Dougal McNeill article published in the Japan Times (August 17, 2010):

Racist undercurrents taint whaling rhetoric: Seeing uncomfortable parallels with past anti-Asian campaigns in Australasia debate


Sea Shepherd's Web site describes him as "the first New Zealander to be taken as a prisoner of war from the Southern Ocean to Japan," and there is no doubting Peter Bethune's popularity in this country. His trial in Tokyo earlier this year for interfering with Japan's annual whale hunt dominated New Zealand media, and direct action at sea connects with long-standing cultural currents to do with whales and whaling.

Captain Paul Watson: This is a fact. Captain Peter Bethune was taken as a prisoner from the Southern Ocean to Japan after his ship was destroyed by the Captain of the Japanese registered ship Shonan Maru #2. This captain has not been questioned by any authority and Japan has refused to cooperate with the investigations conducted by the New Zealand and Australian maritime authorities. The fact that the Japanese captain refused to be questioned and Japan has protected him puts this outside of a civil and criminal offense and makes it an act of war. The fact that Pete Bethune was greeted by hundreds of demonstrators in Japan upon his arrival makes his seizure political. He was in fact taken as a prisoner of war and treated as a political prisoner.

Last month Wellington was covered in posters advertising a benefit gig for Sea Shepherd, headlined by prominent bands. The tiny grouping of nationalist demonstrators who turned out to protest Bethune in Tokyo were a major news item in New Zealand; the campaigns in the Antarctic each whaling season are given daily coverage and commentary. Whaling is a big deal, and an emotionally and culturally central issue.

Captain Paul Watson: Yes whaling is a big deal and especially so because the Japanese whaling fleet is targeting endangered and protected whales in an established international whale sanctuary in violation of a global moratorium on whaling. They are poachers. Yes, people do get emotional about the unlawful slaughter of the whales. This is not about culture it is about slaughter and international conservation law. It is about people being outraged by an environmental crime and outraged about senseless cruelty and slaughter.

And yet, for all the intensity and depth of that support, the debate around whaling exists in a strangely ahistorical and decontextualized space, a self-righteousness sealing itself off from examination or self-reflection. The whales in question are often referred to here as "our whales," suggesting a debate as much about ownership and dominion of the seas as any narrower environmental concern. And, for all that these associations may be unwelcome, they point to unsettling traditions in the history of Japanese-Australasian relations.

Captain Paul Watson: There is no justification for this slaughter. It is cruel and it is a threat to the survival of the whales and it is illegal. To say that culture should not justify cruelty and slaughter is hardly self-righteous. I would call it compassion.

There is a worrying undercurrent of anti-Asian racism that permeates Sea Shepherd's publicity and arguments. Most people, rightly, oppose whaling. The Sea Shepherd campaign connects this genuine environmental concern to much older, and dangerous, currents of thought in Australian and New Zealand politics: nationalism, especially "left" nationalism, and the racism that accompanies it.

Captain Paul Watson: This is a ridiculous accusation. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society opposes all illegal whaling by all people anywhere for any reason. We have confronted whalers from the former Soviet Union (1975, 1976, and 1981), from Norway [year(s)?], the Danish Faeroe Islands (1983 to the present), Spain (1981), South Africa (1981), Australia (1978), Iceland (1986 to the present) and by the Makah Indian Tribe of the USA (1998-1999). We have not singled Japan out. In fact, our opposition to Icelandic and Norwegian whaling has been much more aggressive. We have Japanese crewmembers. We are not nationalists, because our crew is multi-national averaging 14 nationalities participating per campaign. To suggest that we are Australian or New Zealand nationalists has zero credibility. Sea Shepherd is an international organization operating on every continent on the planet, we have no national allegiance.

Facing an environmental challenge like the slaughter of endangered whales, we start to see a choice between an internationalist approach, stressing the potential for a politics that can unite, and a nationalism that turns genuine concerns into props for reactionary and toxic ideas. Australian Green Sen. Bob Brown — with his talk of "our" whales, as if New Zealand and Australia owned these creatures, and his anti-immigrant comments — re-enforces a long tradition of anti-Asian racism in this part of the world.

Captain Paul Watson: The Sea Shepherd approach IS an international approach. Senator Bob Brown has made no anti-immigrant comments that I am aware of and the fact is that the whales being targeted by Japan are the whales that inhabit the waters of Australia, both the domestic waters, and the waters of the Australian Antarctic Territory. Thus, they can rightfully be regarded by Australians as “our” whales. The question that McNeill should answer is what makes them the property of Japan? They are nowhere even remotely close to Japan, yet the Japanese whalers treat them as “their” whales, and they kill them. Australians regard the whales as “their” whales, and they protect them. I would rather have the whales claimed by the nation that protects them than the nation that slaughters them.

