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Whaling and Lamentation

Why the Japanese insist on slaughtering our lovable sea cousins.


After hunting them to the edge of extinction, the Western capitalist world seems finally to have accepted the great whales, the largest creatures on earth, as our lovable seagoing cousins. This affection does not extend to the Japanese, whose diet still includes whale meat. At the recent London meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the Rising Sun flag was publicly burned, Japanese delegates were sprayed with red paint representing the blood of slaughtered whales, and the Japanese sat stonily through a spirited rendering by John Denver of the anti-whaling ballad "I Want to Live," sung through a Japanese-made microphone.

These emotional proceedings make an interesting contrast with the business deal quietly concluded in Tokyo last April, soon after the North Pacific whaling season had officially opened between Japan and the Soviet Union. These two neighbors never have gotten along, but they share an interest in whaling, as the last two nations still operating factory ships. These ships come with an array of fast chaser boats, spotting helicopters, and sonar detection gear, all of which leave even the nimblest whale little chance of escape.

The Tokyo deal gives Japan 227 Bryde's whales, 400 minkes, and 1458 sperms (the most endangered species still legally hunted) for the 1979 season, while the Soviets can take 227 Bryde's, no minkes, and 2342 sperms. Each side will allow observers from the other to travel with the whaling fleets and personally check the catch. The Japanese want to eat the whales they catch. The Russians want to sell most of their catch to Japan, in a complicated barter deal for refrigeration equipment no longer needed by the rapidly contracting Japanese whaling industry. Both sides also have a modest conservation interest, in the sense that both would like to catch some more whales in the North Pacific next year. The only other people hunting whales in these chilly waters are a handful of Aleutian Eskimos, who still hunt with iron harpoons and unstable canoes and run as big a risk as the whales themselves.

Thus the devotedly capitalist Japanese, whose trading and defense interests would seem to lie almost exclusively with the whale-loving Western world, are lining up with their old enemies the Russians on this emotive issue. This seems to be shaping as yet another public relations disaster for Japan, because the whales have recently found powerful friends. President Carter of the United States (which ceased whaling in the 1930s) and fisheries minister Alick Buchanan-Smith of Britain (last voyage, 1963) have called for a universal moratorium on whaling. Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser joined the call for a worldwide ban in April, just about the time the last Australian whaling station was closing down for good after taking 561 sperm whales for the year. Most of the Australian whale oil went to Britain, where it is used in margarine, cosmetics, and such ecologically sound activities as lubricating racing cars and model airplane engines. The Australian whaling station was closed because of falling profits.

But falling profits have not daunted the Japanese, whose Taiyo Fisheries companies actually lost $12 million on whaling operations in 1978. Kinshiro Sorimachi of the Japanese Whaling Association said in London that Japan "will continue whaling at any cost," adding that Carter 's proposal was "an outrageous one put forward in his desire to get re-elected next year." T he Japanese press has backed Sorimachi to the hilt. Non-whaling nations, says the Asahi Shimbun, "cannot, and are unwilling to understand the position in which Japan is situated: being a small insular country, Japan has been forced to rely on whaling for its animal protein requirements. The time has come for this nation to say what it thinks right."

The Japan Whaling Association says that if whaling were banned, "about 200,000 Japanese people, whose livelihood depends on whaling directly and indirectly, would be affected. … Furthermore, the disappearance of whale meat from the Japanese diet and culture would be a matter of great concern for the Japanese government." Inagaki Motonobu, a 58-year-old lawyer who is chairman of the Japan Joint Whaling Company, put it even more bluntly: talk of a ban, he said, was "an attempt to maintain the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race." Lawyer Inagaki has noticed that the reformed ex-whaling nations which dominate the International Whaling Commission—Britain, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa—are pretty much the same crowd that has been running the world, on and off, ever since Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open its ports to American whalers in 1854.

For a shrill voice from the other side, we might consider an advertisement published in Australia by the Friends of the Earth: "Japan's treatment of the great whales is akin to the Nazi policy of extermination of the Jews. One Japanese whaling official was heard to say that he would be glad to see the last whale killed—it would mean that they had done their job efficiently."

It seems clear that at least some species of the whale are threatened with the fate of the American buffalo and the Tasmanian aborigine. But have the Japanese arguments any merit?

It is perfectly true that whale meat is on sale in Japan. I have just been down to price it in my local supermarket, and found that Central Capital Foodstuffs Company is offering marinated whale steak at the equivalent of $1.80 a pound, less than half the price of the cheapest stewing beef in Japan. Smoked whale bacon (artificially colored and preserved) is on sale at the same price. Both items were at the back of the freezer, outnumbered 50 to one by packs of fish, beef, chicken, prawns, clams, and other staples of the Japanese diet. The re is one whale meat restaurant in Tokyo, seating 24 whale gourmets at a time. Raw whale tail sometimes is available in raw fish restaurants (as is raw bear and raw horse, in some parts of this exotic country). The Kujira whale restaurant offers whale sukiyaki at five dollars a plate, and raw whale tail sushi-style at $12.50 for an eight-ounce portion, rice included. This suggests that there is still a small, sophisticated market for high-priced whale meat.

