling countries, the debate is not about recovering whale stocks and sustainable whaling. It is all about the emotional appeal that whales have started to have in mainly affluent Western countries with permanent access to other sources of high protein nourishment. In this emotionalism, craftily mobilized by self-serving NGOs like Greenpeace, Misaki sees some dubious factors.

"It became a bandwagon from the 1970s onwards," Misaki comments. "People who wanted to be clean and superior wanted to join in this bandwagon of anti-whaling and a lot NGOs were created, but giving up whaling cost them nothing. These groups became very powerful and some of the executives of these NGOs became government officials employed by the US government because they wanted to appease the anti-whaling sentiment. By appeasing anti-whaling sentiment US politicians also thought that they could appease the anti-Vietnam-War sentiment."

To the traditionally food rich societies of the West, whaling has always been a peripheral issue. Indeed, most whales caught by Western whaling fleets of the past were killed not for their flesh, which was dumped in the sea, but for their oil. Japanese whaling, by contrast, has a tradition of using every part of the whale. This is not surprising, as Japan, for most of its history, has been chronically short on reliable sources of protein and nutrition. Even today, while America is 175% self-sufficient in food, Japan is only 39% self-sufficient. Only through vast imports of beef and other meat from – ironically enough – key anti-Whaling nations like the US and Australia, can Japan maintain its recent rich protein diet.

What a great many sanctimonious Westerners perhaps don't realize is that whaling is an issue of long-term national importance and survival for Japan. A country that imports most of its food cannot be sure that those supplies will always continue to arrive. The time may come in an uncertain future when Japan will once again need to rely on its whaling fleets to supply vital nutrition as it did in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. It is no exaggeration to say that without whale meat there could never have been a Japanese economic miracle. It should not be surprising therefore that the preservation of the nation’s long-term ability to obtain whale meat is regarded as a matter of national importance in government circles.

Unfortunately, such practical considerations clash with the West's growing cult of nature worship, a fetishism that has replaced more traditional forms of worship. Plunging through the bottomless depths of the sea, beneath a limitless sky, the whale, in its splendor, has a sublimity that invests it with a quasi-religious grandeur. To save-the-whalers, the great beast, with its intelligently twinkling eyes, has become their spiritual interface with the Universe. This accounts for much of the raw, irrational passion and fanaticism that powers the anti-whaling movement. As Misaki rightly says, "There is no save the squid movement."

Whales are 'special' for no other reason than that they represent the deep spiritual vacuum in modern Western man. As the English philosopher and writer Roger Scruton told a reporter in 1996: "The worst thing that can happen to us is when people allow religious feeling to flare up in a non-religious form. That explains Nazism and Communism; and I would see something of that in the animal rights movement."

Tokyo Journal
March 2007

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