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TV UK, 23 May

The fight over whaling is less an East-West cultural clash than an argument within Western culture.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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Whale Hunters is a fascinating study of cultural politics, at both national and international levels. The programme is broadcast on BBC4 on Monday (9pm), following this week’s conference of the International Whaling Commission, in Shimonoseki, Japan, which has been more acrimonious than ever.

Superficially, the argument is about whale stocks. The Japanese and other whaling nations argue that there are now enough whales to justify an end to the international moratorium on commercial whaling. The others insist that whales are threatened with extinction.

Whatever the facts, it is clear that something more is at stake than mere numbers. Whaling is an emotive issue, and anti-whaling is deeply embedded in the environmentalist critique that pervades contemporary Western culture. To be Westernised in the twenty-first century is to disdain many of the ideas that once defined Western civilisation. With their relentless pursuit of profit, and their belief in man’s dominion over nature, Japan’s whalers are simply too Western for the West.

Even more ironically, we are told, it was US General Douglas MacArthur who, having destroyed Japan’s agriculture in the war, helpfully suggested that the Japanese hunt minke whales off Antarctica, thereby creating the modern Japanese whaling industry. But the all-new, environmentally friendly, decaffeinated West would like the Japanese to return to their traditional diet. The Japs have a rum response – nuts to MacArthur; whaling is an ancient Japanese tradition.

The programme neglects to mention that, even as it fiercely opposes the reintroduction of commercial whaling, the USA has been pushing for an increase in the quotas allowed for Native Americans, under a special exemption for so-called ‘cultural and subsistence needs’(1). If this hocus pocus works for Makah Indians and Alaskan Eskimos, the Japanese can perhaps be forgiven for trying it on too.

Ultimately, though, such an unprincipled approach is never going to succeed. The spectacle of Japanese school children singing the 400-year-old ‘whale song’ and talking about how they respect whales (and how they taste like fried pork) is never going to cancel out the image of factory ships in which huge slabs of whale are slung about on meat hooks. The whalers want to hunt whales commercially, on a modern industrial scale; they should drop the heritage crap. Quite understandably then, in Shimonoseki the Japanese protested against Western hypocrisy by blocking the cultural exemption.

‘I don’t think it’s culture’, says a nervous young secretary being introduced to whale meat by her boss. ‘I mean you can live without it.’ True, but come to think of it, isn’t that kind of the point of culture? Nobody has to eat whales, but if some people want to for whatever reason, why not do it properly? As one sensible fellow on the streets of Tokyo put it, ‘I can understand banning whaling if they’re facing extinction, but if it’s because they’re big or more intelligent or lovable, then I find that kind of sentiment a little strange. What about cows and pigs?’

What indeed? The strangest thing about the film is the implicit celebration of globalised food culture. We are told that young Japanese have no interest in traditional food (invented or otherwise) because they are too fond of Western fast food. As Homer, the great poet of the Western tradition, put it, ‘Mmmmm…reprocessed pig fat!’. Who would have thought that McDonald’s would become the environmentalist good guys?

The whalers’ alternative strategy, then, is to make whaleburgers and hotwhales to appeal to a new generation. The pro-whaling t-shirts, like the Greenpeace banners, are printed in groovy Ingerish rather than boring old Nipponese.

Like most so-called cultural clashes, this isn’t really a clash of opposing cultures at all. Instead it is an argument within Western culture, sparked by commercial interests, but revealing much more about current thinking on everything from the environment to fried food. And you don’t want to miss the whale song.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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spiked-issue: TV

(1) Bitter division over whale hunts, BBC News, 22 May 2002

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Topics Politics

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