The world is rejoicing as Australian wins its case to ban whaling in Japan. The UN’s International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Australia and has commanded Japan to halt its program in the Antarctic immediately. But many Japanese are disappointed by the ruling. They have been trying to argue their case to allow them to legally hunt whales commercially. One of the reasons cited is the art of Bunraku, a form of puppetry that uses whale baleen as hinges between limbs. Their argument is that this form of art will suffer if whale baleen is not made available to them. However is this really enough of a reason to allow whaling to continue?
The Japanese argue that whaling has been around for centuries. It is as much a part of their tradition as wearing a kimono or tea ceremonies. It is said to have begun as early as the seventh century. In the early days of whaling however, fishermen used hand-held harpoons and nets. Hunting a whale was as dangerous as the early people hunting woolly mammoths. Whales were heralded as local gods and whale shrines were built-in their honor. They saw the killing of a whale as the god sacrificing himself to keep the village alive. However, in these times, one whale was enough to feed the village and only one could be caught at a time.
It has also been said that no part of the whale was wasted. The oil, meat, bones and baleen were all harvested and used. This is seen as different from American kinds of whaling where just the oil was extracted and the rest was discarded. But as contact with the outside world increased, the Japanese had access to new technologies, bigger boats with faster and stronger harpoons and more copious nets. Japan joined the modern age and the hunt for whales began in earnest.
However it was not until after the Second World War that whale meat became a staple diet for Japanese. The war had taken its toll on the country and a new resource was waiting in the wings. This period is where the central relevance of eating whale meat really stems from for the Japanese. It has been said that by 1982, the year of the first moratorium on commercial whaling, stocks of whale meat were dwindling. There is an argument that is generally accepted that the earlier intensive whaling done by multiple nations contributed to this fact. In Japan, this pushed whale meat into the status of luxury item.
Now that the species has recovered, Japan would like their harpoons back. But the next argument put forward by some, that whales are depriving us of fish is simply ludicrous. Most whales eat shrimp and krill, the tiny microscopic sea life that they filter through their giant strands of baleen.
But when all these arguments are rejected, the last one to come forward is the cultural context. Without whaling in Japan, the traditional arts such as Bunraku will not be able to survive. Baleen is made of a strong, keratin-like substance that forms hairy plates that hang from the upper jaw of a whale. They continue to grow throughout their lives and one whale can have as much as 400 plates. Baleen whales are among the largest on the planet and so, produce a huge amount of baleen.
Bunkaru puppeteers back in the old days used baleen to connect the head and limbs to the main body of the puppet. After repetitive use these strings wear out and need replacing and apparently, nothing but baleen will do. The puppeteers claim that plastic or steel does not have the delicacy of baleen, the movements of the puppets are not so subtle and lack grace. By banning whaling, Japan is being deprived of its traditional arts.
Perhaps makers of pianos could claim the same fact. Nothing but ivory will do. Ivory is better to the touch and less likely to become sticky with perspiration as ivory absorbs moisture. But there is no one clamouring to kill elephants to continue supplying ivory to make piano keys. With this in mind, surely Bunkaru puppeteers could make do. If they really need proper baleen, then they can always salvage it, much in the way ivory is often salvaged from other old pianos.
Despite humanity’s best efforts, whales do sometimes become beached and die before they are able to be hauled back out to sea. Surely, if the Japanese insist on continuing with using all the parts of the whale, then in these times they could deal with the creatures that otherwise go to waste, this is a better compromise than allowing whaling in Japan to continue. After all, is that not the ultimate version of a sacrifice?
Finally, the decision this week to halt whaling in Japan was due to their supposed “scientific” research that allowed them to travel into an area where whales are protected and hunt up to 1,000 whales per season. The argument is not about commercial whaling at all, but the pretense made that these killings are necessary. Here is where the Japanese lose out as they reveal that whales are going to plates in expensive restaurants and puppeteers rather than staying in the lab. Plus strings made for Bunkaru puppets must be fairly brittle if they need that amount of whales to keep their traditional arts alive. A famous Japanese saying reads that the only part that is discarded from the whale is its voice. Surely it is this attitude towards whales that is the saddest thing.
Opinion by Sara Watson