Why Boris Johnson and the New York Times Criticize Japanese Whaling

This article first appeared on JAPAN Forward written by Masaaki Sasaki.

Japan faces global criticism after its decision to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission. It is clear, however, that the IWC has become dysfunctional. An analysis of its inner workings shows that hard data and scientific evidence are being neglected in the face of human emotions and concepts of animal rights, which prevail as the core reasons behind the current disapproval and bashing of Japanese culture and practices.

I would like to present my analysis on these issues and the intentions of the individuals behind this bashing by introducing some key articles on the subject published after Japan announced it would withdraw from the IWC.

Emotions Push the IWC Away from Its Original Purposes

In recent years, the IWC’s discussions have been increasingly driven by emotion. In the 1970s, the environmental protection movement emerged, and whales, which reign at the top of the marine ecosystem, became a symbol of animal protectionism.

Anti-whaling organizations, such as “Greenpeace” and “Sea Shepherd,” were founded one after another. By presenting a new, personified image of whales, they even began to influence international policies and diplomacy. Sources from IWC delegations said that representatives from anti-whaling countries were fiercely criticized after returning home if they dared to compromise and accept a single condition proposed by Japan.

Under this logic, is it permissible for humans to kill animals with lower intelligence? What is the standard for high or low intelligence?

The highly-publicized opinions of certain anti-whaling countries determined the course of their IWC delegations. As a result, the nature of the organization changed, drifting away from its original purpose of the proper conservation of global whale stocks and the orderly development of the international whaling industry.

After the announcement of Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC, the media in Europe, the United States, and Oceania all criticized Japan with emotion-based arguments presented in the editorials of internationally-renowned newspapers. Here are two examples.

Like shooting elephants or rhinoceroses for trophies, cruelly killing animals now shown to possess a high level of intelligence on the pretense that the practice has a cultural importance is untenable.(The New York Times

Like shooting elephants or rhinoceroses in Africa for trophies, hunting whales for something to slice into sashimi is an act of barbarism. (The Sydney Morning Herald

The New York Times and The Sydney Morning Herald editorials mentioned here use the same logic and sentiment. I imagine that the reporters are in their 50s to 60s. Their thinking matches that of many anti-whaling organizations from the past half century, worshipping whales as sacred animals.

Under this logic, is it permissible for humans to kill animals with lower intelligence? What is the standard for high or low intelligence?

Japanese whaling has always been conducted with a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation towards these marine resources, and it has obeyed the rules of international resource management. This has no connection to hunting elephants and rhinos for trophies.

Anti-Whaling Countries’ Politicians Call for Emotional Outrage

Former British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson had never expressed his anti-whaling views publicly. However, at the end of 2018 he contributed an opinion piece to The Telegraph. In an article titled “Why is there not more outrage about Japan’s barbaric practice of whaling?” (December 30, 2018) the 54-year-old former minister used the media to appeal to the general public, who he felt were apathetic on the subject of Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC.

It is days now since the Japanese announced that they were once again going to be allowing commercial whaling — and I must say that I have been stunned by the response; or, should I say, the lack of response.

I mean, where is the anger? Where is the outrage? We are talking here about a real plan — to take effect next summer — to begin again the brutal harpooning of beautiful, intelligent and endangered mammals. What is wrong with us all? …

I don’t know why this appalling news has been greeted with what seems to me to be such relative apathy, but in case you are among the don’t care-ish, in case you are one of those who looked at the headline and stifled a yawn, I am here to tell you that you are wrong, wrong, wrong.

The emotionally-charged argument by Johnson was criticized even by Paul Watson, the founder of the radical environmental group Sea Shepherd, who said: “I thought I was reading an essay on whales and whaling by an elementary school student.”

Intensifying Conflict: Emotion Over Science

Within the IWC, as the internal conflict between pro-whaling and anti-whaling countries has intensified, efforts to normalize the organization’s function have been compromised. Nearly every proposal from Japan to normalize the IWC has been ignored.

Emotional appeals from powerful political figures, like the one by Johnson, may have prevented the IWC from discussing the issue objectively. In fact, while Johnson’s arguments are not supported with any scientific background or data, even he mentions that some whale species are recovering in numbers.

In Australia, which has long embraced an adamant anti-whaling policy, in the 2000’s there was a TV commercial of a Japanese-looking customer getting harpooned to death after ordering whale meat in a restaurant.

