Old habits die hard. So, it turns out, do new ones.
Back when I was living in Japan, I had a friend who was born near Tokyo in the 1950s. His family wasn’t poor, but with the scarcity of protein that Japan faced for many years after World War II, he grew up eating whale meat. He told me that while he hadn’t particularly liked it, and no longer ate it, it had a taste for him of childhood nostalgia.
According to an article on the BBC web site, large-scale Japanese whaling only began after the war, at the encouragement and with the support of the U.S. military. While the Japanese whaling culture goes back hundreds of years, in contrast to the American whaling for oil, traditional Japanese whaling made use of the entire animal, and it was mostly at a subsistence level.
Whaling increased during the 1930s, but long-distance Antarctic whaling only started once the U.S. helped the Japanese convert two Navy tankers into whaling factory ships to meet food demand.
So while I was eating hamburgers and chicken and fish and chips and spaghetti, kids my age in Japan were eating whale meat. Not because it was an age-old tradition across the entire country, but because it was an immediate solution to the aftermath of war, a solution created by a winning army used to doing things on an industrial scale.
Whaling Scene on the Coast of Gotō. An ukiyoe by Hokusai. Circa 1830.
When I was in Japan – around 25 years ago – everyone was eating hamburgers and chicken and fish and chips and spaghetti in addition to their udon and ramen and fish. Then as now, there was no need for cheap protein, especially not protein as heavily subsidized as whale meat. I saw whale meat for sale my very first day in Tokyo at the Tsukiji fish market, and was shocked – but I was told that almost no one bought the stuff, it was a specialty item.
But the people, the men in particular, who grew up in the post-war era, are now the men who fill many bureaucratic and political positions across Japan. And they have an appetite for both nostalgia, and for the whale meat of their youth. And not just for its taste, but for what it does.
Even as the consumption for whale meat has been in steep decline in the country as a whole, and even as whaling is condemned internationally, the Japanese continue to hunt whales in the name of ‘scientific research’ and we often find ourselves wondering why.
The BBC article concludes that the reason the Japanese still hunt whale is simple: During the post-war period, a bureaucracy grew up around whale meat.
It quotes former Greenpeace researcher Junko Sakuma as stating the simple political reasons for continued whaling: “Japan’s whaling is government-run, a large bureaucracy with research budgets, annual plans, promotions and pensions.
“If the number of staff in a bureaucrat’s office decreases while they are in charge, they feel tremendous shame.
“Which means most of the bureaucrats will fight to keep the whaling section in their ministry at all costs. And that is true with the politicians as well. If the issue is closely related to their constituency, they will promise to bring back commercial whaling. It is a way of keeping their seats.”
This comment made me wonder: How many practices that we call conventional yet unsustainable, from pesticide use to forestry practices to livestock treatment to fossil fuel dependency, are the result of the same kind of thinking?
We know the practices don’t work in the long-term, the appetite for them is decreasing, and they don’t date back as far as we’d like to think. In fact, in almost all cases, the practices we now know are unsustainable only date back to the post-WWII era.
Like the stale bureaucracy around Japanese whaling, we’ve built an entire world economy around them, as if they are all indelibly inked into our future as well as our past.