Japan from the inside out

Shimojo Masao (10): Whaling and the Japanese

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 30, 2010

IN APRIL 675, the Temmu Tenno (emperor) issued an imperial edict banning the consumption of cows, horses, dogs, monkeys and chickens as food in Japan, a fervently Buddhist country. The custom of meat-eating was not widespread in Japan until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the acceptance of Western culture and institutions began. Animal proteins were obtained instead by catching fish in the surrounding seas. The hunting of whales and dolphins, which environmental protection groups in Western countries have made an issue in recent years, was one of the traditional fishing methods. Eating such foods as sushi and sashimi arose in a Japanese food culture based on fishing, and those foods are now recognized as healthful throughout the world.

In contrast, however, the dietary custom of eating fish raw did not arise on the Korean Peninsula and China, though they bordered the same seas. In those countries, the distribution channels for the sustainable consumption of fresh fish were not established, significant fishing industries did not arise, and markets in the consumption regions did not form. The successive dynasties of China built their capitals inland, and the development of distribution systems lagged. A meat-eating culture arose on the Korean Peninsula, where products were bartered in markets that opened once every five days. Sashimi began to be eaten on the Korean Peninsula after the modern period when the region was under Japanese rule. It was also only recently that the general public in China began to eat raw fish in the form of sashimi and sushi.

Thus, the seafood products previously eaten on the Korean Peninsula and in China were dried and/or cured, and sold without regard to their freshness. Such ingredients as shark fin, a popular dish in Chinese cuisine, as well as abalone, sea slugs, and kombu, a processed seaweed, were delicacies brought from far-off Japan. That manner of trade began during the Edo period (1603-1868) and continued thereafter. Shark fin and kombu are products from northeastern Japan and points north. During the Edo period, they were taken by sailing ships known as kitamaebune to Nagasaki by way of the Sea of Japan, and from there exported to China.

This peaceful East Asian world was disrupted by the arrival of foreign ships from Russia, Great Britain, the United States, and other countries. Their objective was two-fold: to seek trade with Japan, and supplies of firewood, water, and food for their whaling vessels. The post-Industrial Revolution countries in the West used whale oil in the lamps illuminating factories, so whaling in the seas near Japan was vital for them.

The uninhabited island known as Matsushima in Japan throughout the Edo period became known as the Liancourt Rocks on Western maps when the French whaling vessel Liancourt discovered it in 1849. Whaling, which had been conducted as a way to secure food in Japan, was conducted among the Western powers as a way to secure whale oil. Eventually, the demands of the Western powers that sought trade with Japan and supplies of firewood, water, and food for their whaling vessels led to the forced opening of the country, backed up by their military might. This was the principal cause of the disruption of the stable East Asian order.

Speaking of whaling, some peculiar logic has arisen in recent years–the thinking that whales and dolphins are special animals for people, and that this is tied in with the concept of environmental protection. That’s a serious contradiction with the culture of whaling in the West in the 19th century. The Academy Award-winning American film The Cove, which secretly filmed the dolphin hunt in Taiji, Wakayama, and condemned that hunt; Sea Shepherd’s violent obstruction of whaling; and other activities closely resemble the one-sided behavior of the Western Powers in the 19th century.

– Shimojo M.

UPDATE: Those reading this post for the first time who would like to read additional information about Korean whaling might find this worthwhile.

17 Responses to “Shimojo Masao (10): Whaling and the Japanese”

  1. Joseph Steinberg said

    So, it’s all the western powers’ fault for Liancourt and whaling? Regardless of the history, sustainability is the reason for limiting whaling, not some nationalistic or cultural vendetta.

  2. Rabbits were okay, though, right? That might have to do with why they use the same counter as for birds.. The traditional Japanese diet was healthy, but whale, unlike fish, is not exactly health food.

    The reasons for seeing whales and dolphins as special are, I admit, dumb, but for very different reasons than you say. It’s because they are relatively intelligent (but so are pigs, which Americans have no problem eating – also note the intolerance meat-eating Westerners have towards dog-eating). From an ecological perspective, emptying the seas of the fish lower in the food chain is what sends shockwaves going up throughout the food chain and even makes some species evolve to be smaller and reproduce sooner in their lifecycles.

