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So what lies at the roots of whaling policy in Japan and Iceland?

Is it some sense of national identity? Is it some true altruistic desire to feed their countrymen? Or is it something else?

Icelandic whale hunt vessel drags dead whales into port

For many observers, the continued certainty of Iceland’s last few whalers’ desire to keep a dying whaling industry alive is, at best questionable, and worst irresponsible both for the whales and the country.

Sigrún Davíðsdóttir writing in her blog ‘Icelog’ notes that Birna Björk Árnadóttir, “a grandchild of one of the founders of Hvalur hf and as such, as deeply imbued with the whole ethos of whaling as can be, wrote that for years she was in favour of whaling…[but now] I have now changed my mind and I guess I’m not the only one. Although certain whale species are not about to become extinct, whaling is part of our past, not our future. The argument that we should catch whales because we have the right to and we can is both out-of-date and provincial in the global society we inhabit.”

Davíðsdóttir goes on to note that the loudest remaining proponent of whaling in Iceland is Kristján Loftsson “…son of Loftur Bjarnason who founded Hvalur hf, together with Árnadóttir’s grandfather…There is probably no single Icelandic company, which for so many decades has enjoyed as much governmental support as Hvalur hf.”

She concludes that, “Some say that Loftsson’s push to keep Hvalur hf whaling seems to have more to do with Freud than financial motives; he cannot let go of the activities his father built up.”

So for Kristján Loftsson in Iceland, the pursuit of whaling may be driven by the belief in  ‘unfinished family business’.

But what of Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe?

The Wall Street Journal noted in 2014 that, “Shinzo Abe recalls sitting on his grandfather’s lap as a young boy 55 years ago. They listened to protesters in the streets outside who opposed the older man’s push to rebuild Japan’s military after World War II, Mr. Abe says. Soon after, Mr. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, resigned as Japan’s prime minister, his aims for his country unfulfilled.”

The Journal notes that Prime Minister Abe’s grandfather had played a significant part in building imperial Japan’s war machine in the 1940s. Indeed, the New York Times obituary of Kishi notes that he was part of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo that ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor and declared war against the United States in December 1941. Furthermore, he helped implement Japan’s occupation of Chinese Manchuria, a region of northeast China occupied as the Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo.  Although Mr Kishi was accused, he was never indicted for war crimes and indeed rose to high political rank after the war.

The invasion of China led directly to the further development of Japan’s pelagic whaling fleet. The Japanese had captured the Russian whaling fleet in the 1905 Sino-Japanese and the subsequent expansion of whaling was an essential ingredient for generating foreign currency from whale oil sales, and later, after Japan stopped dumping whale meat overboard, for feeding Japanese troops and civilians as they conquered north-east China.

Morikawa (2009), writing in Whaling in Japan, Power, Politics and Diplomacy, (Hurst and Company, London) notes that it was Abe’s own father, Shintaro Abe, as Minster of Agriculture and, Forestry and Fisheries in 1976, (and whose political base was in the whaling centre of Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture), who helped to establish the Nihon Kyodo Hogei Co. Ltd., in an attempt to consolidate and preserve the dying Japanese whaling industry. At the April 1976 celebration to mark the foundation of the new company, Shintaro Abe is recorded as saying, “We ask that the flame of the whaling industry will not be put out…. The government will be doing all it can to actively support your efforts”.

Japanese whaling

Prime Minister Abe has been an ardent supporter of the whaling issue. As noted by Professor Aurelia George Mulgan, writing in the online journal, the Diplomat, she considers what she sees as a glaring disconnect between the Japanese government’s preaching and its practice on the issue of universal values’ when it comes to whaling.

Professor George Mulgan notes the … Abe government’s flouting of the ruling of the highest court of the UN, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Japan’s whale hunt in the Southern Ocean”. She goes on to say, It is a government-subsidized and sponsored industry conducted for the benefit of the Japanese whaling industry-cum-lobby and is certainly not for the benefit of Japanese consumers”.

Both Kristján Loftsson and Shinzo Abe, it seems, are clouded in their views of the world when it comes to their family’s recent history. They see the world around them through the lens of individual family tradition rather than their country’s actual tradition and culture. Both seem keen to rewrite the history books and claim whaling is an ancient tradition when, in reality, within the lifetimes of their own fathers and grandfathers, the industry has grown, decimated whale populations, and eventually withered. It’s only the artificial oxygen of government subsidies and private money that is even keeping the whaling fleets afloat.

“how much money should be thrown at feeding whale meat to the Japanese who are not buying it?”

But maybe there is hope for the generations that come next; people such as Birna Björk Árnadóttir. She asks the simple question how much money should be thrown at feeding whale meat to the Japanese who are not buying it?’.

And we might add a further question: how many more whales must die simply to feed two men’s misplaced family pride?