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Shall we talk about whales and whaling?

Whaling has been a touchy issue between Australians and Japanese for a while. Since being appointed to my current position as an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow in May 2010, I have been asked a number of times by my Australian colleagues and friends “what’s your research topic?”  And every time, I seem to need to pause and grin a bit and say “whaling”.  My Aussie friends will normally then hold their breath for a second, slightly stare at me and say “agh … that’s interesting.”  What is this nervousness that exists when referring to whaling in this country?


     Meanwhile, my Japanese friends both in Japan and Australia were also interested in or fascinated by my new research topic.  Some say, “Good on you, Yoko.  Work hard to defend our nation!”  One of them told me, half joking – but also half seriously – that if I ended up being on “Australia’s side” she would not call me friend anymore.  Well, thinking about her experience being suddenly thrown words “stop killing whales, Jap!” along with a banana peel from a car passing by on the street of Wollongong, her reaction is very understandable.  She is neither a pro-whaling advocate, nor a whaler, obviously.  Why should she be harassed as such just because of her look being Japanese?  Thus, clearly, on the issue of whaling, there is certain nervousness and uneasiness between the two parties.


     What is amazing, however, about Japan-Australia relationship is that despite this sticking point, the diplomatic relationship seems not being deteriorated.  Even after the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who had long been sounding the possibility, finally took Japan to the International Court of Justice regarding the Japanese scientific research whaling program in the Antarctic in June 2010, he had no hesitation in dropping by at Japan on his way to Europe later in the year, this time as a Foreign Minister.  There, he was welcomed by the counterpart with warmth and courtesy.  In turn, Australia received the visit of Maehara Seiji, the new Foreign Minister of Japan, in November, during which Rudd gave a speech affirming that: “Australia and Japan enjoy a comprehensive political, economic and security relationship. … We are very close partners, both within the region and across the world”.  Given the situation that both foreign ministries do not mention anything related to the whaling dispute in their webpages referring to their bilateral relationship, is it just a “disagreement between friends” as both governments insist and nothing critical?  


     OR … is it too critical to talk about it?


     Since I started to investigate the dispute in the context of the Japan-Australia relationship about 7 months ago, I have come to realise, at least two important facts.  One is that there are massive studies and writings already done on whales and whaling by both parties.  That is why I am snowed under mountains of papers and books and rarely come out of my office.  The other is that, however, these massive studies and writings have rarely been communicated between the two camps.  I gradually started to wonder “are we frankly talking to each other on this issue?”  Moreover, “are we listening to each other and trying to understand what the other camp is insisting in order to seriously make a break through?”  In any relationships, the absence of communication is not a good sign.


     As I am the one who suggested this initiative, I should take the humble first step.  So, shall we talk about whales and whaling?  Any feedback is welcome.


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