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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2009

Whaling: the latest culture war

Emily HunterWebsite

Japan claims its annual Antarctic whale hunt is its cultural heritage. Is it racist if we tell them to stop? A report from the front lines of the whaling wars

A whale being hauled up the slipway of the Japanese whaling flagship, the Nisshin Maru. Photo by Joshua Gunn

A whale being hauled up the slipway of the Japanese whaling flagship, the Nisshin Maru. Photo by Joshua Gunn

It’s a sight I’ll never forget: a whale being hacked up in front of me, cut into tiny squares, its excess blood and guts discarded. One minute, it was a whole whale; 20 minutes later, nothing but a spinal cord and the harpoon that killed it.

It was February 6, 2009, and I had spent two months in the Antarctic Ocean with Sea Shepherd, the radical conservationist group. Sea Shepherd is notorious for the extreme tactics it uses to stop whaling in the southern oceans each year. Its ship, the M/Y Steve Irwin, had chased and harassed the Japanese whaling fleet for weeks to prevent them from hunting. But on this particular day, the whalers killed in front of us, and at first we could only watch from a distance. But it soon became a confrontation.

The Yushin Maru No. 3, a harpoon ship, attempted to transfer a dead whale to the mother ship, Japan’s whaling flagship, the Nisshin Maru, the floating factory that processes whale meat at sea. The Irwin moved to block that transfer by manoeuvring into the Yushin Maru’s path. Within seconds, the boats collided with a loud crash and screeching noise that rang through our ears. The Irwin tipped 30 degrees on its side—it felt as if the ship was going belly-up. I was on the outside deck of the Irwin, hanging on to a railing watching the water approach from below. The Yushin was pushed down into the water by the force of the impact. I can only imagine the crew must have thought they would have to abandon ship. But 22 seconds later, when the two boats scraped apart, all had survived, with only minor damage to the vessels. It was a collision of two boats—but also a collision of worlds.

The Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo, along with many of its supporters, argue that the annual whale hunt by Japan is the country’s national heritage, and that efforts to end Japan’s whaling is colonial Western arrogance. The critics, such as Sea Shepherd, claim that the Japanese government is simply playing a “culture card” to stymie criticism. They believe that conservation—preserving wildlife—outweighs any such cultural differences.

However, are eco-issues, like whaling, really a simple matter of culture versus conservation? Are these two opposing sides? Can they be reconciled? And if they are in opposition, is it right for cultural concerns to trump environmental ones? I take the issue personally. In high school, I lived in Japan for a year on an exchange program. I lived with a Japanese host family, attended a Japanese-speaking high school, and grew to love the culture, country, and my new friends: Japan became a second home for me. But my first home is the environmental movement. My parents, Robert and Bobbi Hunter, were ecoactivists who had fought on the first anti-whaling campaigns against the Soviets in the North Pacific in the 1970s. My father co-founded Greenpeace, which has campaigned against the global whaling industry for decades.

So you can understand why, on one hand, I felt it was important to be part of the environmental battle for the whales. But on the other, I believe cross-cultural understanding and co-operation is vital. The issue is more complex than black and white. Japan claims that its annual whale hunt is for scientific purposes. The “research” hunt is run by the Institute of Cetacean Research, which is heavily subsidized by the government of Japan. The ICR studies whale-stock demography and health. To do this, the Japanese whaling fleet targets around 900 Minke whales annually. In addition, each year a different endangered species of whale is targeted, including humpback and fin whales.

Once the scientific data is collected, the whale meat is then sold for commercial use by Kyodo Senpaku, the same private firm that runs the fleet. Selling whale meat for commercial use after collecting it for scientific use is acceptable under current international whaling laws. Recently, however, the hunt has also been called “cultural” by the ICR, which says that Japan is simply continuing its centuries-old cultural practice of whaling. Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace, among others, dismiss these claims as a smokescreen. If it is in fact commercial and not scientific, that would make the hunt illegal: there has been an international ban on commercial whaling since 1986.

