Thar she blows
Shinzo Abe’s recent comments to a parliamentary committee that he wished to see the resumption of the Antarctic whale hunt have sent a chill as icy as a katabatic wind through the hearts of animal rights campaigners and environmentalists around the world.
Abe’s words are in response to the March 31 ruling of the International Court of Justice, which decreed that Japan’s “scientific” whaling in Antarctica was nothing of the sort, and ordered that “Japan revoke any extant authorization, permit or license to kill, take or treat whales, and refrain from granting any further permits.”
This was, on the surface, a disaster for supporters of whaling in Japan. For the politicians though, it has been interpreted as a face-saving opportunity to finally resolve this exceedingly awkward issue. Japan’s stance on whaling and the undignified employment of the scientific fig leaf has undoubtedly tarnished its image on the world stage. Furthermore, with the industry in terminal decline—and the fleet in need of colossally expensive refitting and maintenance—the whole whaling business has become an enormous financial burden, not to mention a moral and political embarrassment.
Abe justified his stance by playing the cultural tradition card, which may well be the only card the whaling lobby has left as the defenses surrounding the industry have been gradually dismantled over the years. In the 1970s, Shinzo Abe’s own father, as the responsible minister, could defend whaling on the grounds of its necessity as a source of food. That position is no longer sustainable in a country where only 4 percent of the population eats whale meat on anything but a rare occasion. And with concerns over contaminants, that figure is unlikely ever to rise.
Appeals to a business need are now generally recognized as empty given the huge government subsidies necessary to maintain the hunt—including USD$29 million redirected from the Tohoku relief fund. Other arguments such as the accusation that criticism of whaling is based on racism or sentimental anthropomorphism—this coming from the home of Hello Kitty—are too feeble to merit serious attention.
With the whaling lobby running out of options, they seem to have decided (in a perfect example of the maxim uttered by Don Draper in TV’s Mad Men: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”) to make an appeal to the patriotic heart, rather than the rational head. By doing so, they have turned a logical argument, which they can’t win, into an emotional one, which can’t be won, and have steered the debate into dangerous and murky waters.
Whaling in Japan does indeed have an ancient history, but Antarctic whaling using factory ships is only around 70 years old, and has virtually nothing in common with the domestic whaling tradition and its mystical rites and ceremonies to which apologists, including now Abe, try to link it.
What makes the prime minister’s words especially regrettable is that the ICJ’s decision would have allowed the Japanese government an honorable way out. It could have been plausibly claimed that the reluctantly taken decision to terminate the annual whale hunt came about only as a result of gaiatsu (outside pressure), and, in the interest of Japan’s responsibilities as a world-class power, there was no dignified option available but to accede. And in any case, as the ruling only covers Antarctica, not the North Pacific where a smaller operation continues, it would not have signalled the complete end of whaling in Japan.
So why on earth is he bothering? Considering the senselessness of attempting to resuscitate an industry clearly in its death throes, it has been speculated that Japan has an ulterior motive: a wish perhaps to retain some kind of presence in Antarctic waters with a view to claiming resources in that region in the future. Alternatively, Abe could be pandering to the politically powerful mandarins of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
A third possibility, and one the environmentalists will be hoping is the correct one, is that the prime minister was, like the noble beasts he is so keen to renew the slaughter of, simply expelling stale air from his blowhole.