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Whaling and Tuna Fishing
Don't fall for the false dichotomy of “Civilized vs. Barbaric”

Masao Nishimura
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences Waseda University

Environmental Implications

Recently whaling has received renewed attention, as has tuna fishing-attention which stems from the relative sensitivity of nations to these global environmental issues. Japan has been virtually isolated from the international community in terms of whaling, turning almost all other countries against us. While the focus in the past was on whaling as a barbaric act, it is now associated with environmental issues. As industrialization took place in Western countries early on, Western people became aware of environmental issues earlier than other countries which followed the Western countries in terms of industrialization. Subsequently developing countries have placed more emphasis on industrial development than on the environment. As a result, representatives from countries discussing environmental issues present an image of more advanced countries, which has essentially changed consideration of the environment into a political issue. Any issue related to the environment now pits industrialized countries (mainly Western countries) against developing countries (non-Western countries)-the same false dichotomy that has that has continued since the colonial period, civilized vs. barbaric.

Regarding the recent whaling and tuna fishing controversy from this perspective, Japan-which continues its whaling and unrestricted tuna fishing-would appear to be a barbaric country to the rest of the world. The way Japan acted in avoiding the ban for whaling and tuna fishing fits neatly into the false dichotomy of the West vs. Non-West, and the exuberance Japan displayed over having avoided the ban on tuna fishing would present the very picture of barbarism to the rest of the world. In spite of the fact that Japan succeeded in avoiding the ban by collaborating with other countries that hunt resources, the way Japan acted contributed to the barbarous image of the country, which was a significant political failure for Japan. Monaco, on the other hand, presented a noble image to the world by raising the issue-like a warrior fighting a holy war on behalf of civilization.

Is deep-sea whaling part of Japanese culture?

People traditionally used both whale and tuna for their very livelihoods. Whale and tuna were used as vital resources and part of the environment where the people lived. Japanese deep-sea whaling must be distinguished from the adaptation to the environment that coastal whaling involves. One example of the use of whale as adaptation to the environment is whaling in Taichi, Wakayama Prefecture. The recent international trend to criticize this whaling in Taichi seems to stem from Western ethnocentrism. Criticism against Japanese deep-sea whaling, on the other hand, warrants serious consideration. Japan learned modern whaling techniques from Europe, refined them and created truly efficient whaling techniques, as in other industrial fields. In the 1970's Japan enjoyed the largest harvest of whale in the world. People who clearly remember the glory of whaling at that time say that whaling is part of Japanese culture. However, that type of whaling did not derive from adaptation to the environment by local people living on the coast. Even among Japanese people, there are mixed feelings about deep-sea whaling-not all Japanese have responded to the whaling in the same way. In this respect, the statement by the Japanese government that, "Whaling is part of Japanese culture" is dubious.

Toward regaining trust on environmental issues

Japan's efficient whaling techniques certainly did reduce the number of whales, and the same goes for tuna. Prime Minister Hatoyama showed his ambition to lead global environmental efforts in COP15 last year through his statement that Japan would reduce CO2 by 15%, which made headlines. Successful avoidance of the whaling and tuna fishing ban seems contradictory to his statement. As mentioned above, the whaling issue is closely tied to environmental issues and to the movement to protect the Earth's ecosystem. Rejecting opinions from other countries by stating consistently that whaling is part of Japanese culture would trap Japan in the logical fallacy that countries focusing on the environment are civilized while those who oppose this approach are barbaric.

I'm not entirely satisfied with Japan's success in avoiding the ban on tuna fishing by winning over countries that prioritize development, industrialization and progress over the environment, because in the process, Japan may have lost the world's trust in handling environmental issues and gained a bad reputation as being indifferent about the environment or sustainability of the ecosystem. If this bad reputation sticks, protestations of the traditional Japanese love and sensitive adoration for nature will no longer be compelling. Now that the environment has become a very effective political card, coastal whaling and deep-sea whaling should be handled separately.

We need to consider why Monaco appears to be the most sensitive and considerate country in the world, in terms of the environment, even though their proposal to ban tuna fishing was not approved.

Masao Nishimura
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Science, Waseda University


Professor Masao Nishimura graduated from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University and completed the graduate course at Tokyo University. He completed the Doctorial Program of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at the University of Michigan. He is currently a Professor on the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Science at Waseda University. Professor Nishimura conducted field research in the Philippines, Cambodia, and Laos, and has been involved in UNESCO activities including, restructuring the Anthropology curriculum for the Faculty of Archaeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Cambodia, and restoration of The Angkor Watt temples. He also participated in field research on Champassak, Laos for registration as a World Heritage site. His publications include: The Formation of a Nation [Kokka no Keisei], Sanichi Shobo (Co-authored), Archeology of Southeast Asia [Tonan Ajia no Kokogaku], Doseisha (Co-authored) and Champassak Heritage Management Plan, UNESCO (Co-authored).