The directions that kind of nationalism can travel are made clear, if unintentionally, in Sea Shepherd's self-presentation. At a rally held on Parliament grounds in March I heard Paul Watson bark out to the crowd that "a government which can't defend its flag at sea has lost its sovereignty!" Dressed all in black and flanked by two imposingly large New Zealand flags, the imagery and rhetoric would have fitted just as easily into a rally of the far right as at a gathering of environmentalists. These nationalist parallels are a common, and insistent, theme in all the material produced around whaling, and yet, amid a local media commentary set on permanent outrage against Japanese ignorance and immorality, its connotations go undiscussed.

Captain Paul Watson: The Ady Gil was a ship registered under the flag of New Zealand, and therefore New Zealand should have supported the New Zealand captain of a New Zealand flagged vessel. This is true of any country. My criticism was directed at New Zealand. Japan backs its captains, New Zealand obviously does not. New Zealand certainly did not back Captain Peter Bethune in this case.

If I was flanked by two large New Zealand flags, it may have had something to do with the fact that I was standing in front of the New Zealand Parliament building. My crew were not holding the flags, and I have no special allegiance to the New Zealand or Australian flags. As for being dressed in black, black and white are the colours of my crew uniforms. MacNeil is trying to conjure up a facist nationalist rally complete with flags and black shirts to discredit the opposition to whaling. He almost accused us of saluting the flag and chanting “Heil Whales!”

It is impossible for Sea Shepherd to utilize a nationalist theme in our opposition to whaling because we are not affiliated in any way with any nationalist movement. Our ships fly the Dutch flag, but we are not Dutch nationalists. I hold both Canadian and American citizenships, but I do not drape myself with the maple leaf or the star spangled banner. In fact, I am about as anti-nationalist as one can be, so such an accusation is quite simply absurd.  

Have we ever accused the Japanese people of ignorance and immorality? The answer is no. Our opposition is to the Japanese whaling industry and the government bureaucrats who support this industry. We are not and we have never been anti-Japanese, just as we have never been anti-Norwegian, Icelandic or Russian. We are, however, anti-whaling, and we view all whalers as equals.  

My point here is not to do with the arguments around whaling itself but, rather, to do with the context in which those arguments are made, and the historical memories upon which they draw. This aspect of the debate — the way it fits into where it happens, how it both draws on and in turn shapes and continues local discourses on race, on racism, and on local anti-Asian sentiment — is almost wholly lacking from even considered commentary.

Captain Paul Watson: Our arguments are solely based on whaling, and that is all that we are interested in. We hold no criticisms of Japanese culture or society. We target only the whalers, who in this case happen to be Japanese. We are at the same time opposing Norwegian, Faeroese and Icelandic whalers. The one thing aside from whaling they all have in common is the constant accusation of racism against anyone who opposes their whaling. I’m even accused of being anti-Danish, despite the fact that my ethnic background is Danish. I am also accused of being anti-Asian, despite the fact that my daughter is Eurasian. This idea that to oppose whaling automatically makes one anti-Asian and a racist is absurd and has no evidence to back it up. It is simply propaganda designed to invoke sympathy for a savage, cruel, and antiquated unlawful slaughter of whales.  

Opposition to whaling is universal across the political spectrum in Australasia, and what political capital there is to be made from the issue comes by way of competing bouts questioning the vociferousness or vigor of other parties. That all of this happens, and that it draws on this history, goes by unremarked. But that context is instructive.

Captain Paul Watson: We are thankful that the majority of Australian and New Zealanders, Europeans, North and South Americans, Africans, and, yes, Asians, are opposed to whaling. Any person with compassion would rightfully oppose such a cruel and unnecessary slaughter of such beautiful and socially complex sentient beings. The majority of Japanese people do not eat whale meat. It is only a small but powerful minority that supports whaling. Opposition to whaling is pretty much universal. Australia was once a whaling nation, and we opposed Australia off the beaches at Cheynes. We were not anti-Australian when we did so, we were anti-whaling, just as we are not anti-Japanese today, we are anti-Japanese-whaling.   

Sea Shepherd has chosen to draw on imagery from the Pacific War, modeling its campaign logo on "the legendary Flying Tigers who fought the Japanese Imperial Forces in China" and taking their name — Operation Waltzing Matilda — from "the unofficial national anthem of Australia."

Captain Paul Watson: I am a historian and I named one of our campaigns in honour of Miyamoto Musashi, a man I have long admired for his brilliance in the field of strategy. That was Operation Musashi, and it was meant to honour Japanese culture, not to mock it, because I was calling on Musashi’s idea of the “twofold way of pen and sword,” meaning confrontation must be partnered with education. The subsequent year’s campaign was called Operation Waltzing Matilda in honour of the support that Australians give to our campaigns. It has nothing to do with World War II. Australian poet Andrew Banjo Patterson preceded the war in the Pacific by quite a few decades. The name was chosen to honour Australia just as Musashi had been chosen out of respect for Japan.