Figures from the Japanese Agriculture Ministry indicate that the Japanese last year consumed 58,300 tons of whale meat, down from 120,000 tons in 1973. Of this amount, about a quarter was eaten in Japanese households as whale stew. A quarter was served as school lunches. (Children get no choice about their lunch; whale is even cheaper than imported "industrial" beef, and Japanese school boards are notoriously stingy). A quarter of the whale supply was made into artificial ham, pies, and sausages (Japanese sausage makers keep their recipes confidential). The remaining quarter went in various non-human ways, such as fertilizer and pet food. This last quarter was mostly sperm whale, too fishy for even Japanese whale lovers, and with alarming concentrations of mercury.

This total of 58,300 tons works out at just over one pound of whale meat per Japanese per year. A people threatened with starvation? A culture menaced? "It is difficult" states a catty memo circulated among the EEC embassies in Tokyo last month, "to see what the cultural significance of artificial ham or whale meat sausages is to Japan. If the demand for real ham cannot be met by local production, Denmark would be delighted to make up the deficit, which would also help to reduce Japan's trade surplus of $6.4 billion with the European Community."

My Japanese friends, however, see a different picture. "Whale meat is vital to the Japanese people," I was told by a local restaurant proprietor, a well-informed and intelligent man. "When did you last eat whale?" "Not since I left school. The lunches were horrible." Other Japanese friends gave the same reply: they never ate whale themselves, but believe that other Japanese lived on it. The pound-a-year statistic they found hard to believe.

Japanese are Buddhist-animist in their religious beliefs. The Buddhist reverence for life is strong; it was many centuries after the introduction of Buddhism before the Japanese could be induced to eat any animal meat at all. Even today, slaughterhouse workers are outcasts in the Japanese community. The whales, when they were first caught in Japanese offshore nets in the 17th century, seemed like a gift of protein straight from Buddha. The frugal Japanese saw nothing wrong in this, especially as every part of the whale—skin, bones, entrails, and blubber—was used. On the other hand, the way Westerners dumped whale meat into the sea revolted them, especially as they were doing it in full sight of the Japanese coast during the gung-ho days of Anglo-Saxon whaling. (More recently this shameful occidental practice has been removed to the privacy of western Australia.) The sudden holier-than-thou conversion of the Westerners, when they have no further use for the whale themselves, confirms Japanese in their notions of barefaced Western hypocrisy.

The attitude of the Japanese about whaling thus has venerable religious sanction. And like conventional wisdom everywhere, it is a decade or two behind the facts. The real Japanese need for whale meat ended when the good times began and foreign exchange became abundant, in the 1960s. Current Japanese policy is much more the product of internal Japanese politics, manipulating a poorly informed public opinion.

Whaling in Japan is mostly one company, Taiyo Fisheries, which is the driving force behind the Japan Joint Whaling Company, the last firm still engaged in whaling. Only 1600 people are directly employed in whaling (the 200,000 is a patriotic invention by Taiyo's PR firm. International Public Relations of Tokyo), but under the Japanese system they cannot be readily fired. Many are getting along in years and will be difficult to place elsewhere. Where are the openings, even in a country with under two percent unemployment, for a skilled harpooner and blubber hand? Who, for that matter, wants a 58-year-old whaling lawyer?

Taiyo has been able to find some powerful allies inside Japan in its all-hands-to-the-pump efforts to keep the company afloat. The Japanese Seamens' Union has been able to bring in the Japan Socialist party, and has been methodically lobbying the labor attaches of all the foreign embassies in Tokyo. The fishermen's cooperatives can deliver many votes in the seaside constituencies that are strongholds of the ruling Liberal Democratic party. These people act out of the belief that they are helping to stop prejudiced foreigners from breaking the rice bowls of brother Japanese, the romanticized whale men. In addition, fisheries minister Michio Watanabe, a power on the right wing of the Liberal Democrats, went to college with Prime Minister Ohira. In Japan, that's pull.

Clearly, the best public relations move Japan could take would be to get out of whaling altogether, but there is no one in Japan willing to listen. Japan does not work by abstract policy debate (does any country?) but by internal consensus, slow to form and difficult to break. These interal negotiations, conducted in innumerable bars and geisha houses, and over endless golf games and jolly drinking bouts, are not open to whale-loving or any other kinds of foreigners. A Japanese consensus is not about facts, but about achieving a Confucian unity of action (one hundred million hearts beating as one, as the Japanese saying goes), which generally operates in the interest of some concealed group.

For every Japanese who still likes whale, there are a thousand who patronize McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken. (In Japan, the Colonel has a joint venture with Mitsubishi, who can spot a trend a mile off and got out of whaling years ago.) The Japanese whaling industry is on its last legs, doomed along with swordmaking and paper lanterns and silk kimono and most of the other folklorique corners of Japanese life.

Japanese in general (despite the activities of self-centered pressure groups) set a great value on standing well in Western opinion, and are not exactly proud of making cozy deals with the Russians. A ban on the import of whale products from sources outside the International Whaling Commission is likely, possibly as early as 1980. This would remove the last market of the Sierra, the famous pirate whaling ship, already damaged in a ramming incident staged by anti-whaling militants in the North Atlantic. That will leave only the Japanese whalers themselves, who are now getting on in years and supplying less than half of the dwindling Japanese demand. Japanese whaling probably will die out before the whale does.

This article originally ran in the September 1, 1979, issue of the magazine.