Sunday, March 11, 2007

Culinary dilemmas

I've been pondering about how to write this post for a few days now, but I'll just start and see where it goes.

I had been surprised when I arrived in Japan to see how many sushi restaurants served whale. I spoke to several people about this subject and certainly had no intention of having any myself. In fact I even shied away from the horse meat sushi, though that was more to appease a friend than from my views on equine dining.

Those I spoke to had positive memories of eating whale meat at school, mostly because the high fat, high protein content makes it a very powerful source of energy and nutrition. I did a little scouting around on the internet to read more on the subject, to find out the current state of affairs and to try and understand some more of the moral implications. As in any hotly debated topic there is strongly worded rhetoric on both sides. I certainly find the claim of killing 500 or so whales a year for scientific research a poor excuse, though if you're going to kill them, better not to let them go to waste. However, the idea of making money from the trade certainly muddies this argument.

The latest hunting methods, when they are implemented, at least finish the job faster than the traditional techniques. The grenade spears can still lead to a pretty unpleasant death. It seems that the cost of this method is somewhat too high and sometimes the scientific research crews need to cut some corners - frankly that's completely unacceptable from any scientific standpoint.

The question of how intelligent a whale may be and how much of an issue this is is something that I haven't got to the bottom of but whatever the levels of thought process it all seems like unnecessary cruelty. Unfortunately I feel that the majority of farming involves unnecessary cruelty and I buy free range whenever possible (almost always in the UK). I don't remember the last time I bought chicken or eggs which were not free range (This does not include shopping in China!). Paying a little extra helps to ease the conscience but I'm not convinced that the non free-range is always great either.

Anyway, I read enough to know that I wasn't going to be ordering whale meat any time soon. Unfortunately sometimes life isn't that simple. On Friday evening I went to a sushi restaurant with a student from the university and sat down to peruse the menu. An elderly Japanese gentleman in a finely tailored suit, a gray trilby and sporting a most preposterous handlebar moustache started talking to us. He had a smattering of English but most of the time my friend translated admirably. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and I mentioned that I was planning to go to Tsukiji the following morning. Aha, he said, he knew just the person for me and got out his mobile to call a woman he knew who worked at the market, she was to be my tour guide. Unfortunately she was busy but I greatly appreciated the offer of assistance.

He then asked if I liked sushi, I nodded energetically and at this point he started telling me that I must try, something. He kept repeating something, something bacon but I couldn't make it out. I looked at my friend and as I did so he called the waiter over, said a few words to him and pointed at me, smiling wide-eyed. At this point he remembered the English and repeated whale bacon, whale bacon. When it dawned on me what he was saying my heart sank, I turned to my friend and gave a worried look. "Whale meat? Really? I really didn't want to try that.". I'm sure it's OK, my friend said, thinking I was worried about the taste. I responded that I was not happy with the culling of whales to which I got the scientific research response. I told her that I didn't believe that that was a valid reason but by this point the piece of whale was being sliced in front of me.

I asked if I turned it down whether this would be very insulting, but the answer was pretty obvious. Perhaps turning it down would make a statement but my reasoning at the time was that it would simply indicate how ungrateful and ignorant foreigners were. So, there it was, sitting in front of me, four thin slices of whale bacon and four thin slices of whale fat, on a bed of dressed lettuce. The trilbied gentleman, Cheshire cat-like at my side. So, I gave in, I ate it, it was OK, but marred by the feelings of guilt as I did so.

OK, I'll admit something I wasn't going to admit, I was thinking more: what would other people think about me doing this, than that some whale had been slaughtered for this. The whale was already dead and I had no thoughts of it being my fault - that's the truth.

and it's been playing on my mind since - not that I did a bad thing, but what the right thing to do was. I guess the point is that my feelings about whaling are not much stronger than my feelings about intensive farming methods. As I said above I think that both involve unnecessary cruelty and the latter involves a huge number of animals, while the former a small number but has a large environmental impact. If I was as bothered as I should be I would probably not eat any meat in China, but I do.

The decision was not 'shall I kill a whale or not?' but 'is it worth me insulting those around me and embarrassing myself to make a point?'. Well, the answer is above and given the same choice I'd probably make the same decision again, but I would certainly never order it myself and would try and talk a friend out of ordering it if they were planning to. By the time I'd finished the plate, the gentleman in gray had vanished, his grin still lingering at my side.

I'm interested to hear what other people think and whether they would do the same thing. I've been reading around more on the subject and the surety with which both sides state their cases doesn't draw me to either side, though I state again that I am against the practice. There are some interesting articles linked to below:

The British Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission has some discourse on humane killing standards here which includes the statements that:

We accept that it is not easy to define exactly what constitutes humane killing. The aim must, as with the slaughter of terrestrial animals, be to render a whale immediately insensible to pain, and for its subsequent death to occur without avoidable pain, stress, or suffering. It is accepted that this is unlikely to be achievable in 100% of cases, but we would not wish to define as acceptable anything that falls short of this standard. We are, moreover, firmly of the view that current whale killing standards, with, at the most, some 60 % of whales killed instantaneously, is not acceptable.