    Anyway, South Park’s episode about Japanese whaling is good. The end is priceless…

  3. Kim in Canada said

    I have many reasons for being against the killing of whales. I believe whales and dolphins (as well as some other creatures such as gorillas) are sentient beings that should not be killed for any reason whatsoever. I also believe that the actual killing of whales is much, much more painful and tortuous than the standards acceptable in modern slaughterhouses, so it is an extraordinarily cruel practice.

    Overall, I strongly disagree with the Japanese whaling efforts that are taking place in international waters – in what many consider to be a sanctuary. The killing of any endangered species should not be tolerated. Nor should the Japanese’s whalers’ indiscriminate methods of killing every whale they can get their hands on – regardless of age or breeding potential. Japan’s serious lack of ecology on these types of issues – such as recently seen with their refusal to accept a ban on trade of Blue Fin Tuna despite all scientific evidence showing this species is in serious trouble – only further proves to me that Japan should not be given control of the future of any species on our planet.

    There are many “cultures” or “traditions” that are considered abhorrent and barbaric that no longer have a place in our world. Whaling is one of these and should be abolished.

  4. tenmen said

    I think his point is that western nations have no right to act self-righteous when it comes to whaling. Early Japanese whaling was sustainable. It wasn’t until the western nations started whaling to the extreme that whales couldn’t replenish quick enough and became endangered. And now those same western nations are acting self-righteous because Japan doesn’t want to pay for the west’s past overindulgence. And how is The Cove not a cultural vendetta?

  5. ampontan said

    Japan should not be given control of the future of any species on our planet.

    Starting to skate on thin ice a bit there, no? Besides, no one controls any species on the planet.

    Try this old post about how some Australians behave.

    in what many consider to be a sanctuary

    So that means everyone else has to agree?

    I also believe that the actual killing of whales is much, much more painful and tortuous than the standards acceptable in modern slaughterhouses

    It took me fewer than two or three minutes of Googling a few years ago to find an eyewitness account of a slaughterhouse that claimed every cow was in deadly terror when killed, and put up great resistance. One of the reasons was that the carcasses of other cows were in their line of sight.

    The killing of any endangered species should not be tolerated.

    The whales Japanese kill aren’t endangered.

    There’s a well-known Australian ecology activitist–Tim (Something, I forget) who throws some of his countrymen into a tizzy because he says the Japanese whale hunts are not endangering a species and represent proper culling of the herd.

    – A.

  6. M-Bone said

    ‘their refusal to accept a ban on trade of Blue Fin Tuna’

    Same could be said of Canada, Kim In Canada, Canada now being blue fin offender #2.

    Canada also passed on the polar bear ban with many of the 300 killed a year going for rugs and trophy hunting. That’s out a population of total population of 20,000.

    IWC (not Japanese) estimates put the Minke whale population at over 500,000 of which Japanese whalers take about 900 per year.

    Did you also know that Canada quit the IWC and allows whale hunting?

    “Inuit in Canada hunt beluga, narwhal, pilot and bowhead whales. The three former are “non-IWC whales”. About 800 beluga and narwhal are hunted annually in Canada. Two bowheads were caught in 1996, none in 1997, one in 1998 and none in 1999. This year there has been issued a licence to take one bowhead.Since Canada is not a member of the IWC, there has been some controversy about the very limited hunt of the bowhead. The IWC has passed resolutions against Canada, and the US has threatened with economic sanctions.”

    The world narwhal population is estimated at under 75,000 (less than 1/10 of higher minke estimates). The beluga population is about 100,000 (1/5 or so).

    So I hope that you have been frantically writing letters to the Canadian government. Or did you not know about any of that?

  7. Durf said

    The logic in that final paragraph is execrable. “Speaking of slaves, some peculiar logic has arisen in recent years–the thinking that negroes are special animals for people, and that this is tied in with the concept of human rights protection. That’s a serious contradiction with the culture of slavery in the West in the 19th century.”

    (None of this should signal that I feel one way or another about whaling; I just think the “oh yeah, but you did even more of the same thing a hundred-plus years ago” argument is crap.)
    I don’t understand the logic here of comparing people to animals and the implied comparison of human rights to environmentalism, which suggests that “animal rights” actually exist.

