The Superwhale Myth:
The Motivations of the Japanese Government's Pro-Whaling Policy
Armstrong Atlantic State University
Beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century, the continuation of Japanese whale hunting has been condemned by the international community, but the reasons why the nation continues the practice are not often understood. An examination of the tradition of whaling in Japan and the conflict between Japan and the anti-whaling movement provides insight into the motivations of the Japanese government’s pro-whaling stance, especially its cultural meaning to the society. Aside from the common and oversimplified explanations of economic benefits and scientific research, the government also seeks to preserve Japanese culture and to bolster a sense of national solidarity. The Japanese government finds that the attack on their policy by the anti-whaling movement is motivated by cultural ignorance and Western racism. Therefore, Japan’s pro-whaling position and the resulting struggle against the international community can be perceived as a battle of cultures. This offers an opportunity for an examination of the multiple conflicts between tradition and modernity, nationalism and globalism, indigenous culture and foreign influence, and human centrality and broader environmental concerns, all hold great relevance in our global community of the twenty-first century.
Whaling off Goto, by Hokusai Katsushika (1816)
The practice of whaling has existed for several centuries and in multiple societies. In Europe, the earliest recorded account was the Basques of the eleventh century. The practice eventually spread throughout Europe and turned into a thriving industry, with whales used for “food, fertilizers, fuel, and other commodities.”1
In Japan, passive whaling (the use of beached whales) existed for many years before the emergence of active whaling. According to the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), a government supported research group, the Japanese were actively whaling during the Jomon Period (10,000-300 BCE), though many scholars have disagreed with such an early date and it is commonly accepted that active whaling in Japan began in the sixteenth century.2
By the seventeenth century, the Japanese utilized a net method called amitori that spread throughout Japan and required a large work force possessing specialized skills.
Traditionally, whaling in Japan was based around the coastal areas, though this changed in the nineteenth century when whalers ventured further from the conventional coastline. In the twentieth century, the Japanese whaling industry emerged on the global market and became one of the leading exporters of whale goods, especially whale oil. This rapid growth of commercial whaling was largely due to the further expansion of the hunting grounds into the Antarctic and the use of the Norwegian method of hunting, both brought in larger hauls of whales. The Japanese whale products exported to the Western world (including the United States) impacted industrialization, “with blubber providing oil for lamps and machine lubrication.”3
In a 1928 report, Hirosi Saito, the Consul General to the United States, touted whales as one of Japan's valuable natural resources. Whaling supplemented “the Japanese national earnings by 2,000,000 yen,” displaying whale’s importance for Japanese trade with the United States.4
While the commercial whaling of the past was socially acceptable and internationally practiced, the middle of the twentieth century brought a change in attitude concerning its ethical credibility. In 1946, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded to regulate industrial whaling. During the 1950s and 1960s, to meet the approved quotas of the IWC (based not on actual populations but on how much whale oil could be extracted from each species) and to compensate for the massive investment into equipment, “Olympic whaling” developed. During the 1961 and 1962 seasons, over 66,900 whales were killed by the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan, an unprecedented amount.5
The IWC developed throughout the latter half of the twentieth century into an organization dedicated to the preservation of whales.
A Great Whale Catch, by Baido Masanobu (1884)
This was credited to the shifting cultural importance placed upon the marine mammals by the West. After the Japanese government agreed to adhere to the IWC's moratorium on commercial whaling enacted in 1986, its controversial pro-whaling policy of the twentieth century centered on more than the financial motivations of the past.
