21 JULY 1979, Page 8

Thar she blows

Murray Sayle

Tokyo After hunting thein close to the edge of extinction, the Western capitalist world has, it seems, finally fallen in love with the great whales, the biggest and most intelligent creatures ever to inhabit the sea. But, judging by events reported from London last week, this outwelling of affection does not extend to the Japanese, the last people still defiantly eating whale as a regular part of their diet —the Rising Sun flag was burnt, delegates to the International Whaling Commission were sprayed with red paint, and the Japanese sat stonily through a spirited performance by the American John Denver, sprung from the greatest of all the whaling nations, of the anti-whaling campaign song, 1 Want to Live. (Denver used, it is said, a Japanese-made microphone.) The demonstrators hoped by these actions to save the last of the whales by bringing the pressure of international opinion to bear on Japan, the only nation (along with the Soviet Union) still practising deep-sea whaling with factory ships, fast chasers, helicopters, sonar detection gear and high-explosive harpoons — an array of search-and-destroy equipment which gives the nimblest whale little chance of escape.

The whales have, however, found powerful friends. President Jimmy Carter of the US, which ceased whaling in the Thirties and Alick Buchanan-Smith, Fisheries Minister of Britain whose last factory whaler sailed home from the Antarctic in 1963, called for a moratorium on commercial whaling; so did the Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, backed by his country's powerful conservation lobby. Australia's conversion has been the most dramatic. The Australian whaling station, at Cheynes' Beach near Perth, is in the process of closing down now, having taken 561 sperm whales (the most endangered species still being hunted) in the earlier part of this year. The station's entire yield of sperm oil went to Britain, where it is used for making margarine and cosmetics and such life-enhancing activities as lubricating racing cars and model aeroplane engines. The reason given for the closure is poor profits — only 350,000 dollars for 1978 on a catch of 713 sperm whales.

Falling profits have not, however, daunted the Japanese, whose Taiyo Fisheries Company is reported to have lost ten million pounds on whaling operations in recent years. Kinshiro Sorimachi of the Japan Whaling Association said in London last week that Japan 'will continue whaling at any cost', adding that Carter's proposal was 'an outrageous one put forward in his desire to get re-elected next year.' The Japanese press have backed Sorimachi to the hilt, as it were, of his harpoon: non-whaling nations, says the Asahi Shirnbun, 'cannot, and are unwilling to understand the position in which Japan is situated: being a small insular country, Japan has been forced to rely on whaling for its animal protein requirements. The time has come for this nation to say what it thinks right.'

According to the Japan Whaling Association, if whaling was banned 'about 200,000 Japanese people, whose livelihood depends on whaling directly and indirectly, would be affected. This would inevitably cause enormous social problems. Furthermore, the disappearance of whale meat from the Japanese diet and culture would be a matter of great concern for the Japanese government.' Inagaki Motonobu, a 58-year old lawyer who is chairman of the Japan Joint Whal ing Company, put it even more bluntly: talk of a ban, he said, was 'an attempt to maintain the supremacy of the AngloSaxon race.' (Lawyer Inagaki has noticed that the reformed ex-whaling nations, Britain, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, which dominate the International Whaling Commission, are pretty much the same crowd who have been running the world, on and off, ever since Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open its ports to American whalers in 1854.) For a shrill voice from the other side, we might consider an advertisement phblished in Australia by the Friends of the Earth: 'Japan's treatment of the great whales is akin to the Nazi policy of extermination of the Jews. One Japanese whaling official was heard to say that he would be glad to see the last whale killed — it would mean that they had done their job efficiently.'

A unique culture menaced, an energetic people starved for food on one hand; on the other, a lovable and inoffensive species brutally hunted to extinction, driven down the same melancholy road already trodden by the American buffalo, the Scottish osprey and the Tasmanian Aborigine. Can we pass beyond the crude racist taunts in which the controversy has so far been conducted, to get at, or at least, nearer to the truth?

