An Ocean Apart: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Cetaceans

by Mariko Terasaki

Large-scale commercial whaling began in the 17th century for Western countries such as the US, UK, and the Netherlands. According to Paul Greenberg, the author of Four Fish, “if you are from Europe and born before 1960, no matter how much of an environmentalist you may consider yourself, there is a high likelihood that you have eaten whale.” Similar to postwar Japan, postwar Europe was drawn to the use of whales, and sperm-whale products were not made illegal in the US until the early 1970s.

When I think of the current American perspective on cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), I think Whale Wars, and I think The Cove. For the slightly older crowd, perhaps Jacques Cousteau specials or the “Save the Whales” movement of the 1970s shaped their views. Regardless, there has been a seismic shift from how Americans viewed whales in the 17th century to how they view them now—from commercial marine resources to beautiful, endangered majesties.

With regard to dolphins, my own perspective formed from Flipper and my summer internship assisting dolphin trainers at the Minnesota Zoo during college. I know that my perspective is one of many other American perspectives, and though most of us are against commercial hunting of whales and sourcing dolphins from cruel drive hunts, there are many people who are unaware or apathetic about cetacean issues.

On the other hand, when I think about the Japanese perspective on cetaceans I think, “whale bacon.” My grandmother tells me that whales do not taste as good as they used to. As a child, my mother ate whale meat for school lunches. I often hear the phrase, “Oh, they are so cute, AND they taste good!” about animals that Americans typically would not consider food.

I think most whaling experts, both Japanese and non-Japanese, would agree that community-based whaling and dolphin hunting took place in many small fishing villages in Japan thousands of years before large-type coastal whaling began. More organized whaling developed in the 17th century, lasting well over 300 years until the global moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect in 1986. It is safe to say that Japanese hunting of cetaceans is a long-standing tradition.

It makes sense then, that the majority of the Japanese population is pro-whaling. According to a nationwide internet survey conducted in 2008 by the Nippon Research Center, 66 percent of those polled believe that Japan should at least whale along the Japanese coast, if not also in the high seas. As Shigeko Misaki, a longstanding interpreter for the Japanese delegation to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) wrote, “The general perception of whales by the Japanese people is that whales are part of the marine food resources” (ICR, 1993). The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry leaves no doubt on where Japan officially stands:

Our country aims to reopen commercial whaling. Whale products are an important food source, and as any other natural resource, they should be utilized based on the best science available. In addition, dietary habits and food culture have been shaped according to the history of each region and environment, and a sense of mutual understanding is necessary.

As a Japanese American, I am in a constant flummox to tune in to both aspects of my identity. Unfortunately, whaling and dolphin hunting have become increasingly polarized issues. It seems at times that the “war” overshadows the “whale.” Offensively misguided comments from the “lovers of whales and dolphins” and “defenders of culture and tradition” are flung at each other across the internet—neither attitude is particularly welcoming when caught in the middle. In January, AWI posted a message on its Facebook page to oppose the development of the Kyoto Aquarium, which will presumably source dolphins from the Taiji drive hunts made infamous by the movie The Cove. One avid dolphin advocate commented, “…I am tired of these Japs.” At that moment I realized that without respect and without cultural sensitivity—even for those whose views are in conflict with our sense of morality—the best of our intentions may not lead to fruitful dialogue or meaningful progress. Because the moment I read her comment, my heart clenched and I wanted to call her names.

My cousin is 27 years old and currently works at an architecture firm in Tokyo. She recently moved back to Japan after graduating from college and architecture school in the US She knows little about whaling. To my surprise, given her alma mater (a very liberal East Coast college) and her year-long stint in New Zealand (a country whose population is ardently anti-whaling), she is vehemently prowhaling. After watching an episode of Whale Wars in her college dorm room, she was disturbed by the way the television show portrayed her countrymen. Given her indifference toward animals, she understandably takes the side of the fishermen, whalers, and dolphin hunters, many of whom struggle to preserve their way of life.

The potential problem with radical activism is that it requires no empathy or thought beyond its own agenda. Supporters of fervent antiwhaling groups, despite the potential good they have done for the lives of individual whales, may not be able to fathom the scope of their influence on people like my cousin whose loyalties lie with her country, not with antagonistic foreigners. Whalers and the rest of Japan are not at war; in fact, they are of one—generally—united nation and by picking a fight with one, they are picking a fight with the other at a much larger scale.

In October of 2010, an AWI colleague and I visited Taiji as a side trip to our attendance at the Tenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya. After our visit, on our way out of the small fishing town of three thousand, we chatted with our elderly taxi driver. He was aware of the presence around his hometown of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (a direct action group opposed to the hunts). He casually asked us if we were members. He was not aware or very concerned about the recent controversy over the high mercury content of the dolphin meat. He did not eat much of it, he said, as it did not taste as good as whale meat, and whale meat didn’t taste as good as the other kinds of meat now readily available. He didn’t care much for animals—dogs or cats or dolphins. At the same time, he thought that dolphin hunting might as well end, and it was time for the thirty or so fishermen to move on. For him, whaling was a tradition, but not a requisite for his Japanese identity. On that day, he was happy to talk to us as guests, but I worry that the more he learns about how foreigners portray his town, he may lose his breadth of perspective. He had not seen The Cove, and in that moment, I hoped he never would.

In 1957, a former chief gunner of Toyo Whaling Company erected a monument for right whales in Hakodate, Hokkaido, my mother’s home prefecture. He was 83 years old, full of remorse and guilt. I wish our fervent Facebook supporter, my cousin, and anyone who believes that pro-whaling sentiment is ubiquitous in Japan could stand before the monument and read the inscription:

We engaged in whaling for 26 years from 1908 and we took 2,000 some whales. Although among the groups of whales were mothers and calves, many were taken. The guilt of taking the precious lives of these whales was truly regrettable. I have for some time preached the need to formally acknowledge this regretful act, and my desire to do it grew stronger since the passing of my wife. ...

The mercilessness of this world is felt even stronger now in my old age. My wish is to commemorate the spirits of all living things and I therefore erect this monument to wish for the peaceful resting of all whale spirits taken by humans.

In order to find solutions to a complex problem, there is a need to search beyond the obvious boundaries of “right” and “wrong” so often portrayed by the simplified media versions of reality. As an advocate for animal welfare and conservation of endangered species, my conclusion will be the same. I want all commercial whaling to end, and I want the inhumane slaughter of whales and dolphins to end—regardless of where, and regardless of who is killing what species. However, advocating for a conclusion that could affect people’s lives and livelihoods requires sensitivity and a respectful approach; because I want to believe that being an advocate does not mean we have to sacrifice our own integrity or another’s dignity.