Japan spotlight: On the anniversary of tragedy, ending whaling and turning the tide

Japan's Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo.Wading through the past week’s non-stop media commemorations of 3/11 -- a devastating day that changed both the physical and psychological landscape of modern Japan -- I’ve been thinking about the whales, the tides of history, the Emperor, and the Dane.

The numbers are familiar to us now but remain mind-numbing: more than 19,000 dead, 30,000 still homeless, grief and misery for countless more, reconstruction costs estimated at 300,000,000,000 U.S. dollars.  Beneath those jarring facts, far below the surface, the effects on the Japanese psyche -- like the psyche itself -- are more subtle. That subterranean damage will take more time to assess.

In The Enigma of Japanese Power, his masterwork published a quarter century ago, Danish sociologist Karel van Wolferen described the uncanny ability of the Japanese to hold starkly different versions of reality in their heads at the same time.  Many of my  Japanese friends and fellow western Japan fans alike have cited van Wolferen as someone who “gets it” when it comes to understanding the Japanese mindset. 

In contrast to lumbering, round-eyed counterparts like me, van Wolferen asserts, the Japanese shift seamlessly between tatamae, the acknowledged, visible, surface- level reality, composed of that which is apparently going on and honne the deeper reality beneath the surface, reflecting core motivations rarely shared in Japanese society and never with strangers or foreigners. Crosscurrents of tatamae and honne can contravene in the Japanese psyche without the collision or internal conflict we less sophisticated Westerners might expect.

I was physically reminded of this dichotomy during my most recent pilgrimage to post-tsunami Tokyo late last year. 

On Saturday morning, December 17th I set off from the Hotel Monterey in Akasaka for a long morning run.  Loping downhill past the Japanese Parliament Buildings and the National Theater, I began a slow first lap of Kōkyo, the Imperial Residence of the Emperor and Empress of Japan, set on a stunning island in the heart of downtown Tokyo. 

At the height of the Tokyo property bubble in the late 1980s, these moat-encircled palace grounds were valued by some at more than the combined property value of all the real estate in the U.S. state of California.  

The go-go eighties and nineties are a distant memory now, but downtown Tokyo has definitely bounced back in the twelve months since 3-11.  In contrast to coastal towns I have visited, the experience of being in Japan’s capital city is not discernibly different from what it was a year ago except for the number of people carrying Geiger counters. Seeing them made me realize how safe and secure I’ve always felt when traveling in Japan, and how the deeply shaken the fundamental confidence of the Japanese people has been.

Carrying only an iPhone on my running belt that sunny Saturday morning, I made it halfway through my first five kilometer lap around the Imperial moat and suddenly found myself swimming upstream. 

Scores of number-wearing Japanese runners appeared before me and began streaming by.  First the fittest, lightning fast, followed by scores, then hundreds of slower, steadier runners, but none quite so fat as the lone gaijin jogger running in the wrong direction.   

Apparently I had chosen a path inadvertently on a collision course with downtown Tokyo’s last large road race of the year.

During the two decades the International Fund for Animal Welfare has been working in Japan, we have seen important strides taken by committed groups and individuals working inside the country and out to hasten an end to Japanese whaling. 

Some, such as the tactics pursued by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, lately of “Whale Wars” fame, have literally been head-on, rooted in the idea that increasing diplomatic, legal and direct action pressure on the Government of Japan from the outside will ultimately force it to reconsider the nation’s misguided whaling policies. 

Others have been less confrontational, including the highly publicized case of Greenpeace Japan’s “Tokyo Two” – Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, who were indicted in domestic court for interfering in the government-supported whaling program.  

Whatever one makes of them, the Sea Shepherds have helped put whaling back on the international media radar screen. And Greenpeace’s, Sato and Suzuki who, were held, tried, convicted and given suspended jail sentences, have put a decidedly Japanese face on the pro-whale, anti-whaling movement and helped introduce new arguments in the court of Japanese public opinion. 

Over the same period, IFAW has pursued a two-track strategy, working with whale-friendly governments, scientists and others at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and in other fora to increase external pressure, while also supporting positive, increasingly high-profile efforts inside Japan.

Publicly and beneath the surface of the news cycle, IFAW is collaborating with a growing number of Japanese scientists, politicians, business people, media and civil society representatives, calling for a re-evaluation of Japan’s whaling activities. 

We have paid particular attention to assisting Japanese whale and dolphin watching operators, an increasingly vibrant and vocal constituency in coastal communities from Hokkaido to Okinawa. 

The emerging reality:  Japan’s domestic demand for whale meat – like that in Iceland and Norway – is in total free fall.