A critical component of the pro-whaling policy of the Japanese government is the preservation of the nation's whaling culture. According to the Institute of Cetacean Research and the Japanese government, the Japanese have a longstanding tradition of whaling in their culture that stretches “back to beginnings in prehistoric times.”6
However, many Western nations trivialize the Japanese whaling tradition, highlighting an Australian diplomat’s statement, “when they [the Japanese] say there are cultural reasons or that it is part of their cuisine, most of that is nonsense.”7
Government officials and members of the pro-whaling movement have remained adamant that Japan has held an ancient tradition of whaling and a strong culture surrounds the practice. Seiji Ohsumi, an adviser to the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), stated in 2003 that “Japan is proud of the tradition of whaling which she has built up over nine thousand years and firmly believes in the sustainable use of whales as food resource.”8
The government's promotion of the culture and tradition surrounding whaling is inspired by the desire for a symbol of Japanese identity and sovereignty. The small-type coastal whaling deemed integral to the Japanese identity is prohibited by the IWC, though its use by indigenous peoples, such as the Alaskan Inuits, is accepted by the Commission. The native inhabitants of these coastal areas have relied on whaling for “not only the material benefits it provided but also for the social and cultural benefits.”9
Throughout the 1990s, the Japanese government presented several papers in order to present evidence that “the moratorium has not only destroyed the town's central source of income, but has also contributed to declining community solidarity and the loss of a rich cultural tradition as many customs, such as the giving of whale meat, can no longer be fulfilled.”10
The focus by the government on this relatively small population of whalers (around one hundred people located in Ayukawa, Taiji, Wada, and Abashiri) permitted them to develop a positive image of a hunt steeped in history that is challenged by outsiders. Additionally, it provided a human element to the story of the “barbaric” people dependent on whaling for their livelihood. The government, as well as the Fisheries Agency and other (government supported) pro-whaling institutions, has launched a propaganda “campaign” to promote the image of the long history and the positive effect of whaling on the nation. The coastal whalers are presented as the “present day heirs to a historical legacy of community-based whaling” with whale festivals held to promote this image and raise Japanese awareness of their nation's history.11
The Japan Whaling Association (also affiliated with the government) has published and distributed pamphlets and brochures promoting whale meat consumption and its importance to tradition and culture.
However, the preservation of whaling culture does not simply apply to the practice in Japan's history, but also to the preservation of the whaling culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The pro-whaling movement within Japan has depended on the support of cultural elites (“ex-bureaucrats, academics, journalists or writers”) and subsidies provided by the government in order to maintain a system that has financially and politically benefited this select group of individuals.12
In addition, many owners of restaurants specializing in the preparation of whale meat have lobbied for the resumption of commercial whaling. While the popularity of whale meat among the younger generation of Japan has declined and many of them feel an ambivalence toward the pro-whaling policy, a large portion of citizens from the World War Two generation continue to support the use of whales as a resource; rallies held by the Group to Preserve Whale Dietary Culture (GPWDC) attract Japanese in their fifties and sixties and employ slogans such as, “delicious whale meat is a pride of Japan.”13
The older generation of cultural elites and Japanese citizens, whether they experienced economic success during the whale trade of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or look back on the consumption of whale meat with a sense of nostalgia, seek to preserve the whaling culture they directly experienced and that of which was experienced by those in the past.
