Sunday, March 14, 2010

Japan and Whaling

I've been mulling over this topic for a while. It's a tough one. I like Japan but I also like whales. It's easy to say, "Japan, stop whaling" but it's more complicated than that, and is that a fair thing to impose on a country with a history of whaling? Hopefully through this post I can come a little closer to at least how I feel about the situation.

Twenty years ago, if you had asked me about Japan and whaling I would have said, "Japan, stop killing those cute whales!" I really identified with whales, orcas especially, and their graceful freedom. I had one of those new agey videos of dolphins and orcas swimming, set to Hearts of Space music. I loved that kind of thing.

Now, of course, I love Japan. I would even say I'm a bit of a Japan apologist. I've put myself in a tough position. I love whales but I also love Japan. I'm also the kind of person who can see both sides of a situation. I even ate whale once to try and see what the appeal was (I didn't like it). Both Japan and the anti-whaling groups have salient points, and both do things that are reckless and self-serving.

Endangered Whales

Let's get the easy one out of the way first. Does Japan hunt endangered whales? Yes, it does. Is this wrong? Yes, very wrong. Hunting humpbacks, as it has done, and sei whales, as it continues to do, is not justifiable in any way (although Japan tries. More on this in a bit).

Whale populations have grown since the worldwide ban was placed in the late 20th century. Some whales, like the humpback, are still on the endangered list. Others are not, like fin whales, but many people feel their numbers are still not high enough to resume hunting them. Japan disagrees, stating that their numbers are plentiful.

Scientific Research

The International Whaling Commission says you can hunt a small amount of whales for scientific purposes, which is what Japan asserts that it's doing. Contrary to any other country's data, it states that whales are depleting the world's fish stocks (not humans) and thus should be periodically killed to ascertain how much they're eating, and to prevent them from eating too much.

These assertions—that Japan is engaging in scientific whaling, and that whales are depleting fish stocks—are both met with skepticism from the rest of the world. The amount of whales Japan kills in a year is pretty large, upwards of a 1000 whales. And whale meat is sold in stores and restaurants, which is not very scientific. Japan claims this is to help offset the cost of its scientific whaling voyages, which it has been running at a loss for 20 years.

Moral Issue

But whether or not you feel that Japan has the right to whale, scientifically or otherwise, seems to come down to the way you react emotionally to the hunting of whales. No matter the scientific data, if you're against whale hunting you won't be swayed. And these are the people that Japan regularly clashes with, the Sea Shepherds and Greenpeace and so on.

The movie The Cove is powerful precisely because it appeals to the emotions. I cried when I saw the dolphins being killed. Who wouldn't? But I would also cry if I saw a pig or cow being killed. I think it was unfair of the movie to paint these fishermen as unfeeling monsters who joke while killing dolphins, because this is what anyone who regularly kills animals does. You don't condemn the farmer for having a smoke and listening to the radio while he butchers a pig, right?

But then there's the intelligence issue. Are dolphins self-aware? Are dolphins super intelligent? It sure seems that way. Does that mean they should not be killed and eaten? Does that make them special? Many people think so. The Japanese whaling industry says that dolphins and whales are like any other marine mammal and are not deserving of special treatment. They say that we anthropomorphize cetaceans.

I have eaten horse, which is served raw in Japan. I don't particularly like horses so I didn't have a problem with it. My friend wouldn't eat it though. "Horse is friend," he said, "not food." Is the dolphin and whale issue the same? Friend and not food? And who has the right to say and enforce what it is?


To throw another wrench into the works, there's the issue of Europe. Iceland and Norway also hunt whales, and as of 2009 collectively hunt more whales than Japan. They also engage in "scientific research" but have at least refrained from hunting endangered species.

But European whaling countries are rarely mentioned as being bad guys while Japan constantly comes under attack. I don't want to say there's racism at work here because I don't see any hard evidence but it is a double standard.

And then there's the indigenous cultures that hunt whale, like the Inuit and Indians of the Pacific Northwest (yes, in America). They're largely left alone because they have a long tradition of whaling, but so does Japan. Japan got into the whaling thing big in the 1800s with the rest of the world but specific villages have been hunting whales for centuries.


But I think I have a solution. Whaling may or not be morally wrong. Japan may or may not be being pigheaded about it. But no matter what, eating whale is really bad for you.

Whale and dolphin meat is riddled with mercury. These are big animals that eat a lot of fish, fish that's been tainted with mercury. Tuna even has mercury in it. You can imagine how much more a big whale would have.

The people of Taiji, where The Cove was filmed, who regularly eat whale and dolphin meat, have a lot more mercury in their bodies than those who do not eat it. Mercury is bad for you, but it's really bad for your unborn child. This is what happened at Minamata in the 1950s. Given Japan's history with mercury you would think the government would be extra sensitive to it. Apparently not.

Due to mercury levels, the eating of fish in general is becoming a dangerous thing. And dolphins and whales are the most dangerous because they're the biggest. Forget your traditions, forget your pride. Let's stop eating it because it's bad for us.


  1. All fish contain mercury, but the larger fish, including tuna contain very high & potentially amounts. An easy way to estimate your mercury exposure from eating is to fish check out the free online mercury calculator at Based on the current U.S. EPA and FDA guidelines, the mercury calculator is an excellent way to know your potential mercury exposure risk. You can also use the free mobile mercury calculator for cell phone browsers at

  2. Hey Adam,

    I don't know if this is one of the books you read for your research, but if it isn't, it's definitely helped me work through the issue - Jun Morikawa's WHALING IN JAPAN: POWER, POLITICS AND DIPLOMACY. Morikawa's scholarship focuses on Japan's relationship with developing countries and how Japan has utilized the soft power of aid to developing countries particularly to get those countries to join the IWC and vote Japan's way. (They also are using this soft power to get on the Security Council at the UN eventually.)

    That mercury aspect you leverage has even more salience when we consider that the Japanese goverment is pushing whale-eating in elementary schools to expand the 'whale-eating tradition.' Way more people have no desire to eat whale in Japan than do, what Morikawa calls the 'silent majority' of non-whale-eaters. Morikawa argues from his research that it's not that whale meat is too expensive and kids don't have the opportunity to eat it, it's that the younger generation simply has no desire to eat it. That's what I'm guessing films like THE COVE (haven't seen it, so tell me if I'm wrong) leave out, resulting in a tendency to Japan-bash due to the lack of the complex understanding that Morikawa has. The Whaling industry is promoted by a tiny portion of the Japanese population that has a disproportionate amount of power. Whether the younger (in this case that's below 50 years of age) can change that as they step into power waits to be seen.


  3. Adam, thanks for the comments. The Cove does touch on a few of these issues but only in passing, focusing more on the killing. I'll try to check out that book.