If this media campaign is merely opportunistic and naive then it is, at best, dangerous and regrettable. If, however, it is conscious evocation, then Sea Shepherd's rhetoric is far more sinister. Nationalist mythology to the contrary, the Pacific War, in the words of historian Tom O'Lincoln's forthcoming study of the war, "was a ruthless power struggle between rival empires." The death and suffering Australia and New Zealand helped bring to the Asian world — culminating, of course, in horrific and criminal atrocities in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki — are a warning to ordinary people the world over, and surely, most of all for a putatively progressive organization, not part of a tradition to be embraced.

Captain Paul Watson: I am a student of Marshall McLuhan and therefore I resent any accusation that my media campaigns are naïve or opportunistic. Nor are our campaigns sinister. Our objective was to bring awareness of the unlawful killing of whales worldwide, including in Japan. We have achieved this. Prior to our campaigns, the fact that whaling was taking place in the Southern Ocean was virtually unknown in Japan and was not covered by the Japanese media. This is no longer the case, because we have dramatized the issue.

I have to admit I am appalled at the suggestion that New Zealand and Australia would be accused of bringing suffering and death to the Asian world and that the conflict with the Japanese military in World War II would be described as criminal atrocities by ANZAC. Australia and New Zealand did not start that war, nor did they drop the bombs on Japan. Australia was invaded by Japan unprovoked, plain and simple. To suggest that the defense of these two nations was criminal and an atrocity is frightfully ignorant and smacks of cultural chauvinism on the part of the writer, who appears to be nothing more than an apologist for the Japanese whaling industry.  

I am sure that decent citizens of New Zealand and Australia would find this statement to be outrageous, hateful, and disturbing.  

Since the Pacific War anti-Asian racism has appeared time and again in Australian and New Zealand life — from the White Australia policy in the last century to populist anti-immigrant political campaigns in both countries during the 1990s — and with violent and dangerous consequences. In toying with this rhetoric Sea Shepherd takes up a dishonorable heritage.

Captain Paul Watson: Yes, Australia and New Zealand have a history of racism, as does every other nation on this Earth. The White Only policy is a thing of the past in Australia, just as Jim Crow laws have long been shelved in the United States. Yes, America had slaves, and Australia persecuted Aboriginals. But consider that Japan did the same with the destruction of the indigenous Ainu population under Emperor Meiji, and today in Japan it is lawful for restaurants and bars to not allow non-Japanese to enter. Japan is not a paragon of virtue when it comes to discrimination.

These are sociological problems that have absolutely nothing to do with whales and whaling in the Southern Ocean. The Southern Ocean is an internationally established Whale Sanctuary. That is why we oppose whaling there. It has nothing to do with Japan or Australia. We are opposing poachers who happen to be Japanese. If they were Dutch or British, we would be doing the same, just as we are presently opposing whaling in the Danish Faeroe Islands and have opposed whaling in Norway and Iceland. 

Striking, too, is how blatantly these associations are made when considered against how little they are discussed or considered. Compare these quotes:

• "We in Australia confidently approach our task. We stand ready, with freedom in our hearts . . . we shall throw the Japanese back where they belong."

Captain Paul Watson: This is not a statement from Sea Shepherd, yet the writer is trying to associate it with Sea Shepherd.

"Throw the Jap back where he belongs"

Captain Paul Watson: This is not a statement from Sea Shepherd. We do not allow the word “Jap” to be used in any way for any reason. Again the writer is attempting to associate the statement with Sea Shepherd.

• "There is only victory or defeat for the whales, and we do not intend to see the whales defeated, nor do we intend to let the murdering barbarian butchers win."

Captain Paul Watson: This is my statement, and there is nothing anti-Japanese about it. In my mind, the whalers are murdering barbarian butchers. I did not say that the Japanese are the same thing. Again, whaling is what we oppose, not the nationality of the whalers.

The first quotes are from Australian government posters produced during World War Two; the third is from a Sea Shepherd leaflet distributed in March. From war movies and comics to the populists' campaigns of recent times, there is plenty of material and cultural memories out there for talk of "barbarian butchers" to make heavy allusive work.

Captain Paul Watson: In other words, the writer is consciously trying to equate World War II allied propaganda with Sea Shepherd’s statements against whaling. There is no connection. Sea Shepherd is anti-whaling and not anti-Japanese. Are the Japanese barbarian butchers? The answer is no. Are the whale poachers barbarian butchers? The way I see it, they are. 

