Truth the first casualty in reporting on Japan’s whaling culture

Truth the first casualty in reporting on Japan’s whaling culture

The Japanese people are hearing only one side of the argument about their country’s ‘scientific’ whaling program, writes TETS KIMURA

Since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, Australia and Japan have had ongoing altercations. This was exacerbated when Japan discovered a loophole to conduct ‘scientific’ whaling in the Southern Ocean in 1987.

This fight was dysfunctional—Australia stood on ethics, whereas Japan argued that its scientific whaling was legal, resembling Australia playing cricket and Japan, baseball. No one could ‘win’ using different rule books, until Australia relocated the ‘game’ to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2010.

Australia argued that Japan’s whaling was science in name only, and for all intents and purposes was commercial whaling. On 31 March 2014, The ICJ decided to support Australia’s claim to end Japan’s whaling in the waters between Australia and Antarctica immediately.

This was the end of the first ‘whale’ war, but Japan now seems to be preparing for a second whale war. It has a brand new ‘scientific’ plan to hunt 333 minke whales each summer in the Southern Ocean for the next 12 summers.

No serious plan

Despite criticism by the IWC’s scientific committee this month, the Japanese government has no serious plan to modify its intention to renew whaling in the Southern Ocean. Legally, Japan, or any other country, does not require IWC approval to commence ‘scientific’ whaling. The only requirement is to seek advice from scientists, but how this advice is implemented is up to Japan. Furthermore, the ICJ’s decision will not be effective to Japan’s new plan, because the judgement was made in relation to its previous ‘scientific’ whaling plan, which was enforced to end last year.

The ICJ’s decision in 2014 came as a triple shock to Japan—not only because it denied Japan’s right to conduct whaling and could not be appealed because of the court being the highest jurisdiction, but also, according to the country’s mainstream media, because Japan’s whale meat culture was rejected.

A day after the court decision, one of Japan’s most conservative national newspapers_ Sankei Shimbun_ published an interview with a whale restaurant owner in Osaka who expressed her frustration over the court’s decision and stressed she wanted to protect Japan’s important whale meat culture.

This sort of report came not only from the right. Asahi Shimbun, arguably Japan’s most radical national newspaper, published a similar article, with photos of a happy family dining at a whale restaurant in Tokyo. According to the Asahi report, in the ‘whale town’ of Kushiro, Hokkaido, the vast majority of residents ate whale meat from the Southern Ocean. A member of the local education committee was concerned that the cultural practice of serving whale meat for school lunches was likely to be negatively affected.

The claim that whaling and whale meat cuisine are Japanese tradition is inaccurate, since whaling was the localised traditional culture of only a few coastal communities.

A Sendai-based regional newspaper, Kahoku Shimpo, voiced its concern at the loss of the ‘unique’ Japanese whale meat culture. As the newspaper of the Miyagi prefecture—where one of the few traditional whaling towns, Ayukawa, is located—Kahoku Shimpo argued that, even though whale meat was no longer an everyday Japanese food, Japan’s unique food culture should not be destroyed by foreign pressure.

The Japanese media mostly maintained that the ICJ’s decision was not good for Japan because of the negative effects on its whale meat culture and the distribution of whale meat—not because an end to scientific whaling would disadvantage science and humanity.

Media reaction

The ICJ decision did not reject Japan’s whale meat culture—in fact, it did not even mention it. For example, Australia argued before the court that Japan’s whaling was commercial in practice and scientific in name only. Australia did not question whether whaling, or whale meat culture, was part of Japan’s traditional culture or not. The reaction by Japan’s mainstream media, however, was that the ICJ decision would cause a crisis for traditional whale meat culture. Their reports did not doubt the robustness of Japan’s scientific whaling program.

The consumption of whale meat was an important source of protein in Japan for about two or three decades after the Second World War because of meat shortages. Although most of today’s younger generation have never eaten whale meat, Japanese citizens—regardless of age—tend to become nationalistic and emotional when it comes to ‘traditional culture’. However, the claim that whaling and whale meat cuisine are Japanese tradition is inaccurate, since whaling was the localised traditional culture of only a few coastal communities.

Unfortunately, it is not easy for the ordinarily monolingual Japanese people to obtain information in languages other than their own. Most get their international news—including that on whaling—from the mainstream Japanese media. A lack of ability in today’s global lingua franca—English—is evident among Japanese journalists too. They would not have reported that the ICJ had rejected Japan’s culture if they had read and understood the court’s decision, which was available in English.

Japan’s kisha (reporters) club system also means corporate journalists are fed privileged information by the Japanese government that justifies whaling as scientific. The Japanese people have little opportunity to hear other views.

So far—to the best of my knowledge—the Japanese media have not mentioned anything about Japan’s culture in relation to the new whaling plan. This is good news.

But this is not to say that reporting is still unbiased. TV Asahi, on 14 April, for example, reported that the lethal research was necessary to examine the content of whales’ stomachs. The reporter did not say that the minke whales in the Southern Ocean eat only krill—thus the research has practically no scientific value.

TV Asahi appeared to be acting as a public relations agency conveying government information, rather than conducting its own research to broadcast an unbiased report and inform its audience of the nature of Japan’s ‘scientific’ whaling.

A small minority of the Japan’s corporate media is prepared to be unbiased. Soon after the ICJ’s decision, Mainichi Shimbun, published an editorial in both English and Japanese arguing for an end to whaling.

Mainichi was also the only major Japanese national newspaper to publish my own whaling article in 2011, which offered a balanced perspective from both Australia and Japan. My article, however, was published only in Japanese.

Mainichi is currently a black sheep among Japan’s mainstream media. Now that a second ‘whale’ war is likely to be declared before the end of the year; it is to be hoped that Japanese journalists will be ready to practise fair and accurate reporting rather than repeating government propaganda.

Tets Kimura has reported independently for both the Australian and Japanese media in their respective languages, including on the whaling controversy between 2005 and 2011. He is currently doing a PhD at Flinders University on Japanese fashion and soft power.

Photo: An adult and sub-adult Minke whale dragged aboard the Nisshin Maru, a Japanese whaling vessel that is the world’s only factory whaling ship. This image was taken by Australian customs agents in 2008. In 2010, Australia filed a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice.

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