Whales the victims as old enemies face off again

by Gwen Dyer of The Sydney Morning Herald

Japan's pursuit of whaling has as much to do with asserting independence as tradition or science, writes Gwynne Dyer.

EVERYBODY thought this was the year Japan would finally achieve a majority on the International Whaling Commission and start moving the world back to full-scale commercial whaling after a 20-year moratorium. driven not by a national hunger for whale meat (most Japanese under 50 have never eaten whale), but by perceived racism and historic resentment against the West.

The whales just got caught in the middle. When the commission was created in 1946, it was about conserving the whaling industry, not the whales. It did a rotten job even of protecting the industry, however, because the numbers of large whales of most species continued to plunge. In 1975 it set catch limits for individual whale stocks that were below their "sustainable yields".

The goal was simply to bring whale stocks back up to the numbers that would permit large harvests over the long term. It was the same sort of thing that should have been done to save Grand Banks cod, North Sea herring or Argentine hake, and nobody was talking yet about shutting down the whole whaling industry. But time passed, attitudes changed, and whale numbers kept falling.

Since most large whale species were clearly dwindling fast by the 1980s (and some were nearing extinction), the commission agreed in 1982 on a moratorium on all commercial whaling until the stocks had recovered.

It seemed to be a sensible temporary measure to preserve and enhance a valuable resource, so Japan and the few other countries that still hunted whales went along with it. But by the 1990s a large majority of the members of the commission had decided the moratorium should be turned into a permanent ban on whale-hunting.

Popular attitudes towards killing animals that seemed rare, intelligent or even cute had changed in most of the West, and whales scored two out of three. As time passed and whale stocks began to recover, the few pro-whaling countries began to realise they had been had. They were all unhappy about it, but none of the others was as big or as angry as Japan.

Much of Japanese nationalism in the 20th century was driven by the fact that Japan was the only non-white great power, and felt despised and patronised by the others.

The love of whales had not caught on in popular Japanese culture to the same extent as elsewhere, and being treated as unfeeling brutes by the (mostly white) anti-whaling countries ignited a profound resentment in Japan. So the "normalisation" of the commission - that is, returning it to its original purpose of preserving whale stocks for the whalers - became a high priority of Japanese foreign policy, and it started buying up small-country allies.

Japan failed again this year, but eventually it will probably succeed because it cares more passionately about this issue than its opponents. Pity about the whales.