Now Reports

Swallowing a Whale of a Tale

Located at the Southern tip of Honshu and separated from Kyushu by the 1068 meter long Kanmon Bridge, crossing over Kanmon Strait, Shimonoseki is the gateway, for Kyushuans to the rest of Japan. An historic area, that boasts of battles fought by the Heike and Genji clans in 1185; the duel between Musashi and Kojiro on Ganryujima in 1612 and the first international ferry link to Pusan in 1970. The beautiful Akama shrine commemorates the battle of 1185 and the Kozanji Temple is designated a National Treasure. Its ink stones are renowned, as are its fuku-chochin, bue, and tako. Shimonoseki is also one of the best places in Japan to eat fuku-sashi, if that’s your cup of tea. On the whole, this busy port presents a very likeable face to the world.

It is also the anchorage of the largest whaling fleet in Japan. As I write this, the 4th Annual Japan Traditional Whaling Summit is meeting in Shimonoseki to discuss Antarctic Ocean whaling. There is currently an outright ban on commercial whaling in the Antarctic. Since the formation of the ICRW (International Commission for the Regulation of Whaling) in 1946 of which Japan is a signatory member, Japan, and a few other whaling nations such as Norway and Iceland, have been at loggerheads with the international community over the issue of whaling. Japan has cited her whaling traditions and the existence of whaling communities that are economically dependent upon whaling as valid reasons for her obstreperous behaviour in regard to the international moratoria on whaling.

In order to exploit a loophole in internationally ratified whaling regulations, Japan currently engages in whaling for “scientific research purposes”. However, the International Commission on Whaling (ICW) has never requested any data and, in fact, regularly requests that Japan desist from such activities. In practice, the majority of the whales killed end up passing through Haedomari fish market. It is from Shimonoseki that the annual Antarctic whale hunting fleet, consisting of five massive whalers, pushes off. The average kill is between 400 and 450 minke every year. Although this year alone Japanese whalers have killed 684 whales including 39 endangered sei whales, as well as minke, Bryde’s and sperm whales; which is to say nothing of the 20,000 or so dolphin, porpoise and smaller whales hunted in the coastal reaches. The Japanese government claims that “research” is needed to find out what the whales eat, although this is already known.

Yet strangely, the whale meat market in Japan has slumped dramatically in recent years with only four percent of those polled saying they ate whale meat “sometimes” and nine percent “rarely”. Tesco recently suspended sales of cetacean products in Japan “due to lack of customer demand”. Greenpeace campaigner Richard Page had this to say, “What we are seeing here is a pattern of deceit and desperation on the part of government officials and pro-whaling interests to look bigger than they are”.

Joji Morishita, the Director of Whaling Section of Japan, Far Seas Fisheries Division from the Fisheries Agency of Japan had this to say, “it becomes clear from about the end of last year that research by-products (whale meat) are not selling well. Until recently the traders could sell whale meat whenever they had it and so didn’t make any efforts, but bubble type consumption is over, and the number of people who don’t know how to eat whales is increasing. We must not lose whale food culture. We have to seriously consider methods of sale.”

The value of the Japanese whaling program is debatable (approximately US$16,000,000 in debt in 2001) and some suggest that it is simply a bureaucratic make-work program perpetuated by the “amukadari” phenomenon that sees former corporate bigwigs becoming high level government bureaucrats upon retirement. In January of 2000 archaeologists working for the Nagasaki Board of Education found a funerary urn depicting what appeared to be human figures aggressively harpooning a whale. The urn had been excavated in 1974 from the Harunotsuji ruins in Nagasaki Prefecture. That it is said to date from the Yayoi period (about 400BCE to 300CE), gives us some insight into the antiquity of whaling in the societies of ancient Kyushu.

But do these obsolete practices resemble in any way their modern descendants? And as such, can “tradition” be used to justify a practice that is abhorrent to most of the world and economically unsound? It seems illogical to continue the practice of whale hunting given that many species are endangered. Were they more populous it might seem reasonable, but whale stocks take a long time to recover given that the average gestation period for the larger species is 11 to 16 months. Japan maintains that it kills whales in order to know how many whales it can kill, which seems a scoundrelly tautology.

Japan will continue to pressure the IWC to lift the ban on whaling, and does not seem averse to devious means. In the meantime the fleet will sail from the delightful Shimonoseki to the South Seas for “scientific research purposes”. Dodesho? If you wish to protest or learn more please check out the Greenpeace Japan website; but also check out the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (the rebuttal of vote buying allegations is a comic masterpiece). and


by C.P. Buckley
No Fixed Address
Illustrations by Shirley Waisman

Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn 78, Jun. 2005)

Fukuoka City
Published: Jun 1, 2005 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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