Thursday, December 2, 2010

He ain't heavy, he's my blubber

(I really thought I'd be able to do better than that, but all I could think of were artists, not songs: Bob Marley and the Whalers, Freddie Mercury, Baleen-da Carlisle, Moby (Dick)...)

Like an interplanetary probe, I think I have slingshotted around my gloom and am in a really good mood today. (No, it wasn't bipolar disorder that I was fretting about having.) However, I am still feeling very ponderous. Today I have been mostly pondering whale meat.

Now, I realise that this it getting into somewhat political territory, and I've made a strenuous effort to avoid that on this blog. But the whole whale thing is an issue that most gaijin here will be confronted with at some point, so I reckon it's legitimate to discuss it as a part of my culture-clash experiences.

After my whale lunch of yesterday, I got into a phone-email discussion with a friend of mine who reckoned that the stuff was poisonous. Of course it's not, I scoffed, they wouldn't serve it to kids if it was. To my enduring shame, I assumed that she was just being a stupid hippie, and that my PhD in science automatically trumped her English lit degree when it came to matters of marine mammal toxicity. I reasoned (and I use that word loosely) that most health scares turn out to be the inventions of scoundrels pushing political / ideological agendas and/or trying to sell news media: the MMR vaccine brouhaha, the BSE/CJD kerfuffle, the entire organic movement in general and its especially repugnant anti-GM sect in particular, take your pick. Since many people object to whaling on ethical grounds, I assumed this was more of the same.

But you know what they say about assumptions, and it turned out I'd just bought some prime real estate in Wrongville. She stuck to her guns and insisted that whale meat contains dangerous levels of mercury, such that the pregnant or breastfeeding probably shouldn't touch it with a bargepole and everyone else would do well to seriously restrict their intake. A quick look on the internet reveals that she's right: whale meat on sale in Japan does indeed contain very high levels of mercury relative to international standards, and samples from people who eat it regularly contain substantially more than those from people who don't. Of course, everything including water is poisonous if you ingest it in sufficient quantity, so one should always be skeptical of people labelling anything 'poisonous'. Nevertheless, it seems that very low concentrations of mercury can be bad news (particularly during development, be that pre- or post-natal), and there's not really any amount of mercury that could be said to be good for you.

Obviously, one plate of kujira isn't going to kill anyone. If an adult, knowing the risks, wants to eat it then that's fine by me; after all, we allow people to skydive, have unprotected sex, and poison themselves with certain arbitrarily selected drugs, and I wouldn't have it any other way. (It's just become my ambition to do all three simultaneously.) But it does seem rather dubious to give it to children who:
  • are still developing and are thus more vulnerable to mercury's effects.
  • aren't old enough to understand the dangers.
  • even if they do understand the dangers, would find it difficult to avoid eating the stuff. In a way that is very surprising to a Westerner, everyone is served up the same meal and everyone eats it, with no-one whining about allergies, ethical scruples or religious taboos. Furthermore, the kids are encouraged not to waste food - I've even seen the waste being weighed and used as the basis for a kind of demerit system for the class.
So why do they do it? Well, according to the Japan Times (if you only click one link, make it that one), Nippon is sitting on a huge whale meat stockpile; it seems demand has collapsed recently, possibly because it's poisonous. So the producers of the stuff have started flogging it to cash-strapped schools at a steep discount.

So, there you have it. I'm amused to think that if Greenpeace et al really want to stop people from hunting whales, they should start dumping more mercury into the Pacific.

Alright, I can't resist foolishly sticking my oar into the question of whether it's morally acceptable to eat the stuff, which I've diligently avoided doing thus far. As with so many issues, I'm inclined to take South Park's position on this one, which that it doesn't make a great deal of sense for anyone who eats beef to be spluttering with rage at the thought of slaughtering whales, and that perhaps there is a whiff of xenophobia / racism about their position. I can just about buy that whales are probably more sentient than cows (although good luck to anyone trying to prove that in a rigorous way), and if you choose to draw your own personal line in the sand to include one and exclude the other, then that's fair enough. But you can't then claim that people who've come to a slightly different conclusion are barbaric monsters. It seems to me that it would be just as rational, if not more so, to draw the line at eating mammals. I actually have quite a bit of sympathy for the oft-mocked pescetarians. When I went through a memorably insane four-day vegetarian phase in 2005, I decided to draw the line at vertebrates, which is, evolutionarily speaking, probably the most sensible subdivision that could be made of the animal kingdom.

The reason I gave up on that was that I figured that it's probably worse to keep a chicken locked up all its life to harvest its eggs than it is to swiftly dispatch it, so by using the slippery slope argument on myself, I'd have to become some kind of weird prawn-eating vegan, and that was just silly, ergo, doner kebabs all round! What I'm saying is, only vegans and people who'll eat any non-human life-form can make any kind of claim to logical consistency, and everyone else should just do what they think is right and not be judgemental about it. But go easy on the whale, for you own sake.


  1. Happy you did some research. I know I can get a little aggressive on this subject. I really got into it and it did impact my life. Not gonna explain that, unless we're really drunk and you're asking me to "drink while ya think".

    I too, with all the guilt in the world, ate whale today for the first time. Never again. Just the idea of it literally made me sick.

    Spread the word..."Free Willy"

  2. Surely the moral argument against eating Whales is that they're endangered and overfished? (Having said that, I'm pretty sure the main varieties eaten in Japan are not endangered). There's also the dubious issue of all the whales eaten in Japan having been killed for 'research purposes'.

  3. Adam (log): The research thing is such obvious bullshit that I'm amazed they can say it with a straight face, so no argument there. It's basically just a euphemism.

    As the situation currently stands, I don't think there's any danger of Japan hunting any species to extinction. The vast majority of those killed are minke whales, which are in the 'least concern' category, along with the house mouse and H. sapiens.