I often find myself in the position of being an apologist for Japan. I don’t want to be, but a conjuncture of factors often compels it. For one, after so much time there, I have a basic understanding of the culture, which comparatively few people in the West do. For another, the media does an extremely poor job of filling the vacuum.
What they are chiefly good at is getting your attention and selling it to advertisers. Whether they aim for that maliciously or simply do it by trade probably depends on the publisher.
Don’t believe me? There was an article making the rounds a few years ago that accused the Japanese of racism because one of their larger companies asked a Western minority employee to dye her hair.
Now, the Japanese can certainly be very racist. But in that, they’re hardly unique. More to the point, this was not an example of it. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Dress codes are widespread in Japan. It differentially affects women, but men are hardly exempt. (There is no misery quite like wearing a full black business suit on a packed subway train in the humid heart of a Tokyo summer.)
Japanese companies typically require ALL their employees dye their hair. My fiancee, a Japanese native living in Tokyo and working for JAL, has to dye her hair every summer, when the sun lightens it.
In requiring their Western-born employee to do the same, the company in question was specifically treating her like any other member of the team, not singling her out. They had welcomed her, effectively, and asked that she follow the same rules as everyone else.
That is not racism. It is literally the exact opposite of racism.
But that’s not how it was portrayed in the West, where every major outlet that carried the story went with some form of the clickbait narrative: Western Woman Singled Out by Evil Japanese Corporation.
The strong form makes the accusation. The weak form simply “reports that an accusation has been made,” but the effect is the same.
Now the story is Japan’s withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing positive about this development. While not exactly catastrophic for the whales (Japan’s influence is largely confined to a single zone in the Pacific), it’s certainly not good.
I should also say, in the interests of disclosure, that I am personally opposed to whaling of all kinds, and that I am generally left of center on most issues.
That being said, the Japanese are not slavishly rolling their hands as they slurp over piles of whale meat.
Did you know, for example, that Canada kills more whales than anyone? More than twice as many as the Japanese, in fact. Greenland is second, followed by the Faroe Islands, both territories of Denmark. Norway is third. These are all liberal Western democracies.
So why pick on the Japanese?
The easy answer is good old fashioned racism, and that may play into it, but I suspect it has more to do with simple hypocrisy — my good friend the Fundamental Attribution Error.
To start, the IWC was not established to end whaling, although many people want to see it used that way. It was created in 1946 to “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.”
I repeat: the purpose of the organization is to maintain stocks such that they can be sustainably harvested.
That personally makes me very uneasy, but we don’t get to unilaterally change the terms of an international treaty just because we don’t like them anymore.
The Japanese (along with Iceland and Norway) are asking a legitimate question: given the IWC’s mandate, at what point will the ban on commercial whaling be lifted?
The answer has been “Never!” which isn’t exactly legal or fair.
Don’t have to take my word for it. Please read this op-ed by an Australian delegate and former chair of the IWC:
One of the issues, it seems to me, is the so-called “aboriginal exemption,” which is ultimately the reason no one talks about Canada or Denmark or the United States. Whaling in those countries is labeled “aboriginal” rather than “commercial.”
In the years 2010-2014, Canada’s first nations killed an average of 2.5 whales per day, every single day of the year. The phrase “subsistence hunting” doesn’t mean that if Canada’s natives didn’t kill every single one of those 4,510 whales, that some Inuit somewhere would’ve starved. It means that whaling supports a basic local economy in areas that would likely collapse without it. And if you think they’re hunting with canoes and spears, you have another thing coming.
In other words, it’s absolutely “commercial,” even when it’s labeled “aboriginal.”
Yes, there is a subtle difference. I get that. My point is that we shouldn’t get hung up on labels, which is a sign of small thinking. If killing whales and selling the meat is wrong and the Japanese are bad for doing it, what difference does a label make?
As the former chair of the IWC points out:
“I witnessed Japan produce volumes of detailed studies on the cultural significance of whales and whaling to key settlements mainly in the north — all contemptuously dismissed by ‘like-minded’ [Western] countries, to the palpable disappointment of the Japanese delegation. It was simple hubris.”
The Japanese are not a uniform homogeneous entity. They also have isolated, economically troubled northern communities that could significantly benefit from a resumption of traditional whaling, same as the West.
Japan also has an aboriginal minority, the Ainu. But even taking them out of the equation, the Japanese themselves have occupied their archipelago, whaling, at least since the start of the Jomon period, circa 14,000 BCE.
How is that not “aboriginal?”
The difference, of course, is that the Japanese are not a source of Western liberal guilt.
But if whaling is unethical — and I believe it is (although I don’t want to argue about it, certainly not here) — then shouldn’t the West, as the largest killer of whales, take steps to address their own internal racial and political troubles? How do those troubles justify a double-standard for non-Western countries that had nothing to do with them?
Despite media coverage to the contrary, the Japanese have not “gone rogue.” They have spent the last 30 years trying to work within the system created by the treaty they signed, whose aims have since been surreptitiously and unilaterally co-opted by the West, deliberately contravening the terms of that treaty.
The article above and others mention “political posturing” within Japan as another cause, and while that’s not wrong, it’s terribly misleading. That posturing has always been there, to a greater or lesser degree. You can’t blame a change on a consistent factor.
And if it has increased lately, we have to ask ourselves what has changed such that now there’s an internal audience for that posturing, where there wasn’t before?
I won’t speculate. I’ll leave that to the media. But whatever the reason, the Japanese are clearly tired of being treated as second-class global citizens, of having their arguments met, in the words of the former chairman: “by rote chanting in the West of ‘we don’t like killing whales’ and peddling of the usual emotive nonsense from NGOs.”
It’s possible the Japanese withdrawal is part of a longer strategy. They are, after all, not stupid. I could see them rejoining the IWC, under certain conditions, in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, when the eyes of the world will be upon them. (I’m not saying that will be the case, merely that it’s possible.)
In the meantime, the West, whose aboriginal populations are the single largest killer of whales by a factor of 10, might start the healing process by looking in the mirror. If the long-term goal is an end to whaling, then the biggest immediate impact can be had within sovereign borders, without recourse to the IWC — or Japan.
Of course, all that is messy and complicated, as the real world often is, and doesn’t give Western readers a clear villain to shake their fists at. The Japanese are hardly innocent, but it seems to me there is plenty of blame to go around.
Regardless, responsible coverage of the issue would seem to require some of that complexity, which is conspicuously absent from every article I read. Whether that’s because the reporters and their editors didn’t bother or didn’t care — that is, whether they’re merely incompetent or deliberately misleading — I’ll let you decide.