Why Americans No Longer Hunt Whales—And the Japanese Still Do

News Abroad
tags: Japan, whaling, Whale hunting

Frank Zelko is associate professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Vermont and the author of "Make it a Green Peace!: The Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism" (Oxford University Press, 2013).

In March 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on a case brought by Australia against Japan’s annual whaling expeditions to the Antarctic. In essence, the ICJ agreed with Australia that Japan’s ‘scientific whaling’ was a sham. As environmentalists had argued for decades, the Japanese had been exploiting a loophole in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling that permitted hunting for scientific purposes, allowing whalers to dispose of the byproducts as they saw fit. However, while Japan’s expeditions yielded many tons of whale meat, they produced virtually no reputable science. The ICJ ruling offered the Japanese government a means of extricating itself from the clutches of Japan’s small but powerful whaling lobby. Instead, it immediately drew up plans for a future hunt.

Why does Japan resolutely insist on sticking with an industry that appears cruel, unnecessary, and out-dated to people in countries such as Australia and the U.S.? Whaling employs a tiny number of people, has no strong support among the Japanese population, and only survives as a result of heavy government subsidies. Nobody in Japan—or anywhere else—is going to go hungry because of a lack of whale flesh. And demand is so low that the Japanese government has to periodically use whale meat in school lunch programs as a way of getting rid of its surplus, a practice that also serves as a ham-fisted effort to inculcate Japanese youth with a taste for whale.

Until the Second World War, whaling was a global industry dominated by the U.S., Great Britain, and the Scandinavian nations. Countries such as Germany and Japan were also beginning to invest in whaling fleets until derailed by the War. After 1945, as whale products were replaced by cheaper substitutes, Britain, the U.S., and other western nations began to withdraw from the industry. Unless there was a domestic market for whale meat, investment in whaling fleets made little sense. The Japanese, however, were in the process of developing a taste for whale meat, a development that was largely the result of the postwar U.S. occupation. A group of civilian staff officers enamored with Progressive-era utilitarian conservation convinced the Japanese government that the quickest way they could get large amounts of protein and fat back into the Japanese diet was by investing heavily in industrial whaling. The Soviet Union also built up its whaling fleet, primarily using the meat as animal feed on fur farms.

While the Japanese and Soviets were beginning to dominate global whaling, Americans began to experience cetaceans in an entirely different way. This cultural shift began during the 1950s with the establishment of aquatic theme parks, which presented dolphins and killer whales as clever and playful mammals that were emotionally similar to humans. Such views were spread by the media and fed into popular culture, where TV shows like Flipper and movies like The Day of the Dolphin emphasized cetacean intelligence and kinship with humans.

Scientists also played a role, nobody more so than the brilliant but eccentric neuroscientist, John Lilly. As part of his research, Lilly cracked the skulls and probed the brains of dolphins, inevitably killing many in the process. However, one day he had an epiphany: as another of his subjects was expiring in the service of science, it emitted a series of wheezing noises that, to Lilly, sounded like human speech. Lilly became an evangelist for cetaceans, insisting that they were at least as intelligent and emotionally sophisticated as humans.

Even though many marine biologists found Lilly’s claims unconvincing, his books became bestsellers and were important in influencing the general public’s view of dolphins and whales. This was particularly the case among anti-whaling activists, who came to view whales as oceanic gurus. These were beings that possessed a keen intelligence and a holistic consciousness that had enabled them to live sustainably for millions of years. Such views reached a new level of intensity when Greenpeace began their spectacular protests against Soviet whalers off the coast of California in 1975. Not surprisingly, the idea that such beings could be considered a mere natural resource was abhorrent to these activists, and the general public, pulled along by movies such as Free Willy, were sympathetic.

Unfortunately for whalers, this anti-whaling sensibility is now deeply embedded in most western democratic societies. It is part of a broader historical current that has shaped modern attitudes toward nature, and while it is not immutable, it is unlikely to be influenced by a small group of people whose main goal is to be able to continue killing the species of charismatic megafauna that sits atop the western totem pole.

In the near future, there is a chance that the value of cetaceans might shift yet again, reflecting broader changes in scientific and economic thought. A number of marine biologists are studying the role that whales play in ocean ecology. These scientists contend that by feeding on deepwater plankton and excreting at the surface, whales help prime the “biological pump” that ensures that nutrients are constantly recycled throughout the oceans’ depths. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the whale soon comes to be viewed as an ecosystem service provider par excellence, a view that would mirror developments in economic theory. While this might be a notch down from oceanic guru, it would still insure that whales remain far too important to eat.

Neither the oceanic guru nor the ecosystem service provider image of whales offers much solace to whalers. And there is little to suggest that Americans and other westerners will ever again view whales as mere natural resources. Perhaps it is time for the Japanese to hang up their harpoons. Their hearts might not be in it, but by joining the anti-whaling majority, they stand to gain far more—in terms of global goodwill—than they would lose.

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