    Whales do seem to be designated as “special animals” by some, particularly in Australia.

    It’s not so much what happened 100 years ago in itself that is the problem. Rather it is just another data point in a long series that continues to the present.

    – A.

  8. Durf said

    The arguments presented in the essay seem to be slapped together without much thought in general. If he means to argue against animal rights he should do that without dragging irrelevant facts about human practices from previous centuries. (To say nothing of knee-slappers like “This peaceful East Asian world.”)
    He isn’t arguing about animal rights. That arose when you brought up the comparison with slavery.

    – A.

  9. mac said

    No one is really making a fuss about “indigenous tribes” type whaling. It is the financially motivated, commercial, industrialized whaling that is on everyone’s bullseye.

    On top of which Japan is screwing itself blind re-affirming racist stereotypes about it being tricky or dishonest by carrying on its “scientific” hunting.

    The argument that arises relating to some of the Great Ape species and some of the crustaceans is that now, without doubt, science has proven their “sentience”, that is not just their ability to suffer or feel but their self-awareness. The issue of self-awareness is the key issue.

    They have specialized brain cells previously found only in humans called spindle neurons. These brain cells are involved in processing emotions and social interactions. It’s absolutely clear that these are extremely intelligent animals who communicate through huge song repertoires, recognize their own songs, and make up new ones. They form relationships, teach their younger and have evolved wide social networks similar to those of apes and humans.

    The argument being that we afford “human rights” to human with far less mental and emotional abilities, e.g. children, mentally disabled, some elected politicians; so why should we not afford rights to these species?

    Shimojo Masao is correct about America’s violent and aggressive opening of Japan being directly connected to the nation’s whaling industry. A capitalist interest rather than a nationalistic. His nationalistic linking of it to the international environment movement, the most basic logical fallacy, is incredibly bone headed and stupid. It is intellectually dishonest, evoking as it does very low level racist or nationalist sentiments.

    It is, however, a stupidity that is rife across Japan at present and one being developed and promoted as a meme by those with capitalist interests in whaling.

    The Uyoku Dantai are out with their riot buses in Taiji using very much the same degree of logic but making a lot more noise. “They did something bad 150 years ago, so therefore we can do something bad now”.

    MacArthur was right … they think and argue like petulant 12 year olds.

  10. M-Bone said

    “No one is really making a fuss about “indigenous tribes” type whaling. It is the financially motivated, commercial, industrialized whaling that is on everyone’s bullseye.”

    I think that you should look into just what exactly is being done up north. It is mechanized, industrialized, and highly commercial in that the meat is sold and the bone turned into craft items which area also widely sold through channels controlled by elites within the culture with deep links to mainstream capital. This isn’t an indigenous people with indigenous methods thing. Just about every argument which can be made against Japanese whaling – the intelligence, the suffering, the commercialism, etc. can be made against this. In addition, the major points supporting the indigenous position all center around issues of past Imperialism and present cultural imperialism – precisely the same arguments that have been exploited in Japan.

    In the end, they kill about the same number of whales and some arguments – such as the endangered status of the whales – actually tips in the favor of Japanese whaling. The best argument on the Canadian side is that the hunting is being done at / near the life space of the hunters. I’m not crazy with any of it, but I also can’t think of any reason to oppose one and not the other, especially if you are coming at it from the POV of sentience which should be a deal breaker if you go that way. Instead we get legions of Canadians gnashing their teeth and whiting their knuckles at “The Cove” while not even aware of the local issue. I asked a group of 90 out of curiosity today. 15/90 had seen “The Cove”, 10/15 were moved by it, 0/90 knew about whaling in Canada. ZERO.

  11. Ecoutez said

    A lot of what gets said about cetacean intelligence reeks of junky pop science. The mere presence of “spindle neurons” proves nothing – structures may evolve in different animals for different reasons. Yes, whales have complex songs, social networks, and teach their young, but this applies to most mammals and, indeed, most birds (especially the song part).

    Likewise, “sentience” and “self-awareness” is not so easily proven either. Some higher mammals appear to recognize their own reflections, while others do not. And yet, curiosly enough, crows and certain parrots have been able to do this! There’s a video online somewhere of a crow making a tool out of a piece of wire, and another where it looks in a mirror and tries to remove a red spot from its beak (placed there by a researcher).

