Human Interaction

Whale Wars Is Whaling Culturally Significant?

posted: 05/15/12

DR. TIMOTHY STEPHENS: "So the Japanese have made a number of political, legal and even cultural arguments as to why they should be permitted to carry on whaling in the Southern Ocean and elsewhere. Now, I'm very familiar with the political and legal arguments that have been made. I'm less familiar with some of the cultural arguments ... But I do know that whaling is not a widely popular activity in Japan. People do not eat whale meat routinely. There's thousands of tons of whale meat in deep freeze in various places in Japan."

DR. CHARLOTTE EPSTEIN: "Japan has always had a problem of overpopulation and not enough arable land — not enough farming land. And so there is this very long tradition in Japan of [...] relying on the sea for food. This reliance on the sea as a source of food is a central part of Japanese culture. And it is also what translates in the whaling issue. [In Japan] whaling is as old as the 16th Century. So it goes a fair while back, before the birth of Australia or America. And so whaling has always happened [...] in these four whaling communities.

"[...] At the end of the Second World War, there was a big shortage of food — and particularly protein. And Japan being a [...] country that doesn't have much farming land, they turned to the sea for getting their protein. And it was in fact the American occupiers who reinitiated the whaling tradition at the end of WWII. It was the Americans who said, okay, now whaling seems like a good way to get some meat, let's go do it. General MacArthur, who was sort of governing Japan at the time, saw that there wasn't enough proteins — enough meat — to fulfill the [...] post-war food shortages. So there was, if you like, a second surge of whaling that happened before and after WWII.

"[...] Every whaling expedition was celebrated like a national event, every time they sent the whaling ships down to the Antarctic to get meat. [...] Because the whaling expeditions — every time they went off into Antarctica — appeared in the national media it was a cause for celebration. [...] So this notion of celebrating an achievement of the nation did very much happen with the whaling.

"Whaling today is not actually so important in the sort of generic Japanese population, if you like. [...] For the urban, young Japanese population, whaling is not a super big deal. But there is this sense that because of its place [...] in rebuilding the nation just after WWII, it is important. And also there is a sense that you, the West, are not gonna tell us how important it is to us. We have been whaling since the 16th Century. It's not for you to decide what we do or don't do in terms of how we get our food.

"[...] There is a sense of pride around the consumption of whale meat. And there is a sense [that we're] eating whale meat because we think it's important to our culture [...] in terms of the symbolic value of it. [...] Whaling in the past used to be exclusively about the oil. The reason it's become politically so complicated is that now it's about food. And that's a completely different dynamic. There you're directly talking about a peoples' culture when you're talking about their food. And that's much harder [...] and gets much more tense politically."

DR. TIMOTHY STEPHENS: "I think there's a couple of reasons why the Japanese are keen to continue whaling. The main issue is really food security. Now, the Japanese don't eat much whale. We know that. There's thousands of tons of whale meat stored in freezers in Japan. It's not being consumed. But the Japanese are a net importer of food. They're very concerned about being able to sustain their population.

"Now, it sounds like an odd thing to be concerned about in the 21st Century, but if you remember Japanese history, you remember the critical lack of protein after the Second World War. And General McArthur — for years the general who was in charge of occupied Japan — came along and said, we're gonna start doing industrial whaling to ensure your population is fed. Well, I think that stayed to some extent in the Japanese consciousness. The Japanese do worry about food security, and they are gonna push claims for any resource available, whether it be whales, fish, southern bluefin tuna — which they've been active on — any other species at all."

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