The Truth about "Traditional" Japanese Whaling

Commentary by Paul Watson
Founder and President of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Japan argues that whaling is a cultural tradition practiced by the Japanese for centuries. As such they believe they have an inherent right to continue this tradition.

But how traditional is it?

There were a few isolated Japanese villages that had killed whales in the past, but Japan as a whole demonstrated very little interest in whaling until a man named Jura Oka made his way to Norway, the Azores, and Newfoundland in the mid 1890's to study whaling. He learned whaling and purchased the equipment from the Norwegians. Hence, modern, commercial whaling began in Japan in 1898 long after the industry had been established in Europe and the Americas.

That first year, the first Japanese whaling company Hogei Gumi with one vessel, the Saikai-maru, killed a total of three whales. The harpooner and crew were hired Norwegians. The company failed, so Oka started a new company the Nihon Enyo Gyogyo K.K. on July 20, 1899 in Yamaguchi. Again the company employed a Norwegian harpooner and crew.

Norway was later to regret all the assistance they gave to Japan to learn whaling. One newspaper wrote this prediction, "Once the Japanese have appeared on the scene in any whaling ground, then the Norwegians will soon be banished from it!"

Other whaling companies began and some failed, but in 1908 the Nihon Hogeigyo Suisan Kumiai was established otherwise known as the Japanese Whaling Association with Jura Oka as the first President. This association in 1908 included 12 companies with a total of 28 whaling vessels and they killed 1,312 whales that year. The average kill for the next 25 years would be around 1,500 whales.

Oka was as ruthless a visionary with regard to the whales as Hitler was to the Jews. He proudly boasted in 1910, "I am firmly convinced that we shall become one of the greatest whaling nations in the world. The day will come when we shall hear one morning that whales have been caught in the Arctic and in the evening that whales are being hunted in the Antarctic."

The Japanese whalers operating between Japan and Korea were largely responsible for practically wiping out the Western grey whale populations. By 1915, only 150 of these whales could be accounted for.

Norway, Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany were the largest whaling nations prior to World War II and they pursued the killing without regard to conservation. The 1930's was the greatest decade of whale slaughter in history. In 1931, 37,438 blue whales were massacred in the Southern Oceans. Japan sent its first ships to Antarctica in 1935. The sale of whale oil helped to finance the invasion of Manchuria and China. In 1937 alone, more than 55,000 whales were slaughtered yielding 3 million tons of animals.

Because of the excessive takes, the Geneva Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was ratified in 1935. Germany and Japan refused to sign, refused to abide by quotas and effectively became the first two outlaw whaling nations. By 1939, Germany and Japan were taking 30% of the world's whales.

The Convention actually declared a sanctuary for whales in Antarctica and called for complete protection of humpback whales, a species that many feared was close to extinction.

Despite all the efforts to regulate whaling, whale kills doubled as more unregulated ships engaged in whaling. 

Luckily for the whales, humans turned to slaughtering each other in 1939 and this represented a 6-year reprieve from slaughter for the cetacean nation. After the war, even the whaling nations could look back at the devastation they had inflicted on the whales in the 1930's and the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed as an attempt to save the industry from destroying itself.

The war was the most significant conservation measure to stop the slaughter. One third of all whaling ships were destroyed in the conflict. Whaling did continue, however, and in the 1944-45 seasons, 6,000 whales were slaughtered. That number would begin to dramatically increase again after the war.

According to American Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1946, "The world's whale stocks are a truly international resource in that they belong to no single nation, nor to a group of nations, but rather they are the wards of the entire world."
The problem was that there was one particular American who was a law unto himself in 1946 and that was the American Shogun of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur.

The modern day pelagic whaling fleet of Japan is actually the creation of the United States. In 1946, General Douglas MacArthur proposed the creation of a Japanese whaling fleet to secure protein for the conquered Japanese people. He did so in order to cut down on the United States' costs of transporting food to post war Japan.

It was on August 6th, 1946 that MacArthur signed the directive authorizing two factory ships and twelve catcher boats to begin whaling in the Antarctic for the 1946-47 season.

The deal was that Japan would get the meat and the oil would be turned over to the United States. The United States provided $800,000 in fuel for the ships and received over 4 million dollars in whale oil in return.