From this definition I can't see that whaling could ever fall within these standards unless the grenade tipped harpoons were made unfeasibly large.

and from the same source comes this discussion on the ethics of whale hunting. Some good points here but I think that the ideas that:

# Man has no right whatsoever to harvest whales, in other words, that whales have an absolute right to live
# It is unethical to violate other people's feelings by killing their symbols - whales have become an important symbol for the environmental and animal protection movements in the western world.

are too general to apply to such a discussion. The first four points in the article are much stronger, in my opinion.

Some comments from Greenpeace here include the interesting remarks that:

Japan claims it only hunts whales for 'scientific' reasons. Yet the body for which the "research" is being done, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), does not need the data, and has called for the programme to be ended.

I haven't noticed this claim stated so strongly anywhere else and indeed in this in depth article from the International Whaling Commision which discusses the decision making process in giving permission to hunt whales for scientific purposes there is both information to the contrary to the above view as well as some in agreement. The IWC states that main points to be taken into account when granting scientific permits are:

1. whether the permit adequately specifies its aims, methodology and the samples to be taken;
2. whether the research is essential for rational management, the work of the Scientific Committee or other critically important research needs;
3. whether the methodology and sample size are likely to provide reliable answers to the questions being asked;
4. whether the questions can be answered using non-lethal research methods;
5. whether the catches will have an adverse effect on the stock;
6. whether there is the potential for scientists from other nations to join the research programme.

It seems that of the four Japanese whaling programmes there are some positive research outcomes but there are also major question marks over certain important details, for instance (for one of the programmes):

In the discussion of these permits in the Commission, an additional factor raised is that the catches take place within the Southern Ocean Sanctuary declared by the IWC in 1994 (to which Japan lodged an objection with respect to minke whales). If a Sanctuary is in place, it can be argued that information on improving management of whaling in that region is unnecessary. Each year, the Commission has (by majority vote) passed a Resolution urging Japan not to issue a permit for these catches.

There are also a couple of interesting articles from Retrospectacle here, and here with a good dose of vocal opinion in the comments.

Well, I hadn't planned to go into quite so much detail but there's a lot of information out there.


Anonymous said...

I hear that white rhinos and pandas are nice this time of year too.

I can't believe you ate Willy. Well I guess that there won't be a Free willy 5 now which is a positive.....

Unknown said...

I'm waiting until they're really ripe but I've got a fine seahorse bagel with my name on it.

Frank Snijdewint said...

I am impressed by your well documented story. I am convinced that you and a lot of people that read this story will have gained the courage to politely refuse the whale offer.

Anonymous said...

The gentleman doth profess too much, methinks.

Unknown said...

Hi Frank, that would be ideal but I think what's most important is making people who wouldn't otherwise know of the issues aware of them. I've explained my views to individuals and my knowledge of the current state of affairs, especially with respect to the 'research' led whaling and perhaps have made a couple of people think twice about ordering whale in the future. I'd be pleased if that was the case.

CH, too truthful, too verbose or both?


Anonymous said...

Hey Shock---Good post.

The German post doc I am working with and I were talking the other day about such things. I think I was talking about eating dog, or something. You know me---I'm pretty much a redneck and wouldn't have a problem eating whale, or dog, or venison, or pretty much anything else that wasn't soylent something.

The whaling that the Japanese are doing is practiced in a sustainable manner, as far as I know, and the Japanese have been whaling for mellenia. The point is, some Westerners have a problem with a specific aspect of Japanese culture. Does it give them the right to dictate (or legislate) their behaviors in this manner?

I don't know that the two points you raised are too general to apply to the discussion, they are just outright wrong. What gives whales specifically a right to live? Just because of some level of intelligence? I mean, there are people who eat monkeys around the world, but you never hear about Greenpeace going in to Africa and harassing the indigenous people there. And what does "It is unehical to hurt people's feelings by killing their symbols..." mean? Cows are a sacred symbol of life and rebirth to the Hindus. This seems to imply that I shouldn't be eating beef?

The whole debate, I am convinced, is based on a culture clash. Some in the west think that Japan (and Iceland(?), to be fair) should change centuries old practices to conform to a new set of values. One man's symbol is another man's sushi, I guess.

Tell me how the seahorse bagel turns out!


Anonymous said...

Sorry for singling out Iceland.

Wikipedia says there are about a dozen countries/places where whaling is practiced.


mideast-transplant said...

No doubt you've read this already, but today's NYTimes published a pretty interesting article about the complex subject of whaling in Japan. For those of us who knew nothing about the business before now, I thought it was a useful piece, although probably not terribly helpful when one is faced with your dilemma.