However, the whale is not simply a source of meat. From the passive whaling of ancient times to the active whaling that originated in the seventeenth century, the Japanese have perceived the whale as a versatile resource. In contrast, the Western World, namely the United States, has developed an anthropomorphic view of the whale as the “Superwhale:” “uniquely special” creatures that are incredibly intelligent, physically imposing, and viewed as the humans of the seas.14
However, this “Superwhale” does not differentiate between the numerous species of whales, combining the characteristics of several and ignoring research that contradicts this image. Since the 1960s, the international discourse on whaling has been dominated by those who favor the “Superwhale” and have often placed the whale at a higher position in nature than humans because they existed before the Homo sapien. The ancient existence of the whale “implies that cetaceans have existed far longer than we have but without playing havoc with the earth.”15
The Japanese, in contrast to the Western anti-whalers, maintain a different relationship with wildlife and hold views that differ from those of the preservationists attacking the government's policy. Historically, the whale was “perceived by the Japanese as a kind of fish,” with an intelligence no different than the average sea creature.16
While in modern Japan this idea is discounted, the “Superwhale” does not resonate with the nation's people. Though non-governmental organizations (NGO's) are prevalent in the Western world, Japan has a very weak environmental movement within its borders. While Greenpeace attempted to convert the Japanese in the past, it was an unsuccessful attempt. Unlike many of the Western preservationists who appear to value whales over humans, the Japanese place emphasis on humans instead of whales. Yonezawa Kunio, a former advisor to the IWC, summarized the importance of the whaling debate when he stated that “the fundamental human and sovereign right to use natural resources responsibly...and respect for scientific practice” was of more importance to the Japanese than complete preservation.17
Therefore, the notion of the intrinsic, natural rights of whales proved an alien concept to the Japanese, who primarily value nature for what it provides for humanity and seek to maintain its vitality, so they can continue to successfully utilize it. Overall, the environmental concerns of the Japanese have centered on air and water pollution and “environmental problems are defined narrowly in terms of human health and well-being.”18
The moratorium placed on commercial whaling by the IWC was inspired by the overwhelming international consensus that whales are endangered. However, at the time the moratorium was officially enforced, only a few of the over seventy-five species of whales were actually threatened. The popularity of the whale, the existence of several NGO's in support of the IWC moratorium, and the protection of whales from being hunted, has led to several cultural and physical clashes between Japan and these environmental NGO's. A major element of the argument between pro-whaling Japan and the anti-whaling movement is the consumption of whale meat. After the end of World War Two, the popularity of whale meat in Japan rose significantly, because it was cheap and a convenient food resource. After the war ended, the Japanese government could not afford to import enough food to adequately feed the nation's population. General MacArthur, the American general in charge of the post-war occupation, allowed the Japanese to legally hunt whale in order to stave off an impending famine. Both before World War Two and now, “whale meat is a staple food...there are 'whale restaurants' that serve nothing but whale meat...while other nations discard whale meat, Japan consumes 140,000 tons of it each year.”19
Whale meat has often been much cheaper than other meats available in Japan and has been featured in Japanese school lunches. The Japanese government often defends the consumption of whale meat, comparing its place in Japanese society to the hamburger– a popular and accepted food choice that is seen as utterly American.
A Japanese whaling boat catches
a gray whale around Sakhalin Island.
Source from BBC June 24, 2010
After the moratorium on whaling was enacted in 1986 by the IWC, Japan filed a formal complaint that petitioned for the reinstatement of legal commercial whaling. When this demand went unheeded, Japan withdrew its formal objection within the Commission, though it maintained a pro-whaling stance. Therefore, in 1986, Japan ended its practice of commercial whaling. In the wake of this decision, the government instated the nation's legal and IWC approved practice of research whaling. A vocal proponent of the preservation of Japanese whaling culture, the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) was established as a non-profit organization in 1987 and “is dedicated to a wide range of cetacean research and is expected to function as a center of research efforts made by independent researchers.”20
The ICR, supported by the government, leads the research missions. The research whaling program of Japan can be interpreted as a reaction against the scientifically dubious arguments of the environmental conservationists. Research whaling aims to prove that the population of whales, especially the Minke Whale, is bountiful enough to allow regulated commercial whaling and seeks to scientifically prove that to the IWC. On the other hand, the anti-whaling NGO's have often appealed to emotions, a tactic that the Japanese look down upon. While conservationists claim that whales are “near the abyss of biological extinction” and that pro-whaling governments are purposely “whaling themselves out of business,” the research whaling expeditions were created to dispel these accusations.21
The conclusions that have resulted from research whaling, with an emphasis on the effect of whales on their ecosystems, influenced the fifty-eighth annual meeting of the IWC in 2006. One of the resolutions from this annual meeting was the St. Kitts and Nevis Declaration, that contained an important clause in reference to research whaling: “accepting that scientific research has shown that whales consume huge quantities of fish making the issue a matter of food security for coastal nations and requiring that the issue of management of whale stocks must be considered in a broader context of ecosystem management since ecosystem management has now become an international standard.”22
The Japanese emphasis on science (and its perceived superiority) over emotion is made especially clear by the preceding clause; the number of whales is great and their effect on their ecosystem is noticeable, thus the absence of a certain number of specific whale species would not be as detrimental as the Western preservationists have depicted it.
