Human Interaction

Whale Wars Is there widespread support for whaling in Japan?

posted: 05/15/12
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Kindergarteners wave flags illustrated with whales as they give the whaling ship Yushin Maru a rousing send-off on Nov. 17, 2000. Shrugging off worries of possible U.S. sanctions over its expanded whale hunt, Japan sent off its five-ship research whaling fleet for the Antarctic on a mission to take 400 minke whales. Their whaling quota has since increased.
AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
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Whaling practiced by the Japanese is incredibly controversial the world over. But it's also a complex issue within Japan, one that sets us sailing through some pretty murky waters.

What's the Deal with Whaling?

First, let's quickly run through exactly what Japanese whaling entails. Since 1986, the International Whaling Commission has banned commercial whaling. Whaling for scientific purposes, however, is still allowed, and it's regulated by a permit system. In recent years, only Iceland and Japan have pursued research whaling, while aboriginal groups and Norwegians have also performed whaling. During the 2008/2009 whaling season, Japan issued a total of 1,004 permits for coastal and pelagic (open-ocean) whales combined, according to the International Whaling Commission. After the whales were studied, most of the meat was then sold for consumption (which is a requirement of the commission's conventions).

Are the Japanese Diehards for Whaling?

To put things in perspective, Japanese people today do not actually consume all that much whale meat. According to a 2006 Gallup poll conducted by the Nippon Research Center and commissioned by Greenpeace, 95 percent of the population reportedly had not eaten whale meat in a long time, ate whale meat very rarely, or ate it not at all. It seems, however, many Japanese are rather concerned about their traditional right to eat whale meat, regardless of whether they plan on dining on it themselves. It was an important food staple during and after World War II, and remains a sentimental favorite among people who lived through that era. There are also occasional accusations that the West is indulging in culinary snobbery and should butt out when it comes to the cuisine served up in Japanese kitchens.

It does appear that many Japanese people are largely unconcerned by the idea of whaling, in part because whaling and other fisheries are said to form a long-standing tradition for the island nation. Since these practices go back several hundred or even several thousand years, many claim they're culturally justified. One small study collected in a work edited by Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek and Jennifer W. Jay verified this position. Respondents were adamant that whaling was a custom and a right, and should continue as long as whale populations remain stable — although an earlier similar study apparently found less enthusiasm.

However, it is possible that positive feelings toward whaling have more basis in the present than in the past. For many Japanese, exposure to the practice comes mainly in the form of newspaper articles and other forms of mass media that are critical of anti-whaling efforts, something that could fuel the defensive attitude.

Other Perspectives?

According to Japanese scholar Jun Morikawa of Rakuno Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan, while whaling is considered a time-honored tradition in some local communities, in others, whales are revered animals and the thought of hunting them is unthinkable. Morikawa questions the validity of claims that the whaling industry is a kingpin of national Japanese culture, and instead believes that is a falsity spread by a consortium of political and industrial bodies intent on keeping whaling alive.

Indeed, Morikawa (whose specialty is politics and foreign relations, not the environment or conservation) believes Japan's continued whaling not only fails to benefit the nation financially, but actually hurts it in terms of smooth relations with otherwise friendly nations that aren't fans of the practice. He also thinks whaling's popularity is greatly overestimated, especially since Japanese people apparently enjoy whale-watching trips.

So like we said, complicated stuff.

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