Unknown said...

Hi Tex, thanks for the comments. They've got me thinking which is why I didn't reply immediately. I guess it's a hazy and subjective line we draw on both human rights and animal rights. We make choices, sometimes on gut feelings, sometimes on what appears to be scientific evidence, but this is interpreted by us and eventually emotions determine so much of what we do and don't think is acceptable.

The idea of imposing our views on other people is a tricky one but I think that if we truly believe something to be morally reprehensible then it seems we should at least explain our standpoint to those who we think are 'doing wrong'. On this point I realised that I have never had a conversation with a Hindu person on their views about other people eating beef. I'd be interested to know how these views range.

On the subject of whaling, as I say, my views are about as strong as those on the many forms of intensive farming. It seems that the current methods of whaling in Japan are indeed sustainable, so the current issue is on the feelings of the whales. I don't know what those feelings are but in this case the practice seems unnecessarily cruel.

You mention the West legislating the Japanese on whaling but I think that the international whaling commission has a job to do in making sure that the environmental impact is not too high - and this seems to be working from what I have read. Without any legislation for how the environment is treated we would end up in a pretty horrible place, pretty quickly I suspect.

(There's the note in the NYT article from Mideast Transplant stating that Japan would like to manage their own natural resources but what its own natural resources are in this case, I'm not sure)

Hi M, Thank you for the article. Some more interesting information there. Unfortunately, the more I read, the more complex the situation becomes, but it's all good to know. Thank you.

All the best,


Anonymous said...

Great post, like Frank S. said in his comment... very thoroughly researched, and thoughtful.

Whale hunting is obviously a multi-faceted issue. There are emotional as well as socio-economic aspects, as you have probably noted in your reading.

The main thing I want to mention right off is that an independent Japanese opinion poll taken in June 2006 showed that 69% of Japanese do not support whaling in the Southern Ocean, and 95% of Japanese don't even eat whale meat (click here to download the report).

Regarding the so-called "research", it's basically commercial whaling. There is a significant corporate connection with the seafood industry. Also see this Boston Globe article about a very young woman's "Save the Whales" campaign, in which she highlighted the Gorton's Seafood connection to commercial whaling.

As I'm sure you've seen in the news, last month there was a fire on a Japanese whaling ship, resulting in the death of a crew member. The ship was crippled but was eventually able to return to Japan; the whaling season was prematurely ended, and the discussion in the Japanese media is quite revealing regarding the potential effect the terrible accident could have on future whaling discussions. Here's a summary of a Kyodo News article:

' [They] were also critical of the Fisheries Agency's handling of the situation, whereby the family of the crewman killed in the blaze found out about the accident through the media and had no idea what was going on, and it will take a month before his body will be returned to Japan, onboard one of the research vessels from the whaling fleet.

Kyodo News concluded their article with the following (roughly translated). "If JFA and ICR had shown their deep insight enough to accept Greenpeace's offer, it could have been a sufficient trigger for a cool-headed discussion about whaling. In that way, the death of Mr. Makita would not have been wasted." '


Finally, since you're a traveller, here's something you might enjoy. Check out the Whale Love Wagon - it's a travelogue/series of TV programs made by a team of Japanese anti-whaling activists. There are some fascinating interviews, and some things to you might be able to relate.

Unknown said...

Hi Page, thanks for the extra information. I had seen the information about the poll showing that 69% of Japanese didn't agree with the practice, however I have seen Japanese sites claiming that those numbers are incorrect and quoting other figures. From my own experience the few people I've spoken with here have relatively strong feelings of the traditional nature of this. These people are level-headed, intelligent individuals and feel that the whaling practices should be allowed to continue. It's not a large enough survey to compare with the numbers you mention but I haven't spoken with anybody here yet who has seemed opposed to it.

For every article I've read on one side there has been an article claiming that the first is full of lies and cover-ups. I stick to my opinion that it is cruel and unnecessary and am happy to tell people that, though I don't want to force these opinions on anyone.

If indeed the numbers which you state are correct, and it seems plausible that they are, then either the whaling will simply not be economical soon (OK, it's not economical now, but it would become too expensive) or, alternatively, the numbers opposing it aren't at critical level for the government to react.

I think that the West shouting at Japan and telling them how barbaric they are will simply stir more nationalistic sentiment.

As I said above, from my perspective I'm happy if stating my reasoned thoughts on the subject make someone think twice about ordering whale meat in the future.

The issue with the Japanese trawler which became stranded and the death and subsequent fiasco is a sad and unnecessary one. I haven't read a great deal about the story but one of the things I've learnt spending time in China and Japan is that losing face is simply the last resort. The idea of a Japanese whaling ship getting help from Greenpeace is a more complex issue than it may seem to Western eyes because this would be the ultimate in losing face.

Anyway, thanks again for the links and more information.

All the best,