These environmental conservationist groups, many that developed during the 1970s, have waged a campaign against the whaling nations especially focused upon Japan and it's supposed loophole; research whaling (it is often depicted as a loophole due to the meat of the whales killed during experiments being sold on the Japanese market.) The most heated battle developed between the Canadian based NGO, Greenpeace, and the research whaling fleets of Japan. Greenpeace repeatedly sent its own ship fleets to physically cease the research expeditions, often risking their own members' lives and the lives of the whalers. Greenpeace has also waged an international publicity battle against the Japanese government; despite that the research whaling carried out by Japan adheres to IWC regulations. The Japanese, through their research whaling, have planned to reinstate the international legality of commercial whaling. Instead of the complete preservation of the whale population supported by the Western anti-whaling movement, the Japanese government has aimed for the sustainability of the cetaceans. In a reflection on and ultimately a summation of the Japanese government's view of the whale and their emphasis on scientific evidence, a former counselor at the Japanese Fisheries Agency, Masayuki Komatsu, referred to minke whales as “the cockroaches of the sea.”23
Komatsu quickly defended his statement explaining that minke whales are not endangered and reproduce at a high rate. The Fisheries Agency defended the statement with agency official Shiro Yuge stating that the “remark was merely a reference to the fact that minke whales have strong fertility and are not facing any danger of extinction,” with the implication that there does not need to be a moratorium on the hunting of said species.24
According to the Japanese government, the anti-whaling movement is one of Western imperialism and racism. This perception is likely the result of the intervention of Western governments and NGO's into the national, domestic policies of Japan. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the pro-whaling nation's support of commercial whaling has used racially charged and insulting language. According to the opposition, those who consume whale meat are “inhumane, uncivilized, against 'world opinion',” in addition to being described as “barbaric, archaic, something that is out of tune with an environmentally sensitive world.'”25
Despite both Norway and Japan's simultaneous efforts to reinstate legal commercial whaling, the anti-whaling movement is concentrated on the Japanese.
While the Norwegian cultural tradition of whaling is globally accepted, the Japanese whaling tradition is often scrutinized. A study conducted in 2000, based on the question of whether American opposition to whaling is anti-Japanese, asked a sample of university students in the United States three research questions: “Do Americans differentiate among the five whaling groups by having different reasons for approval or disapproval of their whaling?,” “Do Americans differentiate among the five whaling groups in degree of approval or disapproval of whaling?,” and “Do the male and females differ in their responses to the two research questions?.”26
As a result of this study, the American female and male university students polled opposed whaling due to “whale anthropomorphism and ethnocentrism of the anti-whaling stance,” and disapproved most of the Japanese whaling while they approved of Alaskan Inuit whale hunting. The native whaling of the Alaskan Inuits was found to be more legitimate than foreign Japanese practice that reflected the xenophobic stance of the American public and mass media. Although this was only a sample reflection of the Western opinion on whaling, the study provided a clear picture of the ethnocentrism surrounding opinions on whaling and the whales themselves. Though the United States and Japan do not compete over whale, as a resource, there is still fierce opposition against whaling of any type, “therefore, the Japanese claim that the anti-whaling stance of Americans is anti-Japanese.”27
In the 1970s, the American government's support of the Alaskan Inuit whaling tradition reflected poorly upon the nation in the international whaling debate and partially delegitimized their anti-Japanese stance. The Inuits continued to hunt the extremely endangered bowhead whale and the American government supported their continuance of an accepted cultural practice under the stipulated terms “that these native groups should not catch whales 'in a wasteful manner,' and that the underlying purpose of the exemption was to preserve the longstanding social customs of Alaska natives.”28
In the spring of 1977, the Inuits killed over one hundred bowheads and only caught twenty-six, that caused an international backlash and the IWC's removal of the exemption that pertained to the Inuits; the United States abstained from the vote and continued to be pressured by the Inuits. Later the same year, the IWC revoked its ban of Inuit whaling and set special quotas for the annual allowed killing of bowhead whales, partially due to the American compliance to the Inuit movement. Therefore, in the case of a domestic native group with a historic tradition of whaling the American government found whaling practices legitimate and defended them in an international arena; while the Japanese tradition continued to be viewed as illegitimate, barbaric, and wasteful.
