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Shall we talk about whales and whaling? (4)

Japan March 11th 2011: For the record


In the evening of 22 March, I boarded Qantas flight 22 bound for Sydney via Hong Kong from Narita International Airport.  It was a familiar flight for me which was usually a direct flight between Tokyo and Sydney.  However, the flight route of the QF22 had been changed due to the disaster in Japan.  Qantas wanted to make sure the safety of their crews.


Although I was unhappy and slightly anxious about the change of the route, the flight turn out to be the most memorable and, maybe, the safest flight I have ever had.  72 crew members of the Australian rescue team returning to Australia from the disaster zone were on board.


At Hong Kong, we were all once evacuated from the aircraft and at the terminal I had an honour to have a chat with two of the crews.  They were frank and I was able to ask one question which I had been carrying.  Was their mission cut short because of the radiation threat?  It was a rumour which I heard from my friend in Japan a couple of days ago.


Their answer was simple.  “No.”  


Throughout their mission they had never felt a radiation threat.  They all had an equipment to measure the radiation but it never showed irregular level.  I was relieved to hear this answer.  Although the radiation problem was, and still is, the biggest concern in Japan, some reports seemed to me a little overreacting. 


Our conversation went on and after talking about the recent disaster I, yet again, ended up explaining about my job and my research project.


Then, one of the officers, the elder one, said “Oh, talking about whaling, I have one question.  Is that true that Japanese people came to consume whale meat just after the war?”


It was my turn to return a simple answer.  “No.”  


It is true that after the war, because of the food shortage, whale meat became an important source of protein for starving Japanese population and was distributed to the wider community on the archipelago.  It was the Americans’ decision and the Japanese were ready for it, because they had a strong whaling industry before the war and they had equipments and skill.


However, the culture of whale meat consumption had existed for centuries in some smaller fishing towns in Japan – like Taiji, which became internationally famous because of an American documentary film The Cove.


While explaining this to the crews, my experience at a symposium which I attended a week ago in Osaka started to flash back in my mind.


On a fateful 11 March 2011, I was at a symposium Whaling Cultures of the World: Past, Present, and Future at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka.  I came to realise the symposium in February when I was tracking down the works of Associate Professor Michael Heazle of Griffith University.  He was the author of a book called Scientific Uncertainty and Politics of Whaling which appeared to be important to my research.  Noting that he was going to give a paper at the symposium and also that Mr. Morishita Joji, the Counsellor of the Japanese Fisheries Agency who is the key figure of the Japanese whaling policy was to be a part of the gathering, I thought it was worth flying into Japan for this symposium.  A month later, I was in Osaka.


It was in the first session in the afternoon when I felt a slight sway.  “Earthquake?”, I thought but because people around me were all quite calm, I thought “well, probably that was just my dizziness.  Am I tired a bit?”


It was not until the beginning of the next session that I realised what I felt was not caused by my ill health.  Professor Kishigami Nobuhiro, the organiser of the event, rushed into the seminar room and announced that there seemed to be a very huge earthquake in the Tohoku area (northern part of Japan).  He added that Tokyo also seemed to be affected and urged anybody who needs to make a call to do so.


Although the program including a casual conference dinner that night went on and the second day started as scheduled and the symposium looked un-affected by the disaster, it gradually started to show an impact.  As we can recognise from horrific images out of TV, it is quite obvious that the area which had been smashed by the tsunami was a fishing oriented area including ports for whaling and dolphin hunting.  Some of the participants were specialising not only in whaling but also in fishery and there was no wonder that they had their research fields and contacts or friends in the tsunami affected area.


Dr. Akimichi Tomoya, Deputy Director-General of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, could not leave Tokyo and had to skip his role as a commentator on the second day.  Members of his institution were in the area at the time for research purpose and were missing after the tsunami.  Fortunately, he was able to get hold of them and made it to Osaka on Sunday. 


Dr. Akimichi gave his paper “Whaling cultures of the World: Rethinking Human Relationships with Whales” as scheduled but he inserted some episodes related to the current situation in Tohoku. Referring to the town of Otsuchi which was famous for its dolphin hunt, he told us that the mayor of Otsuchi was still missing.  (Sadly, he was later confirmed dead on 19 March.) 


It was interesting to know that members of Sea Shepherd and Save Japan Dolphins were also trapped in the disaster because they were there to protest against the hunt.  (The members were lucky enough to be all safe and they seem to be back in the US already.  They are busy promoting their footages of the tsunami and their interpretation of this disaster.)  


Another town which Dr. Akimichi mentioned was Ayukawa.  The port of Ayukawa is known as a whaling port and it is where the Japanese whaling fleet departs to the North Pacific to conduct scientific research.  Showing a picture of one temple, Ayukawa Kannonji, he explained that the temple had a relationship to the whaling culture in the area and added that because of the latest event, the temple might had been gone.   (According to the information on the web, fortunately, the temple has survived the tsunami and has been accommodating some disaster victims who had lost their home.)


While listening to the last papers of the symposium, which were open to the public, I was filled with a slight sense of embarrassment and emptiness.  Facing the once in a millennium natural disaster, the whaling dispute between Japan and Australia appeared to be almost … NOTHING.  I was struggling to find the meaning of my research project.


Moreover, I was frustrated by my ignorance about that particular area of Japan.  I had never visited the area.  My knowledge of geography of the area was quite vague.  Of course, I did know the importance of the area to fishing industry including whaling and dolphin hunting in Japan but the knowledge lacked actuality.  With what had happened on 11 March, it suddenly became very real to me.


I had been careful not to approach the topic without giving thorough consideration on history, culture and tradition of whaling and, more broadly, on relationship between human beings and whales not only in Japan but also in other parts of the world.  I did not want to boldly tread on them like some anti-whaling advocates do time to time from my perspective.  But even so, I was made to notice by the recent tragedy that I was approaching my research topic with a “dispute centric” view. 


Still my research focus has to be on the whaling dispute.  However, I always have to bear in mind that even the international dispute is the accumulation of human dramas and not to wash them out.


At the moment, it is difficult to come to terms with what had happened to Japan on 11 March 2011.  But in the long run, those who were affected by the event directly or indirectly need to find at least some positive lessons.  As of 29 March, it is reported that 11,063 people were confirmed dead and 17,258 were still missing.  If we could not do so, it might be difficult for them to rest in peace.


So … back to work.


Whaling in relation to the 3.11 (March 11th) is already causing a controversy and it is adding a new chapter to the dispute.


There is no time for me to waste.


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