All authorities agree that there are less whales about than there used to be, although the exact population is unclear, and not made any clearer by scientists' arcane jargon about 'whale pregnancy ratios' and 'optimum sustainable yields'. In fact, the great whales are lucky to have survived as long as they have, in view of 19th century Europe's insatiable demand for whale oil lamps and whalebone corsets, and only the timely arrival of OPEC and the elasticised girdle gave them the reprieve which is now under renewed attack. When we are looking down the one-way street to extinction, with thalidomide only a DC-10 hop behind us, whatever the scientists say it is clearly better to be safe than sorry.

But what about hungry Japan's predicament? It is perfectly true that whale meat is on sale in Japan: I have just been down to price it in my local supermarket, and found that Central Capital Foodstuffs Co. is offering marinated whale steak at the equivalent of 95p. a pound, less than half the price of the cheapest stewing beef in Japan, and smoked whale bacon (artificially coloured and preserved) at the same price. Both were at the bottom of the freezer, outnumbered fifty to one by packs of fish, beef, chicken, prawns, clams and other staples of the Japanese diet. There is one whale meat restaurant in Tokyo, seating 24 whale gourmets at a time: raw whale tail is sometimes available in raw-fish restaurants (as is raw bear and raw horse, in some parts of this exotic country).

Figures from the Japanese Agriculture Ministry indicate that the Japanese last year consumed 58,300 tons of whale meat, down from 120,000 tons in 1973. Of this amount, about a quarter was eaten in Japanese households as whale stew, a quarter was served as school lunches (children get no choice over their lunch: whale is the cheapest meat in Japan, and Japanese school boards are notoriously stingy), a quarter was made into artificial ham, pies and sausages (Japanese sausage makers, like ours, keep their recipes confidential), and the remaining quarter went in various non human directions, such as fertiliser and pet food, (It was mostly sperm whale, too fishy even for Japanese whale lovers to stomach, and with alarming concentrations of mercury.) This total works out at just over one pound of whale meat per Japanese per year. A people threatened with starva tion? A culture menaced? 'It is difficult,' states a catty memo circulated among the EEC embassies in Tokyo last week, `to see what the cultural significance of artificial ham or whale meat sausages is to Japan. If the demand for real ham cannot be met by local production, Denmark would be delighted to make up the deficit, which would also help to reduce Japan's surplus of 6.4 billion dollars with the European Community.'

Consulting Japanese friends, gives, however, a different picture. 'Whale meat IS vital to the Japanese people,' I was told by my local restaurant proprietor, a well-informed and intelligent man. 'When did you last eat whale?' Not since I left school. The lunches were horrible.' (This parallels British experience: the unspeak able snoek consumed in large quantities during the Second World War seems to have turned the nation off whale for good.) Other Japanese friends gave the same reply: they never ate whale themselves, but believed that other Japanese lived on it. The pound-a-year statistic they found hard to believe.

Japanese are, of course, Buddhistanimist in their religious beliefs. The Buddhist reverence for life is strong: to kill an animal for sport — fox-hunting, say, or bullfighting — seems inhumanly cruel to Japanese, and it was only many centuries after the introduction of Buddhism that Japanese could be induced to eat any animal meat at all. Even today, Slaughterhouse workers, meat traders and leather workers are outcasts in the Japanese community.

The Japanese attitude to dogs reflects this spirit: sacks of drowned puppies and kittens are all but unknown in Japan and Japanese vets are seldom if ever asked to .put down', in our comfortable euphem ism, an unwanted or ill-mannered dog or cat. Instead, a Japanese dog owner who for some reason has to part with Rover is likely to abandon him in the mountains, saying somewhat guiltily that if Buddha wants him to live, Buddha will find a Way. (In the days of Japan's heart breaking, grinding poverty, not much more than a century past, this used to happen to Granny as well.) But the needs of Man, in the divine plan, come before those of the animal world, if the choice has to be made. The whales, when they were first caught in Japanese offshore nets in the 17th century, seemed like a gift of protein straight from Buddha: the frugal Japanese saw nothing wrong in this, especially as every part of the whale, skin, bones, entrails and blubber was used (in the bitter phrase of the nature writer, Peter Mathiesson, 'only the whale is wasted'). On the other hand, the way in which Westerners dumped whale meat into the sea revolted them, especially as they were doing it in full sight of the Japanese coast, in the rip-roaring days of AngloSaxon whaling, and in the privacy of Western Australia in our own time. The sudden 'holier-than-thou' conversion of the Westerners well along the road to extinction, when they have no further use for the whales themselves, confirms Japanese in their notions of bare-faced Western hypocrisy.

