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If you hail from one of the many developed nations that comprehensively frowns on the practice of whaling, you may have the image that an appalling number of people in Japan eat whale meat. And while that may be true in relative terms compared to extremely low number of people who regularly eat whale meat in several parts of North America and Europe, whaling can be a divisive topic even within Japan. Some Japanese have no problem with dining on whale from time to time, treating it like just a meatier, gamier fish. Others think eating whale is a custom that’s long past its time and needs to be rethought.
To get a preliminary understanding of some of the many different opinions on the issue that exist in the country, we interviewed a number of Japanese people and asked them whether they were in favor of or opposed to whaling and eating whale meat.
Respondent 1: Woman, 30s, opposed to whaling
“In the past, whaling was a part of Japanese culture, but, because of reasons such as the reduced whale populations, I believe the situation has changed in the modern era, and so restrictions are needed.
However, the attacks carried out by Sea Shepherd on Japanese whaling ships are close to terrorism, and I don’t think such actions are acceptable. Countries other than Japan used to engage in whaling, but after extracting the whale oil, they destroyed the animal’s carcass. But even though long ago there was no custom of eating cows or pigs in Japan, whalers didn’t just extract oil [and throw the rest away]; they would eat the whale’s meat, powder its bones to use as fertilizer, and even make use of the skin and baleen, so that nothing was wasted. Not only that, to show appreciation for the precious natural resource that whales were, in some parts of Japan they would enshrine the whales’ spirits.
I would like those Europeans and North Americans who know nothing of these aspects of Japanese culture, yet criticize the country by saying ‘Whaling is bad!’, to understand these things.”
Respondent 2: Male, 20s, in support of whaling
“Eating whale meat is a part of Japanese culture, and I think it would be strange to give up a part of our culture because other countries tell us to stop doing something. There are cultures in the world where dogs and cats are eaten. That’s difficult for someone like me, who loves those animals, to accept, but I don’t use that as a reason to deny their culture or tell them to give up a part of it. Culture is culture. Cultural differences are something we should accept, not something we should deny.
Among the criticisms people make of whaling is ‘Whales are intelligent creatures, so I feel sorry for them,’ but are they saying that cows and pigs are unintelligent, stupid animals? I don’t feel that way. Humans should respect all animals, and treat the sacrifice of their lives with dignity deserving of the fact that it lets us go on living. That’s something very important, and I can’t see any reason to treat whales like they’re special compared to other animals.
Also, some people say that whaling is bringing whale populations to the brink of a crisis, but, to my knowledge, some types of whales are endangered, and others are a thriving natural resource. It is confirmed that only whales from the non-endangered group, and only the number of animals necessary for research purposes, are procured by Japanese groups. If this were an outright lie, and the whales procured in the name of research were bringing the species to the brink of a crisis, then I think whaling should be immediately stopped. But until I am presented with documentation proving that, I am in favor of whaling and eating whale meat.’
Respondent 3: Male, 30s, opposed to whaling
“I can live my life just fine without eating whale, so there’s no need to go eating it in the face of so much criticism.”
Respondent 4: Male, 30s, in favor of whaling
“I recognize that eating whale was a part of ancient Japanese culture. I am afraid that as many fields are becoming more globalized, we are in danger of losing many aspects of our culture. So that the Japanese whale-eating culture will not disappear, and so that future generations can inherit this custom, I think whaling should be continued, even if on a small scale.”bo
Respondent 5: Woman, 30s, undecided
“I don’t have any personal desire to eat whale, but, if other people want to eat it that’s fine. But if I had to pick a side, I would probably say I’m closer to being opposed to whaling.
But, I think that those who are against whaling should reconsider the one-sided criticisms of the practice in Japan. Wouldn’t it be more convincing, and potentially influence a greater number of people, to adopt a more bilaterally communicative posture (like in Aesop’s The North Wind and the Sun)?
I love cats, so the custom of eating cats in China and Switzerland makes me painfully sad. So, I really can understand those who stand up and shout ‘Whaling is wrong!’ But two-way communication, persuasion, alternate solutions, and thinking about your counterpart’s position are all tactics I would like the whaling opposition movement to adopt.”
As you can see, we talked with five different people, and got five different answers. It’s a safe bet that there are many more stances out there among the roughly 125 million people in Japan, since not just people from different parts of the world, but sometimes even those from the same country, can see the same issue in very different ways.