In the wake of the tsunami tragedy, some longtime observers in Japan and around the world dared to hope that shifts in government priorities combined with the economic pressure of recovery efforts along Japan’s devastated coast, might accelerate this great nation’s exit from the whale wars. 

Yet all the while, beneath the surface, well-insulated bureaucrats deep inside the Japan Fisheries Agency have continued to lobby for the continuation of Japan’s coastal and high-seas whaling activities, even securing tens of millions in post-tsunami recovery funds to support the Japanese whaling fleet’s most recent flagrant foray into the waters of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary around Antarctica. 

While the Japanese public seems to have lost its yen for whale meat, its government continues to spend more and more Yen for whaling.

This year as the Nishin Maru factory ship and the rest of Japan’s whaling fleet return from their slaughter in the Sanctuary, they apparently carry with them less than a third of their self-allocated “scientific” quota.  Perhaps there are far fewer whales to be had in Antarctica than the Fisheries Agency has so long alleged, or perhaps, vain to deny it, those pesky pirates are actually having an impact.

At the end of the day, Japanese, Icelandic and Norwegian whaling will end, not because of international pressure, which is important, but for domestic reasons.

However much we whale huggers might wish, the decision to finally end whaling for commercial purposes will not be made on the floor of the IWC (where it has in fact already been achieved), or in London, Canberra, Wellington or Washington. The decision to finally end such whaling will be made in Tokyo, Reykjavik and Oslo – by Japanese, Icelandic and Norwegian decision makers for reasons that make sense to them.

Certainly in Japan’s case that day of reconciling economic and political realities is much closer now than it was 12 months ago.  Pouring hard-earned taxpayer money into the outmoded, heavily subsidized whaling industry makes even less sense post-tsunami than it did before it. 

The continuing political fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, chronicled in the New York Times and other leading outlets worldwide even this week, may well engulf pro-whaling Prime Minister Noda and his cabinet just as it did his predecessor’s. Deadly political currents and a sea of Japanese taxpayers, their anxiety already heightened by pending tax increases to underwrite leviathan recovery costs from last year’s triple tragedy, may well trigger seismic shifts in the nation’s political landscape. 

I thought about that as I plodded along on that sunny Saturday morning late last year.  After weaving and dodging my way through another several kilometers of jogging Japanese taxpayers, I turned, joined in, and ran my final two laps of the Palace with the tide, carried along by the current and companionship of the crowd.  

Once I did, it occurred to me, as I slowly limped past the National Theater back up the hill toward my hotel, that the good people of Japan, who have so marvelously recovered in the past, will ultimately rise with the occasion.  They and their society will, in fact, recover.  And one ripple effect of that recovery may well be their elected government reconciling itself to the emerging global reality – an international consensus for whale conservation in the 21st century.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat.

And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

 --William Shakespeare

-- PR

Comments: 7

6 years ago

I truely fail to see the need that some people have to hunt and kill these gentle giants and
always in the most inhumane ways at that when all they want to do is to be left alone to live
in peace, I mean come on people is that really asking to much, to leave these poor animals
alone when they haven't hurt anyone I mean



6 years ago

The only way that the Japanese government is going to stop the whaling is to have the Japanese manufacturers put pressure on them because the citizens of the US have stopped buying Japanese products of any kind. Nothing else is going to work. It seems that to many people have forgotte how difficult it was to get them to stop fighting WWII. The Japanese have the same moral attitude as they did before and during WWII.

A grass roots drive has been started to stop the Japanese whaling. We would like to see everyone stop buying Japanese products; cars, TV's, all electronics, everything manufactured by Japanese companies regardless of where it is made until they agree to stop whaling. Please help promote this? Please ask your friends to help and to let their friends know it is important to pass on this message. You could also send an email to the Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. at: ichirofujesaki@mofa.go.jp and let him know how you feel about whale killing.

If and when the Japanese decide to stop whaling, we should only believe them if the agree to destroy or sink their whaling ships.

Bill Williams

6 years ago

An interesting blog. I have a cautious optimism that Japanese whaling is nearing its end (and may already be 'sunk'. The combined effects of direct action, international pressure, increasing awareness and the emboldened voices of questioning minds in Japan will soon see an end to whaling.
Rob - Trustee/Director @ 'pesky pirates'

6 years ago

An excellent blog, Patrick. Most thoughtful. Sidney

6 years ago

We can only hope they will stop whaling sooner than later.

6 years ago

Please, end the whalling. Respect and observe (as in observance) the animal wellfare. Thank you.
Jolinar of MalkShur of the Tok'Ra, avatar of ileana Eliza Paunica.

6 years ago

I for one would love to see an end to whaling. It is just totally unneccessary, like many other things concerning cruel animal trades I dont understand how so called civilised people can involve themselves in these things. Good luck in your work to put an end to all this

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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation