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Shall we talk about whales and whaling? (5)

Whales and geisha girls


Whether or not whaling and eating whale meat is a genuine part of Japanese culture is one of the hottest points of debate between a pro-whaling camp and an anti-whaling camp.  The former claims that whaling and whale-eating culture has existed in Japan since the ancient time and is, therefore, a part of Japanese culture.  


     On the other hand, the anti-whaling camp asserts that Japan’s cultural claim is a fraud, as whale meat consumption is not a nationwide practice and there are a lot of Japanese who have never eaten the meat.  Pointing to whaling, they insist, specifically referring to the Japanese scientific research whaling in the Antarctic, that the pelagic whaling with big ships and sophisticated equipments is a modern practice and not at all traditional.


     Whenever I come across this debate over culture, I cannot help recalling another ‘icon’ of Japan – geisha.  Yes, one of the most favoured icons of Japanese culture … mainly by the Westerners, I would say.  Although anime and sushi are now on the front line on promoting ‘Japan’ overseas, geisha still has a magical and mysterious power which attracts eyes of the outer world.  And actually I feel it is very uncomfortable.  It is uncomfortable not because it is a symbol of discrimination against women or of orientalism kind of exoticism, but because a geisha world exists in a different space from where I live my life in Japan.  It has got little to do with most ordinary Japanese people’s daily life.


     The geisha world has got long tradition and rich culture such as singing and dancing (of course, in a traditional way) within their own world.  However, the world is enjoyed by a very limited number of people – or should I clearly say small number of the MALE population – in the country.  This is my understanding.


     Thus, the geisha world – which is said and believed to be an icon of Japan – is a surreal world for me but I once luckily had a chance to have a sneaky peak into the strange and somehow hidden world.  I met ‘real’ geisha ladies and experienced fine Japanese food and sake at a high-class Japanese-style restaurant which is called ryotei.  But that was sort of a ‘training session’ … No, not as a geisha girl but as a corporate executive assistant.


     Before I headed for Australia to undertake postgraduate studies, I was an employee at a Japanese retailing company and I once worked within the chairman’s office.  And every month I took part in a meeting of a networking group which gathered executive assistants from various corporations.  We met to exchange information and to brush up our skills.


     The idea was to experience what exactly the geisha world was.  You know, you book ryotei and arrange geisha for your boss’ business dinner but you never get to experience the world.  For female assistants, there was no chance.  Even for male assistants it was a remote world.  Therefore, we thought that in order to do the job properly we had to ‘learn’ what ryotei and geisha world were like.  Yes, it was something we had to LEARN.  Sitting on the traditional tatami mats, we even seriously listened to one of the geisha ladies’ talk about her profession.


     Now, let me bring back my main character – whales – into this geisha context.  At least for me, whales are far more familiar than geisha.  So if geisha is a part of Japanese culture and tradition, then whaling and eating whale meat are definitely included in our culture and tradition.  


     Here I would like to make clear that I am not ruling out geisha from Japanese culture.  If they are something generated and cherished even by a limited number of people on the Japanese archipelago, I understand that they are all part of our culture.  Whether they are mainstream or peripheral is not an issue.  The exclusion of peripheral cultures is not a good move, I believe.


     And by the way, I think it is maybe not a good idea particularly for Australians to bring in the argument of ‘length’ of the tradition into the whaling debate.  Indeed, the pelagic whaling in Japan is a modern practice.  It has only got around a hundred year history.


     But if you stick to this theory, what would become of your ANZAC ‘tradition’?  Counting from the Gallipoli incident, we are yet to see the 100th anniversary.  Nevertheless, I recognise the ‘tradition’ as one of the most firm grounds which shape Australians and Australian minds today.  


     The discussion on culture and tradition is quite tricky, isn’t it?



  • Damien Kingsbury

    Hi Yoko,

    This is an interesting line of discussion. Do you think this complies with the notion of cultural reativism? It may well be correct that eating whale is an old and established tradition in Japan, and in Norway and perhaps Iceland and among the Inuit of northern Canada and Alaska. But is tradition the real issue here?

    It used to be tradition amongst Hindus in India, when a man died, to throw his still living wife onto the funeral pyre. And it has long been tradition in British culture and hence much of that of Australia to impose cruel and barbarous punishments for relatively trivial crimes. Happily, these traditions have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

    So, maybe eating whales is okay and it is probably comething many Japanese have done for a long time. The two questions remain, however: Is it sustainable? and is ;scientific research’ really that and, if not, why is it not described as what it is? and perhaps there is the further question about how we, as humans, choose to live and interact with other creatures. As a carnivore, this is not a question that I have an answer to. And perhaps, even though cows are not threatened with extinction, the cost of raising them exceeds the benefit I feel from eating them.

    Or perhaps there are just too many people consuming too much of everything and we have all exceeded the earth’s capacity to continue to provide at the rate we consume.

    With best wishes,



    • Yoko Harada Post author


      Dear Damien

      Many thanks for your comment.
      It made me use my brain a lot!

      Answering to your question, no, I don’t think that tradition is the real issue here.
      And actually, even the Japanese government seems to be sharing our view.
      It says that Japan is not willing to hunt whales to extinction just to save its own tradition.
      In this dispute, Japan is trying to stick to SCIENCE.

      It insists on the resumption of commercial whaling, because the result of its scientific research shows the stock of some whale species to be abundant.

      In 1982, the International Whaling Commission adopted moratorium on commercial whaling.
      Due to the lack of scientific knowledge about whales, it was considered that it was necessary to once cease commercial whaling not to endanger the whale species.

      Now, as the decision of the IWC was ‘moratorium’, not the permanent banning of whaling, no wonder that the Japanese expected it to be lifted at some point.
      Therefore Japan turned to scientific research to get to know more about whales and their biology.  

      It is now well known that whale species like Antarctic minke whales are not endangered.
      And the Scientific Committee of the IWC recognises this.
      However, the result hasn’t been reflected to the decision of the IWC as its general meeting has become highly politicised.

      In addition, I understand that many Australians think the Japanese scientific research whaling suspicious as whale meat which comes from the research end up in market and been sold.
      But this practice is conducted following the requirement of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (basis of IWC).
      Not to waste whales which were taken for research purpose, the Convention asks to process them.
      And the proceeds are used to support the research next year.

      The Japanese are not hunting whales for whale meat.  Whale meat is the by-product of the research. 

      These are the Japanese explanations.

      So, coming back to your two questions, if you follow this line, yes, some species could be hunted sustainably.
      And whaling which Japan is conducting in the Antarctic and the North Pacific is what it is.  It is SCIENTIFIC research whaling.

      Well, having said that, I personally wonder whether Japan really needs to resume pelagic commercial whaling.
      Perhaps the resumption of coastal commercial whaling could be enough …

      As for your further question … hmmm … Also as a carnivore … I should give a deeper thought on this matter …

      Kind regards,


      • Damien Kingsbury

        Hi Yoko,

        I understand the claim about ‘scientific research’. But one does not need to kill whales, much less in commercial quantities, in order to count them. I am sure that ‘tagging’ whales is know about in Japan as it is elsewhere. The problem seems to be one of the activity not matching the explanation. But perhaps no with an end to such whaling the issue is also ended?

        With best wishes,


        • Yoko Harada Post author


          Hi Damien


          Indeed, the Japanese using the lethal method seems to be the most problematic aspect of their scientific research from anti-whaling point of view.


          But actually, they are conducting both, non-lethal and lethal researches.
          According to their explanation, there are some crucial data which can’t be collected by the former method.

          Well, unfortunately, at the moment, it is beyond my capacity to prove the justification of this claim but, at the same time, I don’t have sufficient knowledge to support a claim which says the “tagging” type of research is enough.


          What is in the mind of the Japanese whaling camp is the sustainable use of the natural resource and from this perspective the resumption of commercial whaling is in their scope.
          They are clear about this and it is no secret.
          Their behaviour could be read that they are desperate to get as detailed and accurate data as possible.


          But I think what should be at the core of this dispute is not the right or wrong of “scientific research whaling” in Antarctic but, more plainly, that of “whaling” itself.


          So, my wonder is …


          If the non-lethal scientific research found out that whale stock out there was abundant, would it be OK to hunt whales from anti-whaling point of view?


          Warmest regards,



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