    What does all of this mean? I think a little more humility before nature and its complexities is in order, before we start concluding that the entire animal world is human or human-like. Just gathering a few scienc-y facts and concluding from these that dolphins deserve something like human rights seems like an intellectual short-circuit to me. Anyone can do that. I, for instance like dolphins, but the ease with which they can be convinced to jump through hoops and perform simple tricks doesn’t speak well to me of their great intelligence. To me, they seem like dogs playing fetch. But that’s just me.

  12. mac said

    @Ecoutez, how much of the science have you studied? Can you point me in the direction of some papers?

    Yes, I agree. All animals love their life and suffer just as we do and we should not exploit and kill them for pleasure. Dogs and birds included. The idea of a human designed experiment to “prove” sentience is almost ridiculous as suggesting that animals have “no sentience” in the first place. The latter being an expression of the most arrogant anthropocentrism, the kind of anthropocentrism that allowed the Whites to enslave the Blacks and colonize Asia; Yellows being seen as little more than monkeys and without rights on their own land.

    So, you see, in this we have the analogy to both the anti-slavery or civil rights movement, and the womens rights movement.

    Japanese people might not know it, but within White history, there was a time when it was consider that neither Black people nor women had souls, nor that they were able to comprehend life as a White male did and hence they were denied basic rights. (Ditto, in the USA, all the initial wonderful “rights” did not apply to all men, only land owners etc)

    There is no longer the question of *if* or *whether* animals should to be given rights … they already are being given rights. Starting with the Great Apes in various countries, “sentience” has also recently been recognized by the European Union.

    In the area, (animal welfare, animal rights) Japan is currently notoriously primitive and reactionary, based on nationalistic agendas and counter racist points of view.

    @M-Bone, a different set of rules apply to peoples who live 100s of miles into the Arctic wastelands than individuals who live a gentle stroll from the nearest Lawsons. In the former case there is a fairly good argument for ‘need’ and environmental sustainability. In the latter case, there is not even the defence of “tradition”.

    Japan’s traditional diet, of more than 1,000 years, was primarily vegan augmented by a few local sea or river foods.

    I do not see the fine defenders of “tradition” in Japan pursuing this line as they sit dow to eat their American imported beef and pork, or Australia and New Zealand lamb and dairy products. Hypocrites one and all.

    I read figures of around “10,000 Inuits in Alaska killing 50 bowheads a year”. So, not quite the 14,000 to 22,000 dolphins and, what, the 1,200 whales of Japan. Plus, of course, Japanese buyers buy illegal catches the Russian, Korean and other hunters are happy to sell them, thereby driving the illegal market.

    Personally, I have no idea why the Inuits would want to live in the Artic when they could move to Florida or California and shop in supermarkets. I think the claims of “tradition” are equally ridiculous to Japan’s when it comes to using skidoos, powerboats and high velocity weapons.

    I think the inuits should stop as well, so I am not defending them.

  13. M-Bone said

    Mac, why do you think that Innu-Innuit communities don’t have supermarkets? They do (in Canada anyway). And they are heavily subsidized to ensure that people living in the far north area have access to anything that they need and much of what they want. Whaling is done entirely on the level of traditional land use and the meat goes straight to those supermarkets – all subsidized by the government.

    “Japan’s traditional diet, of more than 1,000 years, was primarily vegan augmented by a few local sea or river foods.”

    But with important regional variation, including whale. Historically, the Innu groups in Canada are said to have only been hunting whale for 500 years. Some areas where they are hunting now were only populated (by migration) about 150 years ago. Still, that counts enough as tradition for me. I don’t really mind “updating” tradition, as long as it isn’t destroying the planet or something.

    The 50 bowheads thing… that’s 50 out of an endangered species with a population said to be under 14,000. The really crazy thing is that the Canadian government signs off on the killing of 1-2 right whales in some years. There are only about 400 North Atlantic right whales left.

    For me, the only argument that will win me over to an anti-whaling position is endangerment. I would be writing letters concerning a humpback, blue, etc. hunt because it makes sense. But the minkes or Japanese dolphins just aren’t endangered.

    In any case, if you oppose Innu whaling and Japanese whaling, you are being consistent. That’s good.