Believing the law is on its side, Sea Shepherd was the lone group to oppose the Japanese whaling hunt in Antarctica this past winter. Sea Shepherd fights the whaling industry everywhere, whether Norwegian, Icelandic, or Japanese. Sea Shepherd’s members don’t buy the cultural basis of the hunt any more than they buy its scientific value. And so the group engages in radical direct action to stop the hunts, such as ramming ships at sea and sinking ships in port, which is why some governments have labelled Sea Shepherd “eco-terrorists.” Its activities have undoubtedly stopped or limited whaling activity around the world.

Some critics, such as Milton Freeman, a specialist in ecology and culture at the University of Alberta, view groups like Sea Shepherd as difficult cases. He worries that their anti-Japanesewhaling line leads to rhetoric that is simply anti-Japanese. Freeman views anti-whaling actions as not just an animal-rights issue, but also a type of cultural bullying. It’s Western ecogroups campaigning against the remaining whaling nations, such as Japan, demanding they cease their hunt and assimilate Western cultural beliefs about whales and conservation.

This is what’s increasingly known in academic circles as “political ecology”—essentially, the politics of nature and the different ways people understand and treat nature. For some, a whale is just another fish in the sea, a resource like any other to be harvested. Others put a different value on a whale, and see a socially complex, highly intelligent sentient being that deserves the chance for a full and healthy life.

Freeman argues that our own Western views on whaling don’t give us the right to attack Japanese beliefs about it: “Seeking to stop a culturally valued activity, in any society,” he says, “is to attack those people’s culture and identity.”

Jun Hoshikawa doesn’t feel attacked. “What is taking place in the Southern Ocean is not part of Japanese culture and traditions,” says Hoshikawa, director of Greenpeace Japan. “There is a difference between coastal whaling in Japan and the industrial hunt in the Southern Ocean. Coastal whaling has taken place for centuries and continues today on a small scale with boats and spears. That can be argued to be part of Japan’s culture and identity … The industrial hunt in the Antarctic was introduced by western countries post-World War II, and is run by the government of Japan today using a six-ship fleet with exploding harpoons and guns, and it kills whales on a mass scale. It was and is purely a commercial industry. I do not call that culture.”

Hoshikawa says 82 percent of people in Japan do not eat whale meat. The profits come mainly from delicacy food restaurants or “public provisions,” where whale meat is provided to high school cafeterias, jails and the military. Mainly, it “goes to people who cannot reject the whale meat,” Hoshikawa says in a phone interview from Tokyo.

In the past, the whale-meat industry regularly produced ¥7 billion annually (US$74 million) in profit. But in recent years, profits have dropped off due to decreasing demand in Japan and unfilled catch quotas because of interference from groups like Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace. In 2007, the industry saw profits of just ¥5 million (US$51,000). The government of Japan has heavily subsidized the ICR’s whale program over the years to allow its work to continue, despite the financial loss. The real reason Japan persists with whaling, says Hoshikawa, is not because it is a profitable industry any longer, but because “the whaling issue has been framed through a lens of nationalism. It has less to do with whales or the industry and more to do with protecting the sovereign right of a country.” With so much negative international attention focused on Japan because of its whaling, the country is being pressured by other nations to stop the whaling project. In the last few years, nationalism has crept onto the scene: although the hunt is commercially unviable, countries like Japan that still run whaling hunts now see it as a political defeat to cave in to international pressure.

This is not an abstract issue for Canada: many of the same dynamics are at play when it comes to Canada’s annual seal hunt. On this issue, we are regarded with much the same contempt by the international community that Japan bears for its whaling.

“Every state is sovereign and can do whatever it wants” says Calestous Juma, former special advisor to the chair of the International Whaling Commission and professor of International Development Studies at Harvard University. “You can’t condemn sovereign states for exercising their rights because they will just go ahead and do it.” The International Whaling Commission is the international body that regulates whaling. Over the years, the IWC has sent letters of protest to Japan against the hunt in the Southern Ocean. In the IWC’s 2007 letter, it wrote that the lethal hunt of whales was unnecessary for Japan’s research, and called upon the government of Japan to suspend the whaling program.

