Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Of beginnings

Tomorrow I board a plane for Tokyo, Japan, on a difficult mission. To find the appropriate Japanese whaling family for Whale Like Me.

This is a good beginning – a good place to start a blog as far you are concerned, but we have been working on Whale Like Me for 4 years now, and in earnest, for 2. Some of the earlier events in this process will naturally find their way into this narrative, but for now focus with me on this one mission.

The mission is a difficult one: the Japanese whaling community is understandably wary of foreign media, as they feel they are invariably portrayed with a one-sided approach, casting them as the enemy.

The Japanese sense of honor and loyalty is constantly aggravated by a perceived lack of sensitivity in international coverage of the controversy surrounding their whaling activities. To them, we irrationally obsess over animals that could be sustainably hunted, and our obsession sometimes leads us to extremes that most Japanese people have been raised to find distasteful.

Until I get a chance to explain what Whale Like Me is about, this is how the Japanese Whalers will perceive me. Without the contacts cultivated over the past couple of years, and the assistance of Japanese friends, that chance - to show them how Whale Like Me benefits us both - would probably never even arise.

There are other hurdles. Working coastal whalers in Japan organize themselves into cooperatives, and one family accepting to participate in a foreign film runs the risk of earning the disapproval of the community. The drive to conform is strong in Japanese culture, making the prospect of such community disapproval especially difficult to endure. The proposal I have for these families will put them in an interesting position, and I have sympathy for the difficulties they will no doubt experience in making the right decision.

What is the right decision? Haha! – what answer do you expect from me? To participate in Whale Like Me, of course. Beyond the obvious self-interest in saying this, I truly believe this collaboration is in the interest of everyone involved.

Here’s why.

For reconciliation and a constructive outcome, the only way forwards is open communication. Both those in favor of and those opposed to whaling need to actually speak to each other without posturing, without propaganda, without devious politics - in a sincere effort to understand the true reasons behind the beliefs of the other ‘side’.

A lot can be said of the IWC, but it is certainly not the place to go to avoid posturing, propaganda and political manipulation.

With Whale Like Me, Hideki, Nan Hauser, myself and a Japanese Whaling family have a very special opportunity – one that the IWC representatives will never find in the plush conference venues they meet in every year. We have the opportunity to all come face to face with the realities that have created this stand off.

This experience will change us – in what ways, nobody knows for certain. What we can know is that we will understand each other better for it, and that is the only valid path to a constructive solution based upon truth.

The Japanese complain that all they get from foreign media is negative, biased coverage over whaling: how ironic and sad it would be if because of this fear, they turned down the one film with the ambition to create honest dialogue.

Honest dialogue will result in an improvement in international opinion of Japan and Japanese whalers because whalers are human beings, just like the rest of us. We can’t demonize them if we discover their humanity: their livelihood but also their loves, their fears, their day-to-day experiences.

The value of seeing a committed conservationist sharing meals and co-existing with whalers, remaining on respectful terms while exploring their differences, is very high at a time where confrontation levels are escalating.

We cannot change their culture from the outside. Nobody will force the Japanese to stop killing whales, or the Norwegians or Icelanders either, for that matter. What we can do is foster new awareness through shared experience, and this African-American descendant of slaves, born in Europe and resident of Oceania, has some perspectives to share with the whalers as well as some introductions to make with some whales.

We can also open ourselves to learning. I want to meet a whaling family, spend time with them and gain insight into the many facets of their reality rather than remain stuck with just the one image we, in the West, do not get beyond. And though I admit to a deep fear of it, I want to witness the hunt, the detonation of the grenade harpoon, and the death of a whale. Well - I really don't want to, but I must - it is necessary to this process of experience exchange, and I must want what is necessary for the process to take place - I am driving this and where my desire falters, so does the process.

The science is in to support what many of us who have met cetaceans already knew: they are sentient beings who deserve the status of person - witnessing the killing of one may well be the most difficult experience of my life - but how else can I really know what whaling and whalers are? So many of the Japanese hold their own stereotype of anti-whalers being immature, and unable to accept the cycle of life and death - the relationship of predator and prey. I must face this reality, confront my beliefs to the facts on the ground, and show that I can overcome my fear and allow my belief to evolve through direct experience. In what way it might evolve, nobody yet knows.


  1. Woah, interesting post. Good luck on your journey.

  2. Hi Malcolm, lovely post and the best of luck with your adventure!!