  14. mac said

    Thank you, yes, I am consistent. Whereas I accept that many of the bray internet audiences are clearly racist, I think all genuine crustacean campaigners are consistent and utterly not racist. For example, there have been campaigns going on against the drive hunts in the Faroe Isles since the mid-1980s.

    For me the ethics which strengthening the argument against exploiting whales and dolphins are economic based.

    Those particular mammals are not the hunters’ property and so, essentially, the taking and slaughtering of them for the sake of profit, is theft. The hunters do not input to the crustacean ‘economically defined’ sphere in the way they might to domesticated farm animals where I could understand the argument that the farmer gives and so he has the right to take in return. These marine mammals are not limited to any one individual’s, nor even nation’s, property or land as game which might be considered “belonged” by someone.

    The best argument to stop whaling and dolphin hunting are also economic, the hunting is damaging Japan’s overseas PR and tourist industry far more than it earns by the practise. And it would earn far more if it were to switch to conservation and protection.

    I understand the license given to the dolphin hunters is actually under the guise of “pest control” because they consider the dolphins competition for over-fished fished stocks. Of course, again it is human and capitalist interest that have driven the fishing industry to reduce many species to nigh extinction or stocks to 90% of previous levels.

    Japan’s completely unnatural and non-traditional appetite is murdering the seas … it is also setting the example for other developing economies such as China to follow which will finish the job.

    What is this law that the Sea Shepherd activist has been charged with, “Obstructing a business”. It sounds utterly Orwellian in its blind defence of entirely unethical capitalism.

  15. […] the best piece I read tonight was on Ampontan in which the writer basically blames the West for disturbing “the peaceful East Asian […]

  16. Aceface said

    Love the above article from chap who write for Ohmynews.

    “If memory serves me right, for the most part Koreans did not eat much whale meat and that it was the Japanese (during the occupation of Korea) who encouraged them to start.”

    and this comment comes right after”We get blamed for everything.”

    Anyway,there a bit more reliable paper on the history of modern Korean whaling during colonial era.

    Click to access 05.pdf

  17. BS Detector said

    The site’s quote says, “Not even 10% of what Japanese people are thinking is communicated overseas. – Watanabe Tsuneo of CSIS”.

    I wonder what % of Japanese people are thinking, or care about, what is communicated overseas by its thinkers, politicians and actions in certain areas.

    M. Shimojo writes that environmental protection groups’ activities “closely resemble the one-sided behavior of the Western Powers in the 19th century” correlating them to the greatest of folk devils.

    I am reminded of Wilde’s comment on fox hunting, “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”, and am forced to reply, “the unspeakably illogical in full pursuit of the indefensible”.

    Do these idiots reject everything merely because it was “not invented in Japan”? I don’t see many men going to work in kimonos and straw sandals in Tokyo rejecting all the benefit the West has brought them; roads, cars, televisions, telephones, bicycles, women’s rights etc.

    Does this all just not boil down to a simple and massive chip on the Japanese male shoulder that they are almost entirely dependent on Western influences and inventions for their entirely present day culture … except for the bits that they are dependent on China and Korea for, of course?

    If the last vestige of the once divine “Japaneseness” they can imagine and value is blowing the guts out of whales and spearing dolphins … the Japanese are a pretty pathetic nation. If it was a nation of 12 years old in 1945, how old is it now and how long do we have to wait until it grows up? It was the Whites that set their whaling industry up too so, if they stick to it, they are still sucking on Uncle Sam’s metaphorical d*ck.

    I don’t get how they claim whaling is “Japanese”. Are they so individually insecure, and afraid of personal responsibility, that they have to go around in one vast group doing everything together as one like on their package tour holidays?

    It’s bull. What next? A return to the Jomon way of life?
    BS: Thanks for the note.

    Do these idiots reject everything merely because it was “not invented in Japan”?

    This is what’s known in academic circles as a “short circuit in logic”.

    Considering the behavior of the IPCC, the University of East Anglia, and that ilk, that’s a fair characterization. He’s probably referring to Sea Shepherd, and that fits too, assuming you can call them an environmentalist group. “Mentally unbalanced criminal/terrorist enterprise” works better for me.

    – A.

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