Australia, which helped stop Japan’s so-called scientific research on whales, now tries to seal a free trade agreement. By Sam Vincent.

The symbolism of whale hunting

A minke whale is captured off Kushiro, in northern Japan, last year.
Credit: AP

According to the website, November’s Eden Whale Festival is “Australia’s premier whale celebration”. Last year, the site boasts, it featured a street parade, ocean cruises and a kiddies’ treasure hunt. The whole thing culminated with the “Whale Song Gig” headlined by “Melbourne groovers” Saskwatch. I’ll have to take their word for it – I was in Japan that same weekend, for the Taiji Whaling Festival.

In ruling that the second phase of Japan’s Antarctic research program – JARPA II – is both de facto and de jure commercial whaling, the International Court of Justice on Monday tightened the noose on the most notorious loophole in environmentalism.

Because although the court didn’t abolish the infamous Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which allowed signatories to issue “special permits” to conduct whaling for scientific research, 12 of its 16 members found Japan’s interpretation of the article was far from consistent with its true intent. That program of vague motives with scant peer review had not considered non-lethal means to achieve its supposed goals. Instead, together with its precursor, JARPA, it has killed 10,439 minke whales and 15 fin whales since 1987.

In a 2007 interview cited by Australia’s counsel, in which Japan’s expert witness at The Hague was asked what the first chairman of the International Whaling Commission would make of Japan’s reading of Article VIII were he alive, Lars Walløe replied: “He was thinking that the number of whales a country could take for science was less than 10. He didn’t intend for hundreds to be killed for this purpose.”

Indeed, argued Philippe Sands, QC, during Australia’s oral proceedings, “immediately prior to the moratorium entering into force for Japan in 1986-1987, the number of Antarctic minke whales taken by Japan was 1941’’.

The insinuation was clear: JARPA II, with an annual quota of up to 935 minke whales (although its take was rarely close to that) is, quite literally, business as usual.

But on another level, the dispute that ended up in court wasn’t about whales at all. That Japan insisted on continuing its program for so long in the face of sustained high-seas confrontation and massive financial losses, and that Australia cared enough about it to pursue litigation, attests to both countries’ totemism of the same animal for mutually exclusive purposes.

In presenting Australia’s closing remarks at The Hague last July, then attorney-general Mark Dreyfus maintained the case was “of great importance to the Australian people and the Australian government” because of the virtues of “upholding the rule of law at the international level and the positive effect that has on international relations’’.

But when I asked Dreyfus on the steps of the International Court of Justice why this case was in Australia’s national interest, his answer was more persuasive: “I think that Australians are very conscious of the need to conserve whales. They’re very conscious of the fact that humanity hunted whale species – many of them almost to extinction – in the last century, and that we want to do everything that we can as a nation to preserve this species.”

1 . Australian enlightenment

Much is made of Australia having made a happy transition from whaling to whale watching. It’s a powerful metaphor for how we interact with nature – from exploiter to adulator. Moreover, the transition is presented as a rational development. Sea Shepherd frequently points out that given their importance to the global tourism industry, whales are now worth more money alive than dead.

The evolving way we think about whales in this country especially presents a powerful symbol of the notion of progress. Whaling played a fundamental role in not just the economy of early Australia, but its very foundation: it was in 1833 – a full 45 years after white settlement – that wool overtook whale oil as the largest-grossing export of the Australian colonies. If my grandparents’ generation rode on the sheep’s back, then their grandparents first clung to the whale’s fluke.

For ANU environmental historian Tom Griffiths, whales are a “powerful symbol of our nation’s ecological enlightenment, transformed from dominant economic resource to subjects of our saviour”. Many of the early whaling stations, Griffiths says, are now “embraced within national parks, another symbol of that same moral ‘progress’. There is something uncomplicatedly green and good for Australians in looking after whales.”

University of Queensland social anthropologist Adrian Peace goes further, arguing whale advocacy provides an anchor for an Australian identity cast adrift in a globalised world.

“It no longer makes sense to talk about an Australian middle class,” Peace says. “Because what has happened is that the relatively homogeneous middle class of old has become hugely differentiated, fragmented and diversified as a result of rising prosperity and full-scale commodification.

“For this reason, old icons and symbols [mateship is one he cites] have lost their influence and appeal to these rising new classes. Their place has been taken by novel signs and symbols which are not directly tied to material conditions but are notably emotive in character, and those connected with environmental issues are most prominent of all.

“What’s important about this ensemble of new symbols, which range from recycling to whale totemism, is that they can be made much of without the middle classes having to modify their (over/excess) consumption practices in the slightest. In fact, they can be conveniently used as a legitimation for increased consumption (more and newer household goods through to enviro-holidays, including whale watching), rather than cutting back across the board.”

2 . Japanese identity

For Japan’s part, what was traditionally a parochial, not patriotic, tradition appears to have become embraced as a national symbol only when it was challenged by foreigners.

Norwegian anthropologist Arne Kalland argued in several books that eating whale has become a defining feature of Japanese identity not because every Japanese person does it, but because outsiders reject it. “The anti-whaling campaigns,” he wrote, “have turned whale meat into a symbol for Japanese culture, and eating whale meat has acquired a new meaning: it has become a ritual act through which the partakers express their belonging to the Japanese tribe, not only to the local community as before.”

By this thinking, Japan hunts whales for the same reason Australia hugs them: to locate its house in the global village.

Nobody I asked at the Taiji Whaling Festival was aware that at the precise moment they were harpooning majestic giants of the deep-fryer with toothpicks, Aussie kids dressed as crêpe-paper humpbacks were sweating their way up Eden’s Imlay Street, 8000 kilometres to the south. It’s probably a coincidence.

What they were all aware of was when this festival started – 1986. Taiji, now notorious for its dolphin hunts but once the home of a proto-modern whaling system, had 300 years to publicly celebrate this whaling heritage but only chose to start in 1986, the year the moratorium on commercial whaling came into force.

“Nowadays it really is all about nationalism,” Greenpeace Japan’s executive director, Junichi Sato, told me while the case was pending. “So I don’t want to call it scientific whaling or even commercial whaling: it’s more like patriotic whaling. It doesn’t really matter how much money they lose, it’s just a matter of continuing, or not being willing to stop.”

But now they’ve been ordered to. For Tony Abbott, meeting Japanese PM Shinzo Abe next week and hoping to acquire himself a free trade agreement, he’d be wise to keep in mind that his counterpart hails from the old whaling port of Shimonoseki and is a member of the Parliamentary League for the Promotion of Whaling. It is likely the issue will be swimming in the room.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 5, 2014 as "What it means to kill a whale".

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Sam Vincent is a Canberra-based writer. His book Blood and Guts: Dispatches from the Whale Wars will be published in September.