The echoes are so obvious, the dehumanizing provocation so blatant. The "murdering barbarian butchers" of today are the "Japs" of 60 years ago, the "Nips" of racist attacks and outrages of the recent past, the "foreigners" hated by racists in settler colonies founded on dispossession and dislocation and determined to forget their own foreignness.

Captain Paul Watson: The echoes may be obvious from a Marxist perspective such as McNeill’s, but it is not obvious to me in any way. We are not dehumanizing the whalers, they are dehumanizing themselves by engaging in a brutal, bloody, and illegal slaughter of these intelligent beings. I happen to believe that the killing of a whale is a crime akin to murder. Accusing the whalers of being barbarians and murderers is not the same as accusing an entire nation of the same. This is a stretch for McNeill but what he is attempting to do is to demonize anti-whalers, to turn our concerns for the whales and conservation into something sinister and then to dismiss us simply as racists. By doing this, he is dehumanizing us for saving whales and invoking sympathy towards those people killing the whales.

"Japan" and "Japanese" appear at least 20 times in Sea Shepherd's Antarctic Campaign Report, an anxiously insistent racializing of a campaign that, officially at least, presents itself as being about environmental issues only. This, surely, is the language of racism, of poisonous nationalism and, if it came from a neo-Nazi grouping, it would be denounced as such.

Captain Paul Watson: Of course the words “Japan” and “Japanese” appear in our report. We are opposing ships of Japanese registry that are crewed by Japanese citizens. If we go back to 1978, the words “Australia” and “Australians” appeared in our report on our opposition to Australian whaling in Western Australia, and we used the words “brutal” and “cruel” then also. The words, “Norway” and “Norwegian” appear in our reports on our campaigns opposing illegal Norwegian whaling. How this can be construed as the language of racism is extraordinary.  When the word “Japanese,” like the word “Norwegian,” is used to describe the citizen participants on a whaling ship, this is merely descriptive and not racist. If we did not indicate that the whalers in the Southern Ocean were Japanese, where would people direct their protests? The power to stop the illegal activities of Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean can only come from the government of Japan. We need to pressure the government of Japan, and that can only be done if the public is aware that the responsible government is the Japanese government. That would be like protesting the war in Iraq without mentioning the United States. According to McNeill, we should be consciously vague about describing the citizenship of armies, corporations, fishing fleets, whaling fleets, and everything else. For example, to report that a fishing boat from somewhere is fishing illegally would be met by the question of, “What flag is the vessel flying?” Should we answer, “Well, it is a fishing vessel, and it should not be here.” “Where is it from?” “It’s not from around here, it’s from somewhere else. I would like to tell you, but I don’t wish to appear racist.”

What McNeill is asking me to do is to not mention the nationality of the whaling ships in the Southern Ocean, perhaps because their illegal whaling activities are embarrassing to Japan and the Japanese government is offended if we bring this to its attention.

McNeill, by the way, mentioned New Zealand and Australia 14 times in this article, which, according to his logic, makes his article racist.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find McNeill’s reasoning on this to be just plain silly.

And yet, one lunchtime this March, a crowd of good-natured environmentalists, respectable figures — including Green MPs — and campaigners heard it all without so much as a murmur. Prominent actors and musicians raise funds and lend their names to aid the organization.

It's not only in the ocean that Sea Shepherd are playing a dangerous game.

Captain Paul Watson: It is a dangerous game. The Japanese registered ship Shonan Maru No. 2 deliberately rammed, sank, and destroyed a New Zealand registered vessel and almost killed five New Zealanders and a Dutch national. The whalers have fired on us, thrown concussion grenades at us, and rammed our ships. It is indeed dangerous. The whalers are ruthless, and that is a fact. The government of Japan supports their illegal activities and refuses to cooperate in any investigations. Japanese right wing extremists call for the death penalty for anti-whalers. The Japanese government and media call Sea Shepherd people “terrorists,” despite the fact that we have no charges against us.

I do hope, Dougal McNeill, that they paid you well to write this drivel. You see the world through rose-coloured Marxist glasses; in other words, you see things the way you want to see them. You did not even bother to interview me or any Sea Shepherd people. It’s easy to dehumanize people when you neglect to talk to them.

All I can say in summation is that Sea Shepherd opposes whaling and not Japan. We don’t see the whalers and the Japanese as being the same thing. I know it is however a difficult thing for a person holding a Marxist anthropocentric perspective to understand that some people such as ourselves do not view ourselves as being associated with any particular culture, nationality, race, or anthropocentric spiritual beliefs. We are biocentric ecologists, and we do what we do for the benefit of the whales. They are our clients, and it is in their interest that we defend them from the unlawful activities of the whalers, who in this particular case just happen to be Japanese.