However, current Japanese policy has been largely shaped by Japanese internal politics. Whaling in Japan is largely one company, Taiyo Fisheries, which is largely the once-wealthy Takabe family. World-wide 200-mile fishing limits, the soaring price of diesel fuel, and the disinclination of Japanese seamen to undertake two-year Antarctic voyages except for very big money are all putting a crushing squeeze on the Japanese fishing industry, and the temptation to get another season or two out of the last remaining whaling factory ship, Nishin Maru no. 3, is strong. Even so, Taiyo cannot supply the modest, and rapidly declining Japanese demand for whale products, and so 34,000 tons of last year's consumption was imported, from such sources as South Korea, Peru, and (very likely) the pirate whaler, Sierra, whose customers are bound to include the world's last consumers of table whale, as distinct from make-up or model airplane whale. Another source of Japanese imports is the Soviet Union, which has embarked on a complicated barter deal of whale meat for Japanese refrigerators.

Taiyo has, like all Japanese concerns, immense debts and 9,300 employees it cannot fire (the 200,000 imperilled jobs is the exaggeration of a patriotic Japanese public relations firm hired, in the Western manner, in a last desperate attempt to keep the company afloat). Taiyo has been able to attract some powerful short-term allies: the Japanese Seamen's Union has brought in the Japan Socialist Party; and the powerful fishermen's cooperatives, through their electoral pull in the seaside constituencies, have a lot of influence with the ruling, rural-based Liberal Democratic Party. In addition the Fisheries Minister, Michio Watanabe, is important in the Party's right wing and went to Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo with Prime Minister Ohira.

One suggestion comes easily to a candid outsider: the best possible public relations advice that Japan could get is to cut its remaining losses on an industry which is obviously on its last legs, is of small importance either economically or dietetically to Japanese, and which simply puts a stick into the hands of those who want to beat Japan for envy, bigotry or oldfashioned racist motives. But this is to misunderstand the way the Japanese political system works.

Sound as the advice to get out of whaling altogether may be, and inevitable also as changing tastes will bring it about anyway, there is no one in Japan to listen. Japan does not work by abstract policy debate (does anyone?) but by internal consensus, slow to form and difficult to break, reflecting the current power relationships between the different business, bureaucratic and, formerly, military groups which make up the society. These internal negotiations, conducted in innumerable bars and geisha houses, and over endless golf games and jolly drinking bouts, are not open to whale-loving or any other kind of foreigners. A Japanese consensus is not about facts, but about achieving a mystical Confucian unity of action Cone hundred million hearts beating as one', as the Japanese saying goes) which generally operates in the interest of some concealed group who stand to benefit from the operation. Hence the myth of the nation which survives on a pound of whale meat a year.

Now, where have we heard all this before: mutually misunderstood cultural conflict, Western hypocrisy and Eastern egocentricity, exaggerations and downright untruths, solemnly told and just as solemnly believed by the tellers? Japan was not making war in China, only conducting a police action (false); Japan was only doing in China what Britain had done a generation or two before in India, and the US in the Philippines (true); Japan faced starvation and ruin if she lost her empire (as it turned out, wildly untrue); Japan was being encircled by Anglo-Saxon powers determined to squeeze her out Of world markets (probably, at the time, true enough). Despite some superficial similarity and, so far, one-way imitation, Japanese and AngloSaxons think very differently, and neither side has a monopoly on self-deception. Considering the immense differences in background and culture, it is surprisingly often only a decade or two before Japan sees things much as we do on such different topics as pollution, public health, civil rights — and maybe even whaling.

And so, will Japanese whaling die out before the whales do? It may be a closerun thing, but my money is on Moby Dick. As Captain Ahab discovered, there are few survivors as stubborn and resourceful as the great whales. But then, he never worked for a Japanese whaling company.