Japanese schoolkids in front of whale sculpture, Ueno Park (2002)

This past week there were two big meat-related stories of big importance in Japan, and elsewhere, related to whaling and the resumption of US beef imports. As someone who doesn’t eat beef nor whale meat, it would seem that neither of these stories would hold much interest to me, but of course there’s a lot more than meats the eye here.

Last week, employing a bribery strategy, Japan was able to buy enough votes to pass a “declaration” that said that the International Whaling Commission’s whaling moratorium was “no longer necessary.” It was a symbolic victory, having no immediate effect other than to perhaps soothe the wounds of a country that likes to view itself as the victim of a Western environmental bias that has no respect for Japanese cultural traditions. That’s the way the story is spun, at any rate. But as there is no real popular wellspring of sentiment to bring back whaling, or to eat whale meat, save for a few “whaling communities”, you have to wonder why Japan is spending so much energy — and money — bribing countries and turning oneself into a pariah of the international community that in another breath it so desperately wants to be a part of.

Also last week, Japan agreed to resume the import of US beef after effectively banning the product for the last two-and-a-half years. With greater success than it has been able to accomplish with the whaling issue, the goverment has managed to create an environment of fear related to to US beef and BSE to such an extent that even with the ban being lifted, it will be a long while before consumers feel comfortable buying it at supermarket shelves. (Yoshinoya, on the other hand, will probably enjoy booming business for its “beef bowl.”)

But as with the whaling issue, one can’t help but feel the ruling Liberal Democratic party is being disingenuous, if not downright cynical. In point of fact, Japan had it’s own BSE problem a few years ago. In Septemer of 2001, the government announced that a dairy cow in Chiba had tested positive for BSE. However, at first they took pains to cover up the story. They then launched a campaign insisting that domestic beef was safe, before yet another cow tested postive for BSE. By this point, the domestic industry — as well as beef imports from the US and Australia — had taken a hit. The government eventually came (somewhat) clean and implemented nationwide testing, though doubts remain about how thorough they followed through on that. The government instituted beef-buyback programs in order to get domestic beef off the shelves, which also led several companies in 2002 — Nippon Meat Packers being the most prominent — to try to pass off imported beef as domestic, rather ironic given what happened a year later.

In December of 2003, the Japan government was in effect gifted the discovery of BSE in a U.S. herd in a cow imported from Canada. Japan immediately imposed a ban on US beef imports, and was able to effectively shift the public’s focus away from the safety of domestic beef. The US did itself no favors though, in refusing to implement full-scale testing. Following up on its refusal to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, to say nothing of its imperious foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, it made the perfect bad guy to let Japan off the consumer-safety hook, alleviate concerns about domestic beef, and shore up Prime Minister Koizumi’s support among rural voters (eg. folks living in places where cattle is kept and rice is grown), always the key element in ensuring the LDP’s grip on power. And it allowed Koizumi to pretend — even as he was bowing to US pressure by sending Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq — to be standing up to Japan’s big brother. Both domestic and foreign media, for their part, have bought wholesale Japan’s stance as arising solely from health-safety concerns, obliging the government’s need to paint itself as altruistic in the matter.

But now, with Koizumi more interested in a smooth exit from the Prime Minister’s office (he is stepping down in September) and a visit to Graceland with his pal Bush next week, the goverment is acquiescing to US pressure and signaling the return of US beef imports. Given the context of the US-Japan relationship in general, and Bush and Koizumi’s relationship in particular, only the naive would assume it was a coincidence that just as Japan was agreeing to resume US beef imports, Koizumi was announcing his decision to recall the ground SDF troops back from Iraq.

Although Japan has a long history of hunting whales, whale meat wasn’t really popular until the post-World War II era when it was a vital source of protein during harsh economic times. But this popularity has steadily declined over time, while the price has steadily risen (no doubt due in part to the IWC moratorium). Indications are that the general public — especially middle-aged Japanese and younger — are indifferent about whale meat. (According to the Independent, less than 1% of the population eat it regularly). And yet, consistently the government has tried to create the impression that eating whale meat is a sacrosanct part of Japanese culinary tradition.

What whale meat eating really is is a pawn in a larger nationalistic trend the LDP is only too happy to stoke (and pay for, especially to poor Caribbean countries). America and their minions in the IWC are the “culinary imperialists” trying to impinge on Japan’s sovereign right to hunt whales. There is a palpable air of don’t-tell-us-what-to-do that is not unlike how the Yasukuni Shrine problem plays out with South Korea and China. Meanwhile, like the “Koizumi is visiting the Shrine as a private citizen” loophole, Japan continues to catch hundreds of whales each year in the name of “scientific research,” which many maintain is a thinly veiled attempt to continue the supply of whale meat to high-end restaurants and supermarkets.

