Whaling in Japan: Presentation Summary

Kristen Traband


Whaling in Japan has been a controversial issue for some time, but has recently been in the news due to confrontations between environmental activists and Japanese whalers. In exploring the history of the whaling in Japan, I found it to be much more complex than concern for endangered species: it is an issue that is born from the clash of cultures.

Most of the Western world is opposed to whaling, and for good reason. Many whales are endangered species, and although it is impossible for scientists to come up with an accurate census of the number of whales living in the ocean, most agree that the population has been, and continues to, dwindle. Environmentalists also cite the inhumane killing of whales as a reason why they are staunchly opposed. Proponents of animal rights are often horrified by pictures of whales being killed via cruel methods such as harpooning that cause whales to suffer for extended periods of time before they finally die. Finally, almost every opponent of whaling in the Western world cannot fathom why there is even a necessity for whaling. While many parts of a whale, such as its blubber, which was used for oil to light lamps, used to be a societal necessity, modern technology has done away with the need for whale parts in everyday life. Most Westerners are also appalled at the thought of eating whales, so the purpose of whaling is extremely puzzling to most opponents.

The Japanese offer many responses to accusations posed by the Western world. For one, they refute the claim that whales are endangered, and also defend whaling on the grounds that it is motivated by scientific research. They also deny that the manner in which they kill whales is cruel, claiming that technological advances have allowed whalers to kill whales quickly and humanely. The Japanese also defend whaling on the basis that it is more environmentally friendly than beef farming, which is practiced in many Western countries. They even cite Darwin in defending whaling, claiming that human hunting of whales is part of natural selection, and no animal should be excluded from the food chain. Additionally, Japan insists that Western attacks on whaling are culturally biased, and another example of the West attempting to impose their beliefs, values, and traditions on the rest of the world. They say that whaling is an inherent part of Japanese culture, and has been for more than a millennium. Japanese whalers also claim that there is a demand for whale meet in the Japanese diet, saying that although Westerners may be repulsed by the thought of eating whale, there are many unique dietary traditions in countries across the world, and whale is a normal part of the Japanese diet.


In our class discussion, we discussed the legitimacy of the arguments on both sides. Not surprisingly, we came to the consensus that most of the pro-whaling arguments put forth by the Japanese are hollow and ill-founded. Particularly, many people questioned the Japanese claim that science was the motivation behind the whale hunts. No one could understand how Japanese whalers can justify killing thousands of whales each year in the name of science. Most people saw the scientific research justification as Japan’s way of getting around the international moratorium on whale hunting. This view was also supported by the questionable practice of selling whale meat that had been obtained for scientific purposes in markets for human or pet consumption.

We also discussed the Japanese argument that no animal should be excluded from the food chain. While this Darwinian argument may hold weight in the natural world, our world has become far from natural, as technology has allowed human beings an unfair advantage in hunting other species. If whales were killed by natural predators, such as other whales or sharks, this could be seen as the embodiment of food chain logic; a human being hunting a whale from large vessel with sophisticated weapons hardly fits this framework.

Our discussion moved from the morality of killing whales to activities of Greenpeace and other environmental activists fighting whaling. We talked about how both Japanese whalers and environmentalists have their own side of the story when it comes to altercations, and how it is probably the case that neither account is entirely truth. However, we discussed the tactics of Greenpeace and other groups, and conceded that the overall tone of their endeavors is antagonistic and sometimes borderlines on fanatical, and how they could benefit from a more even, level-headed approach. Ultimately we felt as though despite the fact that Greenpeace and other activists may break the law or cause other problems, their passion for protecting the environment cannot be simply toned down, and that the work they are doing to save the planet is admirable.

In concluding our discussion, we discussed the possibility for compromise in the battle between whalers in Japan and environmentalists in the West. In talks between the two sides, the idea of allowing Japan to whale in its own waters, and not in the Antarctic as they have been doing, was proposed. Many people had understandable objections with this proposed solution to the problem. For one, whales are migratory by nature, spending some of their time in Japanese waters and a lot of time elsewhere; if Japan was allowed free-reign to hunt whales close to home, the population of whales worldwide would be adversely affected. Also, allowing Japan to whale in “their” waters is problematic on many levels. We again returned to a recurring theme of the entire class – the inherent worth of natural things. The idea of allowing Japan to “own” waters drew many parallels to the example we have drawn upon many times of the Dutch buying Manhattan from Native Americas; because the Native Americans were unable to comprehend the concept of “owning” the Earth, they believed exchanging land for a small amount of food was a profitable deal. The ownership of culture, technology, and the environment is certainly an issue in the situation, and we have yet to come up with an effective solution to this problem. In the end we concluded that it is impossible for the rest of the world to tell a certain country what it should do within its borders. The most effective technique for putting an end to whaling in Japan may be simply continuing to embarrass Japan on an international scale until they as a nation decide that whaling is no longer a worthwhile practice.







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last updated 04/08/08