But there are no real consequences for flouting the IWC rules, since as Juma says, there is no separate enforcement body for the treaty. The IWC comprises 84 member states that meet once a year to set quotas and regulations on whaling. But without an enforcement body, the regulations are toothless. Norway for example, works outside of the IWC and engages in commercial whaling despite the moratorium. Japan, in contrast, attempts to work within the framework by using the scientific loophole. This is because Japan has a real interest in doing things legally. “They want to be a good global citizen,” says Juma.

Ironically, the Japan Whaling Association states on its website that the purpose of the Japanese scientific research in whale stocks and health is to gather evidence that will lift the moratorium so that commercial whaling can resume. Dr. Hiroshi Hatanaka, director-general of the Institute for Cetacean Research in Tokyo, says that because the ICR believes whale stocks to be plentiful and healthy, “there is no need or reason to prevent sustainable commercial whaling in the Antarctic under IWC management procedures.”

The international community has reacted, but so far the results have been lacklustre. Panama de-registered the whaling fleet’s cargo vessel late last year, but Japan re-registered it under its own national registration; the Australian and New Zealand governments toughened their stance against Japan’s whaling, threatening to take action legally in international courts. But so far, these diplomatic and legal actions have been unsuccessful or stalled. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in June 2008 that Australia and Japan would simply have to agree to disagree.

Over the winter, a small group of IWC countries have been working at negotiating an agreement with Japan that would gradually phase out whaling in the Southern Ocean by reducing the catch by 20 percent per year for five years. In exchange, Japan would get permission to kill an increased but yet-to-be-determined number of whales off Japan’s coasts in the Pacific Ocean.

The package was developed at the request of the American chairman, Bill Hogarth, a Bush administration appointee. It was intended to be a step forward in ending Southern Ocean whaling and break the deadlock with Japan. However, most environmental groups, such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, believe this was a compromise that would both allow Japan to continue its commercial hunt, and effectively lift the global moratorium on commercial whaling. But Japan refused the deal. Japan’s Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries minister Shigeru Ishiba said, “We cannot accept any proposal that would allow outside countries to prohibit Japan from continuing its research hunt.”

So the question becomes: is whaling simply a question of sovereignty? In this case, does diplomacy trump ethics, leaving the international community powerless to stop the killing? The Japanese whaling industry has cunningly used the term “culture” as a get-out-of-jail-free card—by framing this as an issue of culture or sovereignty, it aims to make any antiwhaling group look like they are colonialist and discriminatory. But the reality is that the hunt is senseless slaughter in service of fake science, a dead industry, and nationalist posturing. The whales should not bear the punishment for our foolishness.

How far are we willing to go—how much environmental damage are we willing to do—in the name of culture, heritage, national pride? None of these things will be of much use in an environmentally devastated land- and seascape.

More than 30 years ago, in 1977, my parents fought to end whaling in Australia. Their protest, in Albany, Western Australia, led to international attention, that culminated in the end of whaling in Australia. It is now one of the strongest anti-whaling nations in the world.

At the end of the anti-whaling campaign I went on this year with Sea Shepherd, I found myself in Australia and decided to visit Albany. What I found there was a miniature eco-haven: a dozen wind-power generators spinning on the horizon and organic crops in the fields. One of the old harpoon ships of the Australian whaling fleet, Cheynes IV, is now an on-land museum, and boats go out every day filled with tourists for whale-watching. The whale-watching industry has now surpassed the profitability of the whale-killing industry of 30 years ago.

I took a boat ride myself to see the whales. We got to see them up close, close enough that I could touch them. They played together in their pod, diving and chasing, waving their fins out of the water as they breached, tails in the air. It’s another sight I’ll never forget.

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