While the IWC’s internal affairs became gridlocked, outside the organization anti-whaling messages against Japan became more radical. There was even an incident where a Japanese delegation was attacked by activists with red ink, which was a metaphor for whale blood.

Johnson concluded his editorial with the following:

This is already a terrible, terrible period for the natural world and above all for the animal kingdom. At a time when we are seeing a tragic and accelerating anthropogenic destruction of species and habitats — fundamentally caused by the burgeoning human population — more whaling is the last thing we need. Let us hope our friends relent.

In the U.K., Johnson and his girlfriend led a protest with the message “Boycott the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.” For many Japanese, it is beyond comprehension why the whaling issue and the Tokyo Olympic boycott are even related.

The Role of the Animal Rights Movement

Another factor influencing the whaling issue is the animal rights movement, which has evolved since the 1970s. This movement argues that “animals on this planet have the same right to life as humans do, and humans must not kill or exploit them. It is humans’ duty to stop harming the environment and to protect the ecosystem.”

Animal rights activists advocate saving animals from becoming food or fur products, banning animal experiments for cosmetics and medicines, and eliminating zoos and aquariums for entertainment and education. Naturally, the people involved in this movement are often vegans (strict vegetarians) who refuse to eat not only meat or fish, but also milk or eggs.

Today, many individuals from the animal rights movement are involved in anti-whaling activism as a part of their activities for protecting animal rights. Whales are viewed as charismatic animals, like polar bears and pandas, and they are more appealing as symbols of the animal rights movement than less attractive cattle, pigs, or domestic fowl. Paul Watson and many other members of Sea Shepherd are also animal rights advocates.

The animal rights movement was partially triggered by Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, written by Peter Singer of Princeton University in 1975. In his book, Singer used the term “speciesism” to describe activities that cause animals pain for the benefit of humans.

Singer’s ideas became the philosophical basis for the animal rights movement, and he was one of the 100 most influential people in the world as chosen by Time Magazine in 2005, for spurring the increase in awareness of animal rights in modern society. In January 2019, Singer published an opinion article in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, titled:  “Whales are many things — but they are not a resource to be harvested” (January 11, 2019). In it, he described why he opposes whaling:

We have learned a lot about whales since 1946. We know that they are social mammals with big brains, capable of communicating with each other by various sounds. They bond with their children and with their social group. They live long lives — bowhead whales live much longer than any other mammal; some have been found with 200-year-old ivory spear tips embedded in their flesh. Many other whales live at least 40 years. They appear to be capable of both pleasure and pain — and not only physical pain, but very likely also distress at the loss of a child or one of their group.

Whales are therefore not stocks in the sense in which we as a country may have stocks of coal. Nor are they resources to be harvested like a field of wheat. They are individual beings, with lives of their own that may go well or badly.

In other words, he claims that whales are not fishery resources as defined by the IWC and a not negligible number of countries, but rather, “sensitive social mammals” like humans, and we must not subject them to painful deaths with whaling guns.

Singer’s argument is that whales are animals with individual personalities, and they should live their own life without human interference. His arguments have clearly influenced anti-whaling activists to personify whales in their ideology.

Singer compares whaling to the ancient Chinese tradition of binding girls’ feet. His logic is derived from ethics and the principle of utilitarianism, not from scientific observation, such as the IWC’s resource management data. In his January 11 opinion article, he continues:

Nor is the fact that there are areas of Japan in which whaling is an ancient cultural heritage a sufficient justification for killing whales. In China, the binding of girls’ feet was an ancient cultural heritage, but it maimed women. We should be glad that it is now firmly in the past. Whaling should go the same way.

Anti-Whaling Groups Up the Pressure

From the point of view of the anti-whaling movement, Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC and planned resumption of commercial whaling provides a good opportunity to put more pressure on whaling countries, including Japan.

It may also be an opportunistic time for those who want to spread unscientific sentimentalism and animal rights movement. With the deterioration of the global environment, the animal rights movement believes it has an opportunity to grow even more.

The conflict at the IWC indicates that all international organizations dealing with animals and fisheries’ resources may have similar fates in the future. Beyond whaling in the 21st century, we face questions of how we treat animals and make choices in terms of food consumption, among other issues.

We should understand that the arguments used against whaling now will one day be applied to a broad range of other issues, and have a direct effect on our lives.

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