In both the row with America over beef, and with the continuing fight against the anti-whaling countries of the IWC, the purpose, once one gets past the rhetoric, seems the same: fostering for domestic consumption not steak or whale sashimi but rather the image of a tiny Japan not afraid to stand up to the big boys, especially the US. It’s a slightly pathetic effort, given that on just about every major issue, Japan does nothing but kowtow to its de facto protector. But biting the hand that feeds it — or at least appearing to — plays well to the masses, keeps the focus away from domestic concerns, and helps the LDP maintain its stranglehold on political power.

Further reading (not linked above):

Japan, Feasting on Whale, Sniffs at ‘Culinary Imperialism’ of U.S., Calvin Sims, New York Times, August 10, 2000
Whaling Gone Awry, Mike Steinbaugh, November 14, 2000
Resave the whales, Clare Perry, Metropolis #637, June 9, 2006
The forces that drive Japanese whaling, BBC News, June 15, 2006
Japan’s whaling ways must end, Brenda Peterson, The Seattle Times, June 20, 2006
Japan’s whaling policy driven by resentment of the West, Gwynne Dyer, The Salt Lake Tribune, June 20, 2006

US Beef Ban
Our beef with Japan, Mindy Kotler, The Globe and Mail, Toronto, July 17, 2003
Japan officially bans imports over U.S. mad cow disease case, Joi Ito’s Web, December 28, 2003
Japanese Consumer Perceptions & Willingness to Pay for Tested Beef, Washington State University paper, October 5, 2004
Will Japanese be cowed by US beef?, Hisane Misaki, Asia Times, June 23, 2006


6 Responses to Talking and eating out of both sides of the mouth

  1. wayne says:

    Somewhat related, in San Francisco the new Matthew Barney exhibit opened which has something to do with Japanese whaling ships and traditions…

  2. Jyare says:

    I thought much the same when Japan first announced the US beef ban. I thought it strange that they’d shut out American beef so quickly when their own has had a much larger occurence rate of BSE. Unjust as it may be the damage done to American beef exports though has already been done and the domestic Japanese producers win. At least until people get over the superstitions that were instilled in them by this farce.

  3. Quinlan says:

    This was a really interesting post. Though I hadn’t thought about things that way before, it certainly rings true.

    I do think that the US beef (and meat in general) industry is among the most frightening in the world, and am all in favor of the ban on US beef. Of course the Japanese beef industry is probably not all that much better. Still, through food coops here (not quite CSA, but a step in the right direction) you can get higher quality meat that wasn’t pumped full of hormones and antibiotics and made to endure sickening living conditions before slaughter.

    The whaling issue seems a no-brainer among almost any non-Japanese, but here I’ve talked to some people that are angry at the activists and general anti-whaling climate, but would never buy or seek to eat whale meat themselves. It’s all about being told what to do, as you said.

  4. kurt says:

    well, people everywhere are told what to do every day of their lives, it’s part of the human condition. and it’s part of human nature to rebel against that somewhat, or at least not to like it. However, were it not for government (or parts of the gov’t) manipulation of the issue of whaling, this wouldn’t register at all here. That was my point. (and just to make yet another reference to Yasukuni, I think it could be argued somewhat convincingly that were it not for the active manipulation on the part of the goverments of South Korea and China, the anti-Japanese demonstrations and sentiment related to Yasukuni wouldn’t show up on the radar, in truth, the fact that those demos happened in China at all was of course due to gov’t manipulation).

    with respect to the beef, i would be in favor of maintaining the ban if I could believe the Japan gov’t was actually acting in the interests of the people and not themselves. after all, who am I to trust the US gov’t on this issue. However, just because the bully’s reputation precedes him doesn’t ipso facto mean that Japan is being bullied here, but it does mean that it will certainly spin the issue to look like it is.

  5. Dirk says:

    Some brief & simplistic thoughts:

    – someone should compare the health risk from whale meat to that of beef (less frequently eaten, but higher pollution and proven effects; risk of BSE meat AND effect on human prob very low)

    – Japan has neither a critical press Japan nor a critical public/society; the two are interrelated of course

  6. Hey Kurt,

    I’m the editor of The Foreigner-Japan Magazine, and I enjoyed your piece “Talking and eating out of both sides of the mouth”. I was wondering if you’d be willing to do a bit of a rewrite (update) on the opinion piece and let us publish it on the 15th or sometime later.

    It’s a newsy piece, and it’s well argued. I think it would fit in with our mandate at The Foreigner-Japan quite well. You can see our website at: http://www.theforeigner-japan.com. We are a volunteer organization, so we don’t pay our writers, but we try and give readers a professional publication, and give Foreigners in Japan a voice on topics of the day.

    If you’re interested, please email me at: managingeditor@theforeigner-japan.com


    Matt Goerzen

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