What’s the Deal With Whaling?

Antarctic or Southern Minke Whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) swimming near Boothe Island in the Lemaire Channel, Antarctica. Photograph by Paul Souders. --- Image by © Paul A. Souders/CORBIS

Antarctic or Southern Minke Whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) swimming near Boothe Island in the Lemaire Channel, Antarctica. Photograph by Paul Souders. — Image by © Paul A. Souders/CORBIS

There’s been a bit of a stir in the news lately with Japan and its practice of whaling. Most of the international community can’t understand what would drive people to kill animals that most of the world tries to save. However, understanding is key to dealing with international issues such as these, and it’s important to be informed when you form an opinion. So here’s the 411 on what they’re doing and what I learned studying abroad about the topic after spending a semester in Japan.

Japan’s practice of whaling dates back to the post-war period, and was actually started by American General Douglas MacArthur to answer the rising need for food in a society largely destroyed by the failed war effort. It used to be a lot worse than it is right now – thousands of whales would be killed each year to reach the demand. However, the demand for whale meat has declined remarkably in modern times. Most modern Japanese have never tried whale, and it mostly remains a delicacy through which the older generation can remember their childhood. So why do they keep it up?

Since 1986, the International Whaling Commission has banned whaling, with the exception of whaling for the purpose of scientific research. Norway and Iceland have refused to follow the ban, because the organization is essentially toothless – the ban is mostly in spirit only. However, Japan has taken a more sneaky approach, claiming that the 333 minke whales it kills each year are for scientific research. Which has the world wondering: what on Earth are they doing with that many whales each year? What it boils down to is cultural imperialism, and the idea that other people can dictate what another society can and cannot do. From Japan’s perspective, the international community is working too hard to ban a practice that does less harm than other hunting practices. The minke whale is less endangered than the Bluefin tuna, for example, which makes up a much larger portion of the Japanese diet. And the hunting methods used by the whalers are just as cruel as killing any other animal, so why does it matter if it’s a whale or a cow? For all intents and purposes, the Japanese see the decision to end whaling as a form of imperialism – outsiders telling them what they can and cannot do.

While I’m not really for the killing of any animals, I can understand where they’re coming from. It doesn’t make sense to focus on conserving an unendangered whale species when we allow big game hunters to kill rhinos in Africa for leisure. Understanding the values and autonomy of other cultures is important in the implementation of international law, and this is one case of where ignoring those went wrong. Japan doesn’t need to hunt whales, but they choose to so they can fight back against foreign powers ordering them around. If a new resolution were to be made with the input of all nations involved, it would surely be more effective than the one in place now. In the meantime, yes we should #savethewhales, but maybe some other hunting practices around the world deserve a little more attention than this one right now.

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Zac Jones is junior at the University of Kentucky studying International Studies, Anthropology, and Japanese. Zac participated in the JShIP program at Osaka University during summer 2014.