Japan has called an early end to its annual whale hunt, citing repeated harassment by environmental activists. While Japan is notoriously stubborn and resistant to regulations on hunting and fishing, whaling activists that have grown tired of the ineffectiveness of political action have reacted in equally stubborn and undermining ways. The group in question, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is considered a terrorist organization. And this year, it would appear, the “terrorists” have won.
Whales have a significant place is ancient Japanese culture. There is evidence of consumption of stranded whales as far back as 100 centuries BCE and commercial whaling began in the 12th century. As technology developed into the 20th century that allowed for refrigeration and more efficient sea travel, the Japanese whaling industry exploded. By the 1930s the international community was already concerned about conservation of various species as whales were being hunted at unsustainable rates. When attempts were made at regulations, Japan was resistant and increased the whaling trade. Whale oil was traded with Germany and was an important input in preparations for World War II. Wartime whaling was limited with the large scale deployment of foreign navies.
After the war was over, the whaling industry skyrocketed after General Douglas MacArthur encouraged the practice in the name of economic recovery and oversaw the transformation of a number of a tankers into factory ships. By 1947, over 50% of meat consumed in Japan was from whales and was a compulsory item in school lunches. As the economy recovered and other food options became more inexpensive, demand decreased, but remained a part of school lunches until the 1970s.
Although Japan joined the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in the 1951, the loopholes and lack of effective regulation allowed Japan to continue to support a large commercial whaling enterprise. They helped to successfully vote down a number of commercial whaling moratoriums and when one finally passed in the 1980s, continued whaling anyway. It wasn’t until the United States passed a law forbidding trade with countries that continued to hunt whales commercially that Japan ended it’s commercial industry.
The end of commercial industry, however, did not mean and end in whaling. Japan continued to hold annual whale hunt for the purposes of scientific research on, ironically, whale herd sustainability. By treaty, the meat from whales that are hunted for scientific research may be sold commercially, so whale meat is still readily available in Japanese food markets. Japan’s increasing international influence has been channeled into deals with developing nations in recent years that swap aid, trade and political support for votes in the IWC, leading to the weakening and overturning of various whaling regulations.
Activism Gone Wild
The Sea Shepherd Conversation Society was established in the late 1970s after its founder, Paul Watson, was dismissed from Greenpeace for his penchant for direct action tactics over pacifism. Sea Shepherd maintains, with the help of a number of fundraisers and celebrity supporters, a fleet of ships known as Neptune’s Navy. These ships are dispatched to harass and tamper with whaling fleets to keep them from hunting.
Sea Shepherd is classified by Japan as a terrorist group and are regularly painted in the media as such. While the group insists that their tactics do not harm humans and are legal, their acts of sabotage have resulted in billions of dollars in damage, including a number of sunken ships. When Sea Shepherd became the subject of the Animal Planet’s reality show Whale Wars, many viewers were shocked at some members’ extremism and their willingness to die to save whales, a message that is openly verbalized by Watson.
Sea Shepherd’s insistence that humans are not harmed certainly sets them apart from internationally recognized terror groups, but their degree of commitment and abandonment of diplomacy also gives them distinct similarities. To Japan, Sea Shepherd activists are terrorists, and in the international arena where perceptions are at least as important as realities, this gives the two entities a unique relationship.
How Terror Might Win
After years of being targeted by direct action tactics, this year Japan has given up and ended the whaling season early, coming home with only a fifth of the planned catch. The “terrorist organization” has, for at least this year, won.
Sea Shepherd’s success in stopping Japanese whaling may hold lessons for other worldwide groups carrying the terror label. Sea Shepherd was successful because they addressed an illegal or unsavory issue, used methods that created nuisance without human injury, and intensely used media to create awareness. The Egyptian protesters who were finally able to successfully overturn Mubarak operated on similar principles and as protests spread across the Middle East, the persistence of creative but non-violent methods will be vital to maintaining legitimacy.
For groups that have already engaged in violence, it may be time for a change of tactics. Israeli settlements are an internationally sensitive issue, but how much more seriously would the world at large take Palestinians if they threw rotten butter (a very effective stink-bomb) over the walls rather than rockets? If the focus were on infrastructure and construction sabotage rather than human retaliation, would there be increased legitimacy? Would the Tamil Tigers have been more successful if they had sabotaged and fought back without taking life?
These, and others, are obviously not simple problems. But in a world where terrorism is not only unacceptable but the target of a ‘war’, groups with legitimate concerns may have lessons to learn about effectively spreading a message and pushing change from, of all places, whaling waters.