The two ships sent down to Antarctic waters were the Hashidate Maru and the Nishin Maru.

This initial whaling venture was ordered by MacArthur without permission of the newly formed IWC, which means that the very first Japanese Antarctic whaling expedition was illegal.

The ships carried American and Australian observers, but they were not there to enforce conservation regulations. Observer David R. McCracken, the author of Four Months on a Jap Whaler, regularly shot albatross for sport from the deck of the Hashidate Maru.

He wrote; "On the fourth shot of the second clip I winged a bird. The extreme end of his right wing dangled helplessly. It did not kill him, and he looked puzzled as he attempted to flap the crippled wing. Gradually he lost altitude. At the end of a long glide he hit the water and attempted to rise again. But he could not do it. A slow death from starvation awaited the poor victim and satisfied I put away my carbine for the day." 

McCracken also caught a penguin, named it Penny ,and kept it for his amusement until the bird starved to death. He had tried to force feed the penguin and described it "as a riot to watch."

McCracken skinned Penny and had the pelt confiscated by U.S. Customs on his return to the United States. They let him keep a whale fetus in a jar of formaldehyde.

He did not have much to say about the whale killing except that he observed one harpooned fin whale dragging a 350-ton catcher boat at four knots until he weakened and they harpooned him again to kill him.

Japan killed whales outside of the inspection and the regulations of the IWC until they finally agreed to join in 1951. During that time, the United States profited greatly from the sale of illegal whale oil.

With the help of the United States Japan became the largest whaling operation in the world by the 1970's.

In a recent article in the New Zealand Herald, writer Lincoln Tan states that eating whale meat is part of Japan's cultural heritage. He writes, "So an attack on whaling is seen as an attack on Japanese tradition."

This is the public relations approach the Japanese are using, but it is not a fair one. Whaling was practiced by a very few remote Japanese villages as far back as the 16th Century, but this traditional whaling was isolated, small, and was carried out with nets from shore. Less than 1% of the Japanese people participated in whaling as consumers until 1908 and less than 10% participated as consumers until 1930. Today only a small percentage of Japanese people eat whale meat.

The Chinese should never forget that it was profits from whale oil sold by Japan that provided the war chest to invade Manchuria and China and led to the Rape of Nanking.

Modern whaling is a practice borrowed from the Norwegians because of a ruthless businessman named Jura Oka who hired Norwegians and bought Norwegian equipment to establish commercial whaling. There is nothing traditionally Japanese about modern whaling.

Today, Japan is leading an effort to slaughter more and more whales. Japanese whaling industry spokesman Joji Morishita has publicly stated that whaling is not about the money but about pride. Morishita vows that Japan will never surrender to the anti-whaling views of non-Japanese.

The brutal killing of whales has become an icon for the Japanese identity. This is not unusual. Japan has always closely identified with blood and slaughter. From the decapitations by the Samurai upon innocent peasants to the suicidal insanity of the Kamikaze, violence and self destruction have been a part of Japanese culture.

It is this killing - this willful slaughter not just of whales, but also of dolphins on Japanese beaches - that has become almost ritualistic. It is this ritualistic slaughter that is traditional.

"We kill therefore we are" is the best way of viewing this identity and it is not a healthy perspective. Japanese history has already demonstrated in fire and blood just how unhealthy this perspective really is.

The Japanese say that we must respect their culture. I can only respond by asking why? What is it about Japanese culture we MUST respect? We can choose to respect the tea ceremony and rightfully so. We can choose to respect origami, ikebana, bonsai, No plays, sumo, Zen, and Shintoism.

We can choose not to respect seppuku, class inequality, kamikazes, and the slaughter of whales and dolphins.

No Westerner, Chinese, Indian or Arab, is under a cultural imperative to accept inhumane slaughter and blood sports. All human beings have a right to disrespect killing of any kind without being condemned or vilified for it.

Japanese defenders of whaling have actually accused whale defenders of being racists for opposing the killing of whales. The opposition of the killing of anything cannot be dismissed as racist. There is no racial or cultural justification for slaughter. None.

Especially for a practise that is not, and has never been, a tradition.