To the Editor,

Tets Kimura's opinion piece on getting to know and understand the Japanese whalers misses one very important point.

By the time we convince the Japanese to voluntarily stop killing whales there may be no more whales to save.

What Japan is doing is a violation of Australian law and Australia has the legal authority to stop their illegal activities in the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Kimura also states inaccurately that more attention is given to Japanese whaling than to Icelandic and Norwegian whaling. The fact is we have sunk two Icelandic whalers and three Norwegians whalers and not one Japanese whaler - yet.

Kimura pleads for a non-emotional approach. However, the grisly illegal slaughter of these whales is an emotional issue. Perhaps it is the Japanese who need to understand this and not us kow-towing to their cold blooded logic.

Captain Paul Watson
President of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society


The Age

Getting to know the Japanese

By Tets Kimura
January 16, 2007

Illustration: Dyson

Australia stopped whaling three decades ago and public opinion has changed so much that whaling stations such as those at Victor Harbor (in South
Australia) have been turned from butchering grounds into whaling sanctuaries. This means we have little sympathy for Japanese whaling expeditions, especially under the pretext of "research".

However, if we genuinely want to stop Japanese whaling, we need to go beyond recrimination and emotive comments and try to understand the Japanese viewpoint. That knowledge may help us to couch our arguments so that the Japanese listen to us.

Many Japanese see Australia as a country with no history. Indigenous history of 40,000 years is not recognised, while the 200-odd years of modern Australia's history is considered of little significance. Japan, on the other hand, has a long, culturally rich history that is well recorded. The practice of whaling is even mentioned in the Kojiki (or ancient records), dating back to 712, allowing Japanese officials to claim that whaling is a Japanese tradition. However, we need to treat the Japanese claims for cultural privilege a little cautiously.

First, the concept of Japan as a single entity is a relatively modern term.
Edo (Tokyo nowadays) became the capital in 1603, but the sense of "Japanese-ness" did not penetrate everyday lives until the time of the Meiji restoration of 1868, when Japan modernised itself against emerging Western influences. The nation-wide education system was established and, for the first time in history, Japanese children were taught that they were citizens of Japan. Until then, most Japanese belonged to their local town or village but not to Japan. Thus, there is no such thing as tradition of Japan until 140 years ago, which is shorter than the colonial "history" of Australia.

Second, while Japan is an island state, it is predominantly a mountainous country, with three-quarters of the land covered with thick forests. Whaling was only a tradition in some seaside villages. Even when Japan applied for the "aboriginal subsistence whaling" rights, their application specified only four coastal communities.

Third, the tradition of mass whaling only began after the war, due to food shortages. Large-scale whaling made whale meat available at a reasonable price as a substitute for "real meat" such as beef or pork. Many older Japanese have nostalgic feelings towards whale meat even though it is not their continuing traditional food. However, modern Japanese are not fond of whale meat at all. Contrary to the impression given in the Australian media, whale meat is not regularly eaten by Japanese people and is not readily available in Japanese supermarkets. The Japanese certainly don't eat whale meat every day, every week or even every month or year. It is also three times more expensive than the luxury seafood of tuna, making it an unpopular choice.

Japan's whaling is "scientific" on paper - and, according to the international agreement, Japan has every right to conduct scientific whaling, including the use of the "byproduct" whale meat.

However, Japan is also criticised since research activities are not producing creditable scientific data and, even if they were, most data can be collected without killing any whales. This explains why Japan continues its "tradition" of whaling so as not to lose face. The Japanese feel they are culturally discriminated against, especially in comparison with how other whaling European countries, such as Norway and Iceland, receive far less media attention.

For example, there is such a thing as a whale burger, as reported in the Australian media, available at the Lucky Pierrot fast-food restaurant.
However, the company runs only 12 stores in Hokkaido, a small number for a population of 120 million people. Ironically, the Pierrot company is known as an "environmental" company. It believes in the slow-food lifestyle and uses only local organic vegetables and freshly made patties. This may seem a contradiction but that is because whaling is not considered an environmental issue. Even if it were, environmental issues attract little media attention in Japan. This is a critical point to understand if we are to make any progress in the dialogue. In Japan (and other whaling countries), the whaling issue is dealt with by the Ministry of Fisheries. Thus, whaling discussions between pro and anti-whaling countries are carried on between fishermen and environmentalists who are likely to have totally different backgrounds, political agendas and briefs.

More importantly, the ordinary Japanese are environmentally conservative at best, at worst completely ignorant. For example, the Japanese tend to believe that fresh water is unlimited (because of the mountainous and rainy climate). If you happen to have a Japanese visitor, you will be amazed at how much water they use, just for everyday showering and washing. They might be aware of the issue of water shortage but it does not impact on their daily practices.

They also have little knowledge of environmental and related political issues. According to a Japanese survey, only one in 10 Japanese understood the content of the Kyoto Protocol. The whaling issue tends to be seen as something that is shouted about by crazy greenies. And such matters rarely appear in the media for discussion or debate. Even if they did, the majority of Japanese just don't see the point.

If we are serious about our anti-whaling stance, then we should make an effort to understand the position of our "adversary". This article has tried to clarify some of the barriers to fruitful communication. We have tried to explain Japan's position, without defending it. The media often dramatise the situation but emotive and prejudicial reporting does little to resolve the issues. Knowledge is the first step to productive debate.

Tets Kimura is a freelance journalist of Japanese background, who specialises in environmental issues.

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