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WDC in Japan – Part 6: Lessons learnt

Katrin Matthes

Katrin Matthes

Katrin is WDC's communications and campaigns officer for policy & communication in Germany

I spent three weeks of travelling around Japan to find allies and get an up-to-date impression of Japanese whaling. The experiences and conversations I had have given me a better understanding of why whales and dolphins are still being killed today and what we need to do to end the hunts. It’s not going to be easy but, with the right approach, I believe it’s possible.

Japanese whaling ship

Can you help to stop whaling?

It’s all about empathy

Reflecting on my journey, one thing stands out: the power of diplomacy and empathy. Again and again, I was met with astonished faces, amazed at my willingness to understand the Japanese mentality, culture and politics surrounding the issue. These reactions reaffirmed to me that without these qualities, changing hearts and minds in Japan to stop the hunts is an impossible task.

On the coast in Japan
Katrin with Ren, Mimi, Yuki from LIA

We're supporting activists, organisations and like-minded people in Japan to end the hunts because change must come from within.

Unfortunately, Japan finds itself branded as a stubborn, evil whaling country that slaughters whales ruthlessly under the guise of lies. But, it‘s important not to lump together all the various motivations behind the hunting of whales and dolphins. The whaling industry, like any other industry is driven by economic motives and tends to prioritise profit over climate protection, safeguarding endangered species or ethics. It misrepresents Japan’s whaling history for its own legitimisation and propaganda, while the true historical and cultural significance is completely sidelined. This is where the dilemma begins.

whale and Japanese whaling ship
There’s hardly any demand for whale meat, yet several hundred whales are killed by the whaling industry every year in Japan. © Mark Votier.

What do we in the West understand anyway?

In North America and Europe in particular, the hunting of whales and dolphins in Japan is seen as a barbaric practice that Japan should be ashamed of, leading to strong pressure and hostility towards the country. However, most Japanese people have no connection to the hunts and many don‘t even know that they happen, yet they still feel the personal impact of the attacks and accusations levelled against their nation from abroad. Feeling attacked and wrongly accused, they find themselves in a defensive position, instinctively protecting their own values and national identity. And before you know it, they‘re supporting something that they might have judged more critically under different circumstances.

International protests and criticism have not only failed to stop the killing, but also raised resistance within Japan.
International protests and criticism have not only failed to stop the killing, but also raised resistance within Japan.

For centuries, the consumption of meat was forbidden in many parts of Japan, primarily for religious reasons. However, fish, available in large quantities, was exempt from this ban. The Japanese character for whale (鯨) contains the character for fish (魚) and despite knowing whales were mammals and not fish, the Japanese still considered them to be gifts from the sea that brought them food and prosperity.

Minke whale © Ursula Tscherter ORES
Minke whale © Ursula Tscherter ORES

Fishing, along with the hunting of whales and dolphins became deeply embedded in the identity of some coastal regions, such as Taiji. These practices date back centuries, with techniques like encircling them with nets before killing them and the practice of drive hunting originating there and later spreading throughout Japan. Taiji has faced many setbacks in its whaling activities, only bringing the residents closer together as ‘the whaling community‘. Today, the sale of live dolphins plays a much larger role in the annual dolphin hunts, but to the Taiji community, this holds little emotional weight. In the end, it’s all about the continuation of the hunt and the prosperity it brings to the Taiji community.

Tajij whalers rounding up dolphins before the slaughter
Statue of a humpback whale and her calf in Taiji

The relationship with whales in Taiji is complicated, so much cruelty and gratitude in one place.

 

Where’s the line?

In my opinion, the debate surrounding the cultural justification for hunting whales and dolphins is just as unresolvable as the debate about ethics. Across the globe, diverse beliefs dictate which animals are ‘allowed’ to be killed and under what circumstances, often sparking bewilderment or outrage in other cultures. Consider the varied perspectives within our own society: Are cows highly intelligent, social and perhaps even sacred beings that deserve protecting, or is it simply impossible to imagine a burger without their meat? Are dogs cherished companions, or could they too be used as food? Do only particularly intelligent, sensitive creatures have the right to integrity and, if so, where do we draw the line? Will we ever agree on an answer?

Cows in field
Black dog
Humpback whale underwater in Caribbean

Even within our own culture, there is a debate on which animals are deemed acceptable to be killed for human consumption.

In a country like Japan, where conformity is highly valued, activism is generally frowned upon. There is a Japanese proverb that says ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered back in’. When advocating for causes like animal welfare or even veganism, you have to expect to be labelled a weirdo and face the potential social consequences.

Who are we to judge?

At the very least, we should agree that people, regardless of their cultural background, want a world without suffering and cruelty. Unfortunately, daily experiences show that achieving this even within our own species remains challenging. This makes it even more difficult to extend these values to non-human animals, as it requires a deep understanding of their feelings.

Blue whale from drone
As a species, we need to have more compassion for the world around us.

Science in common

It is difficult to expect the Japanese society as a whole to see whales and dolphins through our eyes - as highly intelligent, fascinating beings. But what cannot be ignored is the increasing deterioration our planet - and this is a threat to us all!

People around the world are clearing forests, polluting the environment, fuelling the climate crisis, causing mass extinctions and upsetting the natural balance of our world. We must recognise that nobody has a clean slate, before it’s too late. It’s vital we focus less on blaming and condemning and instead unite and take joint responsibility for our environment and the human and non-human animals in it. First, we need to understand the state of our planet. Scientific findings, figures, data, facts. Regardless of where you live, your culture or your ethical views, it’s the evidence that speaks the truth.

Research in Antarctica
© Miguel Iniguez/WDC

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it

Unfortunately, in Japan, the whaling and fishing industry often conducts ‘scientific’ research in favour of continuing the hunts and critical findings from abroad rarely reach the Japanese public due to limited media coverage.

Our most important task is to continue advancing scientific knowledge of the crucial roles whales and dolphins play in their ecosystems, tackling the biodiversity and climate crises and protecting the future of our planet. We need to create channels for this information to reach the people of Japan and we need to communicate in a way that inspires them to take a critical look at their own personal attitudes towards whales and dolphins and how they are hunted. We are optimistic that, only then, will they come to the conclusion that we as a global community must save these remarkable beings if we want to save our planet.

 

If you want to take a deeper dive into my journey through Japan, check out the rest of my blogs below.

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