In the West, the Japanese are commonly perceived as an “economic animal,” less than human and driven solely by selfish, less valuable motives.29
This Japanese perception that Westerners viewed them as less than human (as machines or invaluable barbarians) is demonstrated in their physical confrontations with environmental groups, notably Greenpeace. The Greenpeace members aboard the organization's vessels often physically, violently, and recklessly attacked Japanese research whaling ships by damaging their rotors (this immobilizes the ship and it can no longer steer) and illegally boarding Japanese ships. However, the Greenpeace efforts in Japan have failed due to their incompetent tactics and lack of understanding of the Japanese culture through “chastising Japan in publications and public announcements...to harshly condemning Japan in high profile anti-whaling demonstrations for its consumption of whale meat...[which] have the effect of making Japanese media and government claims of racism and cultural imperialism more persuasive to the public.”30
The racist rhetoric surrounding whaling is not limited to impassioned conservationists, but also happens in the academic arena. In The American Journal of Law, an article contended that “the state of mind that condones the killing of whales 'overlaps with the mindset that accepts the genocide of inferior human beings'” (again emphasizing the Western anthropomorphism of whales.)31
In popular media, the British tabloid used the racist slur “Jap” in a front page article entitled, “Sickest dinner ever served. Japs feast on whale.”
In addition to a perceived racism, the Japanese have found that Western intervention in their nation's whaling is a form of imperialism, a means of forcing Western values and influence upon their cultural practices and tradition and an “unwillingness...to consider the existence of different ethical standards.”32
The Western focus on the immorality of whale consumption is one culture demanding that another culture adhere to their moral norms, especially pertaining to food traditions. Many Japanese citizens do not understand why the killing and consumption of whale meat is different or worse than that of a domesticated animal; “How can people kill an animal they have fed?”33
The Western norm that sees eating whale meat as barbaric and akin to cannibalism is forced upon the global community by popular media such as newspapers, academic journals, and television, thereby making the Japanese feel alienated for not adhering to the conventional standard. The Western ideal became the norm as opposed to the maintenance of a longstanding aspect of Japanese cultural life. According to one Japanese citizen, Mutsuko O., the IWC moratorium on all whaling and the enforced restriction on commercial whaling “is like telling your neighbor not to eat his dinner because you don't like his food. That is awfully rude, isn't it?”34
The Japanese have often perceived the Western imperialism of enforced anti-whaling of the twentieth (and now twenty-first) century as an economic jealousy; “the more economic progress Japan achieves, the more the whaling issue escalates.”35
Many Japanese feel that the economic rivalry between the West (namely America) and the East, and the shift in political and economic power from the twentieth century victors (America) to the East, in the twenty-first, has fueled the imperialistic tendencies in the whaling debate; “That Japan, an Oriental country, is about to supplant them in some major fields is what annoys Americans so much.”36
While the United States became less economically reliant on commercial whaling, the “Japanese consumption of whale meat and other by-products meant that Japanese industrial whaling was able to expand in the years when whaling was waning in the West.”37
Thus, while the Western economies were no longer in need of whales the Japanese economy and its people still supported whales as a natural resource; the West no longer understood the necessity and forced its “advancement” onto the Japanese.
