Last week, the black-hulled Nisshin Maru, public enemy number one of ocean worshipers around the globe, steamed out of an oddly quiet Japanese harbor. While traditionally its departure has been the cause of much revelry in the local port of Inoshima, this year saw no fanfare, no sendoff ceremony, no parades – just a shame-steeped ship, skulking southward, bound for the icy waters of the Southern Ocean.
Yes, it’s that wonderful time of year again, the season when the Japanese whaling fleet descends upon the Antarctic whale sanctuary and slaughters hundreds of peaceful cetaceans in the name of research. The scientific papers drawing from this annual festival of brutality are not publicly released, but the Japanese government is unequivocal in stating that these mysterious and inconclusive studies are a more than valid reason to massacre over a thousand whales each year. It is odd, however, that no other country engaging in cetacean research seems to need to butcher these animals in order to learn about their habits, behavior, social networks, and physiology. Strange.
Anyhow, the Nisshin Maru and its sidekick fleet of spotter boats and kill ships return to the Antarctic every year to revisit their dubious mission of butchering whales in the name of science. These ships were designed for one purpose, and one purpose only — the wholesale destruction of cetacean life. The Nisshin Maru in particular is equipped with all facilities necessary to completely disassemble a perfectly functional minke, humpback, or fin whale.
Once the whale has been speared with an explosive harpoon by one of the kill ships, it is transferred to the Nisshin, whereupon it is hauled up onto the deck. A team of specialists eviscerates the whale right then and there, all the while holding up signs with asinine messages like “We are conducting scientific research,” just in case there’s a Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd helicopter around.
The whalers transform the carcass into hundreds of bricks of whale meat, which are then frozen in a specially designed refrigeration unit. The ship rinses and repeats, and when it has fulfilled its quota, it transports its illicit gains over seven thousand miles of ocean, from the Antarctic coast back to Japan. Minus the infinitesimal percentage claimed by the scientific research program, the whale meat is either sold on the open market or purchased and held in deep storage by various appendages of the Japanese government.
It’s difficult for many Americans, Australians, and Europeans to not see whaling as an inherently evil activity. Numerous western cultures have a sort of reverence for these gentle giants. We admire their playful, intelligent nature, and spend our hard-earned dollars to head out to sea in little skiffs in the hope of seeing one or two whales breach nearby, sending small geysers of mucus and salt water skyward as they break the surface.
Still, it’s important to realize that this respect for whales is both cultural and recent. The United States was a major whaling nation up until the early 20th century, and some would argue that just because we Americans have some new-found appreciation for these animals doesn’t mean that there’s any kind of intrinsic reason why a whale merits more consideration than, say, a hagfish.
It’s in this spirit of equality that many Japanese, as well as numerous residents of other whaling nations such as Iceland and Norway, see these animals. There’s nothing special about a whale that disqualifies it from being dinner. What is the difference, one might ask, between a whale and some big fish?
I mean, well, yeah, sure, they’ve got lungs, and a complex evolutionary history, and an intricate social network… oh, and faculties for speech and song, and a larger cranial capacity than humans, and even a fourth cerebral lobe that’s unique to cetaceans, the purpose of which we haven’t even begun to understand… but besides all that, what’s the difference?
So bear with me for a moment and let’s assume that there is no inherent reason why whales merit more respect than any other life-form. Is that reason enough let the Japanese whaling industry off the hook?
Well, no. See, we still have to contend with the fact that whale meat has been falling out of favor in Japan for decades, and that the government uses tax revenue to subsidize not only its production, but the consumption of whale meat as well. Moreover, Tokyo has been implicated in any number of vote-buying scandals at the International Whaling Commission, which has caused even more humiliation for the Japanese leadership. So why do they do it? The scientific excuse is as bogus as they come, and even the strict economic argument makes no sense when the losses are put alongside the gains. What’s the reasoning here?
The fact is that behind the sham of scientific research and beyond the crude excuse of simple profit lies a deeper truth, a miasma of old neuroses and insecurities that bedevil anti-whaling efforts and lash the albatross of this anachronistic industry to the necks of the Japanese leadership. The awful truth of the matter is that whaling has virtually nothing to do with whales. In fact, whaling is more about all the other animals swimming in the ocean – especially tuna.
We’ve already established that a fishing nation may or may not discriminate between whales and fish based on its cultural value system. If said nation does not do so, then a whale is, for all intents and purposes, a very big fish. With that in mind, consider the following:
Japan is an extremely densely populated island nation, with nearly 200 million people in an area the size of the state of California. It has little arable land and traditionally takes the lion’s share of its protein from the ocean. Japan is also wealthy nation with a strong middle class, as well as the world’s largest consumer of seafood per capita. A tremendous amount of Japanese GDP is reliant on the seafood industry due to unflagging consumer demand. As such, Japanese companies must be able to access oceanic resources with as little interference as possible.
Without a cultural reason to discriminate between whales and fish, Japanese leadership can easily interpret multinational opposition to whaling as a precursor to similar efforts that would address other, more valuable (and more endangered) species – such as bluefin tuna. The Japanese bluefin tuna complex is a massive global enterprise worth billions of dollars, and it dwarfs the whaling industry by orders of magnitude.
Efforts to protect or manage whale stocks are therefore seen as the ominous foreshadowing of a world where Japanese fleets wouldn’t necessarily be free to ransack the oceans as they pleased. This idyllic vision is, of course, anathema to the policymakers in Tokyo.
Add this to the fact that the men in power (and it is men, overwhelmingly) in the Diet are the same who spent their formative years in the unfortunate era just after World War II where food security really was an issue in Japan. People were starving in the streets; Japan’s infrastructure and traditional social networks had been eradicated by the twin tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was at this point that the American occupational force introduced large-scale whaling to the Japanese as a manner of providing protein to the hungry. Whale meat was used in school lunches, government meal programs, and other subsidized institutions. One could argue that at the time, the consumption of whale meat actually helped to beat back starvation and to invigorate a populace that was in the grip of malnutrition.
But that was then. This is now, and the Japanese are healthy and wealthy. Whales aren’t important anymore. The principles of sovereignty and food security, however, still are.
So a line is drawn in the sand. The Japanese government will fight the battle here, with whales, so no precedent is set for tuna, or for eel, or for crabs and urchin. Never again shall Japan face the humiliation of starvation, and never shall the outside world again be allowed to interfere with Japan’s sovereign right to exploit the oceans in order to feed its people. And if a few whales have to die in order to protect this status quo, well, so be it. Right?
This is unacceptable. Whales are dying, and I’m not objecting because I think whales are special, or because I think that the Japanese need to be more like Americans, or anything like that. This is not a racial issue, so anyone who’s planning to come at me with some bogus “you’re a racist” argument, just give it up right now. It’s a contrived, tangential distraction, and you know it. (Seriously. I’m a sushi blogger, for God’s sake.)
No, I object because these whales are being slaughtered simply to fuel a political pissing contest that has nothing to do with them. They don’t die in the name of science, or cultural preservation, or even the dollar and the yen. No, these whales die to appease a small group of powerful old men, riddled with insecurities, whose fear of economic disenfranchisement and aversion to political humiliation is apparently more important than the lives of these magnificent animals. They die so the Japanese government can continue to deny the fact that if we’re all going to live on this planet, and if we’re going to save the ocean, we’re going to have to work together.
End whaling now.