The Perils of Pauline (Cetacean Version)

16 June 2006

The Perils of Pauline (Cetacean Version)

By Gwynne Dyer

At the end of each episode she faced a horrible death: carried off by a runaway balloon trapped in a burning house, tied to the tracks before an oncoming train. Filmed in 1914, “The Perils of Pauline” was the archetypal serial, as week after week the heroine (Pearl White) miraculously escaped from pirates, Indians, gypsies, rats, sharks, or her dastardly guardian. But she always did escape, and so have the whales. Or at least, they have escaped once again.

Everybody thought this was the year when Japan would finally achieve a majority on the International Whaling Commission and start moving the world back to full-scale commercial whaling after a twenty-year moratorium. For years, Tokyo has been bribing small, poor countries with generous offers of foreign aid if they will join the IWC and vote to resume whaling. The strategy came within a hair’s breadth of success last year, and with three new pro-Japanese members this year (Guatemala, Cambodia and the Marshall Islands) versus only one new anti-whaling member (Israel), it looked like Japan would have its majority at last.

As each delegation showed up at in St. Kitts and Nevis, the site of this year’s meeting, Greenpeace and their fellow NGOs anxiously adjusted their tallies, but nobody really knew which way the meeting was gong to swing until two key votes were held on 16 June. The first was on a Japanese proposal that the IWC should stop concerning itself with small cetaceans (small whales and dolphins), and to everybody’s surprise Japan lost by two votes.

After lunch they voted on another Japanese proposal, that future votes should be secret (so that Tokyo’s bought-and-paid-for allies could vote to resume whaling without facing an outraged public opinion at home). But Japan lost again, this time by three votes. This is the real world, however, not a movie serial, and sooner or later Japan is going to win this battle. The question is: why does it want to win?

Japan is at least as “green” in its attitudes as other developed countries. Its determination to resume commercial whaling is not typical of the positions it takes on other conservation issues, nor has whaling occupied the same prominent place in traditional Japanese society as it has (both economically and symbolically) in Norway and Iceland, its only two allies by conviction. There is something else going on here.

“Many of the Japanese citizens thinks that westerners, (the) outside world, is imposing their own value code on Japan on an emotional basis, and naturally they think they’re bullies or… arrogant,” Joji Morishita, the head of the Japanese delegation to the IWC, told the BBC on 15 June. Japan’s policy is really driven not by a national hunger for whale-meat (most Japanese under fifty have never even eaten whale), but by perceived racism and historic resentment against the West. The whales just got caught in the middle.

When the International Whaling 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, so 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 IWC agreed in 1982 on a moratorium on all commercial whaling until the stocks had recovered. It seemed to be a quite 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 then-members of the IWC had decided that 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 that they had been had. They were all unhappy about it, but none of the others were as big or as angry as the Japanese.

A lot 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 IWC — i.e., 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 do. Pity about the whales.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“”; and “When…falling”)