I have been writing about Japan for many years but I always try to avoid the subject of whales.
Whaling generates a great deal of emotion and leads to criticism of Japan in the media, with the strong implication that other countries treat animals much better than the Japanese.
I can remember taking a few phone calls on this topic when I was working at the BBC’s office in Tokyo. When asked by colleagues in London to write about whales, I am afraid that I made an excuse that I was “busy on other topics”.
I am not a person who spends much time thinking about animal welfare or hunting. Perhaps I should.
The international press keeps the issue high on the agenda.
Last week, Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission and said it would restart commercial hunting.
This issue became the lead story for the BBC on both its domestic and international outlets. “It means Japan will be able to freely hunt species currently protected by the IWC, like minke whales. Conservation groups warn the move will have serious consequences,” said the BBC website.
The Times newspaper picked up on the issue in an editorial on December 27th. It said: “Japan’s decision further undermines the principle of a rules- based system of international conservation. In a free for all of hunting, it is entirely feasible that, like the great auk in the 19th century, the whale could eventually vanish. No one knows the wide effect that would have on the ecosystems. The disaster must be prevented.”
The New York Times struck a similar tone: “There is no commercial, cultural or scientific justification for killing these magnificent creatures. Japan: Stop Slaughtering Whales!”
So, it is abundantly clear that Japan’s position on whaling brings a torrent of bad publicity with some unpleasant diplomatic implications.
And yet very few people actually eat whales. According to Japan’s Asahi newspaper, whale meat makes up only 0.1% of all meat sold in Japan.
Why do it?
The Financial Times reporter Robin Harding explained that most whale meat ends up in government stockpiles. But he says “the issue is totemic for nationalists and crucial to certain fishing villages represented by members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.”
I gained further insight into the rationale behind whaling by watching a documentary on Netflix which aims to present the issue from a Japanese perspective.
The film is called Behind The Cove: The Quiet Japanese Speak Out!
It claims that the traditional approach to whaling ensures the preservation of species and brings great social benefits to some coastal communities.
The film also shows the “quiet Japanese” loudly shouting at foreign eco-warriors from a group called Sea Shepherd, which stages protests against whaling in the fishing villages, without understanding much about Japanese culture.
The film also raises a question which was absent from this week’s media reports on whales.
Why do people in other countries – including Australia, the EU and the US – make such a distinction between the precious lives of whales and the lives other animals, such as cows, sheep and pigs – or even fish?
My new year’s resolution is to keep an open mind on this topic as I am sure whales are going to hit the headlines again soon.