This forced adherence to Western norms was furthered in 1971 by the American introduction of a resolution in the international political arena, the United Nations, that advocated a ten year moratorium on whaling (it failed, but was only one effort in the American call for a whaling moratorium.) The successfully passed IWC moratorium was the culmination of the Western movement against commercial whaling, which the Japanese objected to, because they viewed it as a direct threat to their national interest.
The present day Japanese government's pro-whaling policy is widely considered scandalous and is heavily debated throughout the global community in both the United Nations and the International Whaling Commission. While the Japanese government adheres to the International Whaling Committee's standards and rules, Western governments and organizations still suggest that the research whaling program is a “loophole” used to illegally obtain whale meat for sale on the market and for consumption. Additionally, Western resistance from both national governments and environmental conservationist organizations has led to a highly romanticized view of the whale, a creature that is both genetically special, superior, and often portrayed as the human of the oceans. The Japanese resist both of these concepts insisting that research whaling is utilized to gain evidence of plentiful whale populations and reinstate a legal commercial whaling, thus lifting the IWC moratorium of 1986. The Japanese government's pro-whaling counter-movement has been motivated by three primary factors: the preservation of a longstanding, deeply engrained cultural tradition of whaling, the Japanese emphasis on science and its resistance against the Western anthropomorphic depiction of the whale, and a battle against a perceived Western racism against the Japanese people and the resulting imperialism of the anti-whaling movement. Though the IWC moratorium remains and overwhelming anti-whaling sentiments prevail, the Japanese government continues to wage a domestic and global political campaign to continue their cultural whaling practices into the twenty-first century.
About the author
Raised in Savannah, GA and a graduate of Savannah Arts Academy, Meagan Chandler has attended Armstrong Atlantic State University since spring of 2008. She is pursuing a BA in History with a special focus on Russian and East Asian history and is a member of Phi Alpha Theta. She is currently a senior and will graduate this fall.
Meagan Chandler, “The Super-Whale Myth: The Motivations of the Japanese Government’s Pro-Whaling Policy,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History
1, no. 1 (Spring 2011).
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The Institute of Cetacean Research, “Human Relationships with Whales,” http://www.icrwhale.org/japan-history.htm (accessed January 2, 2011).
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Amy L. Catalinac and Gerald Chan, “Japan, the West, and the Whaling Issue: Understanding the Japanese Side,” 137.
The Institute of Cetacean Research, “Human Relationships with Whales,” http://www.icrwhale.org/japan-history.htm (accessed January 2, 2011).
Brendan Nicholson, “Blame General MacArthur for Whaling Row,”The Age, December 19, 2007, World Section, Melbourne Edition.
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Amy L. Catalinac and Gerald Chan, “Japan, the West, and the Whaling Issue: Understanding the Japanese Side,” 135.
Anders Blok, “Contesting Global Norms: Politics of Identity in Japanese Pro-Whaling Countermobilization,” 48.
Arne Kalland, Unveiling the Whale: Discourses on Whales and Whaling (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009), 29.
Anders Blok, “Contesting Global Norms: Politics of Identity in Japanese Pro-Whaling Countermobilization,” 58.
Amy L. Catalinac and Gerald Chan, “Japan, the West, and the Whaling Issue: Understanding the Japanese Side,” 146.
Richard H. Minear, Through Japanese Eyes (New York: APEX Press, 2008), 228.
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Amy L. Catalinac and Gerald Chan, “Japan, the West, and the Whaling Issue: Understanding the Japanese Side,” 133.
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Richard H. Minear, Through Japanese Eyes, 156.
Amy L. Catalinac and Gerald Chan, “Japan, the West, and the Whaling Issue: Understanding the Japanese Side,” 136.