By Elizabeth Finan Staff Writer March 7, 2010

Forget the pirates off the coast of Somalia. The real action on the high seas is in the Antarctic Ocean.

Forget the pirates off the coast of Somalia. The real action on the high seas is in the Antarctic Ocean.

Last month activists launched stink bombs and paint at Japanese whaling ships. The Japanese retaliated with water cannons. In a separate incident, an individual boarded the Japanese ship, tried to enforce a citizen’s arrest on the ship’s captain, and then handed him a $3 million invoice for a boat that the Japanese had sunk months earlier.

February’s skirmishes were the latest in a long battle raging off the coast of Antarctica between Japanese whaling boats and environmentalist organizations. Recently the Australian government made something of a veiled threat, where they warned that they would consider filing suit against Japan in the International Court of Justice for breach of the International Whaling Convention (IWC) unless Japan agrees to suspend its whaling activities by November. The sharp words suggested the dispute between the two countries was nearing the point of confrontation.

But while some fear the deterioration of relations between Japan and Australia, in fact such a scenario is unlikely. Japan is Australia’s second-largest trading partner and its third-largest source of foreign investment. In addition, the opposition party in Australia views the threats by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s government as intended primarily for a domestic audience, not Japan. (Rudd, who is facing low approval ratings, is up for re-election this year.) On his recent visit to Australia, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada declared that the two countries’ “strategic partnership” would not be threatened by the whaling issue.

What might be threatened, however, is Japan’s relationship with the West in general. Japan has always been hyper-sensitive to perceived affronts to its culture, and whaling is a long-standing tradition in the island chain. The Japanese may interpret Australia’s actions as yet another example of the West’s bullying. The end result would be a more nationalistic, aggravated Japan, which would then be less inclined to cooperate on a range of other issues more critical than whaling.

Although commercial whaling was outlawed in 1986, Japan takes advantage of a loophole in the IWC that allows “lethal research” on whales. It is estimated the Japanese kill about 1,200 whales each year, none of these from endangered whale species. While the government and the whalers insist the whales are used strictly for research purposes, many observers are highly skeptical of that claim, given the Japanese penchant for seafood and the high price ($12 a pound) that whale meat fetches on the market. However, Japan responds that proceeds from the sale of whale meat funds research, and that international law mandates that the meat must not be wasted.

Many people also point to the importance of whaling in Japan’s cultural heritage, as a defense of the practice. In 2001, a Fisheries Agency official brought up the cultural clash between Japan and the West, stating, “Norway and Iceland are also whalers, but criticism of Japan is much stronger.” Feeling as though they are being treated unfairly, a sense of resentment has begun to emerge in Japan over the whaling issue. Ironically, whale meat is not even that popular in Japan; only about 30 percent of the population eats it. The real issue at stake is national pride. As one seller at Tsukiji fish market remarked, “Americans and Europeans eat meat. They’re kind of imposing their ways on us.” A proud people, the Japanese do not like to be told what to do, especially when it comes to something as important as what they eat. Thanks in no small part to their diet, the Japanese have one of the highest life expectancy rates and one of the lowest obesity rates.

But with the controversy over whaling, and the movement to stop the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna—of which Japan is the world’s number one consumer—the Japanese see their diet as the target of a concerted attack. As one member of the Japan Tuna Fisheries Cooperative Association said, “This could set a dangerous precedent…If nothing is done, we won’t have any tuna at Tsukiji fish market.”

The Japanese stance on whaling, and on the export of bluefin tuna, is a way to counteract the erosion of culture that has occurred with the onset of globalization. It is based on cultural traditions and nationalistic pride. Coupled with the fact that Japan has long been wary of foreign meddling, all the pieces are set in place for a showdown.

The more that the Australians and other Western nations press the whaling issue, the more defensive the Japanese will become in the effort to defend their culture. Such nationalism might be detrimental to progress in other areas where the West seeks Japan’s cooperation; for example, how to deal with an increasingly influential China. Therefore, the Australians and the West must approach the whaling topic delicately, without provoking confrontation. It is the only way to prevent a minor disagreement from upsetting cooperation more broadly.

The photo in this article is being used under licensing by creative commons. The original source can be found here.