Sunday, 30 September 2012

Why are the Japanese still whaling?

File Photo lifted from the ABC
The media spins us the same story every time - the Japanese use a legal loophole so they can whale under the guise of scientific research. To me, this narrative quite happily endorses the old WW2 racial stereotype that the Japanese are sneaky and underhanded. They'll do whatever they can to get their whale meat, those Japs. They think they're smarter than us, they think they've fooled us into believing they're performing scientific research. They eat whale meat while thumbing their nose at the rest of the world.

Here's the reality: the Japanese don't really like to eat it that much. The World Wildlife Fund reckons they subsidised the '08-'09 Antarctic whale hunt alone by $12 million just to break even. Right now, more than 6000 tonnes (according to ABC news) of unwanted whale meat sit frozen in storage.

The Japanese government has been trying to encourage more people to eat whale meat, so as to reduce the stockpile. A government initiative to serve whale meat in schools has meant about 3,500 are serving it to their kids. Some of it was even ending up in dog meat!

So why does the Japanese government still want to whale?

The answer is FOOD SECURITY. Japan is a food importing nation, only about 40% self-sufficient. There isn't much room on land for agriculture and fish stocks are plummeting.

It means Japan is walking on a knife edge. In the event of national and/or international disasters which reduce the amount of possible food imports, people may starve. If I were a Japanese conservative, this would definitely keep me up at night.

In 1996, the Japanese minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, Takao Fujimoto, gave a speech at the world food summit in Italy:
...instability of food supply and demand as well as fluctuations in food prices due to natural disasters and unfavourable climatic conditions are matters of serious concern for many countries and people.
In order to achieve world food security, it is important for each country to adopt appropriate policies and actions according to its respective position.
First, it is not appropriate for food importing countries, irrespective of developed or developing countries, to excessively rely on food imports, considering the possible negative effects on international markets made by large amount purchases by one importing country, the possible uncertainty of food imports in times of food shortages, and future population increase. It would be particularly important, therefore, that food importing countries, including my country, promote domestic production by effectively utilizing their productive resources. is difficult to supply all the necessary food from domestic sources because of constraints in their production resources and available technologies. Therefore, it is important to appropriately combine the three elements, that is food imports, stockpiling and domestic production, according to the specific conditions of each country, in order to secure a stable food supply. 
Secondly, food exporting countries should be responsible for maintaining stable food supplies to importing countries even during periods of poor harvest. They should fully recognize that importing countries may face a crisis situation if their food supply is restricted by exporting countries' unilateral measures. In addition, particularly those having inadequate foreign currency holdings may greatly suffer from increased world market prices caused by export restrictions. Exporting countries should fully recognize this point as well.
Japan's self-sufficiency ratio for cereals is as low as 30 percent, an exceptionally low level compared to other developed countries. Because of this background, most of our nationals are concerned over the future food situation in our country. Taking this into account, our agricultural policy stresses the maintenance and expansion, as appropriate, of domestic production, making effective use of our existing production resources.
However, since it is difficult to supply all necessary food from domestic production, due to limited production resources such as land, we are striving to best respond to the needs of our nationals by appropriately combining food imports and stockpiling in addition to domestic food production.

As it stands, whaling is unsustainable. There just aren't enough whales to take it seriously as a source of food for a large number of people. Taking a small catch of whales might help somewhat, but even so, high levels of mercury mean that it shouldn't be eaten by children and pregnant women at all, and everyone else should eat very little to avoid health problems. If you let the whale populations increase dramatically (Minke whales, the main target for Japanese whaling, are relatively "abundant", but simply increasing quotas would quickly change that) and remove the health risks, you might have an argument for sustainable whaling - however, neither will happen within the next couple of generations. Japanese pro-whalers, the conservatives, won't listen to this.

But if we're really honest about it, if we just look in the mirror, it's obvious that the countries criticising Japan are quite happy to stick their fingers in their ears and say "LALALA" when it comes to environmental issues like global warming, deforestation, species extinction, harmful agricultural practices etc., each of which feed back to make the others far worse.

"We need food security, therefore whales are abundant and healthy for children to eat." 

"We need oil, therefore global warming doesn't exist."

The point I want to make here, is that rather than rolling our eyes while parroting the "sneaky Japs" narrative, I think we should look at it from a broader perspective and include everyone else in the story. What the Japanese are doing with whaling is really par for the course. In reality, we have exactly the same world view.


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