Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Maybe I should show them Free Willy...

Every week, I teach two eikaiwa. One is with 5 lovely ladies, all married, all moms, all local for at least the past 20 years. We mostly chat about their lives, their kids, my life, and where Tomoko is going golfing next. The other is 3 ladies and a gentleman (who I might add, is very LOUD during yoga), where we talk about sake, local goings on, and world issues.

Last night, Kiyoto-san (the male version) and I were conversing before the ladies arrived. He looks at me meaningfully and says, "What do you think about 鯨 (whales)?" I told him that I suppose I quite like whales. They are intelligent and graceful, and I used to study marine biology, blah blah. He pushed again, and I realized he wanted to know if I liked whale meat. Living in Japan, one becomes accustomed to interpreting questions such as these. It's not, "Do you think octopus are endearing?" It's "Do you think octopus are delicious?" This goes for an array of animals. I sometimes like to imagine a Japanese child watching the little mermaid. Particularly the scene where Sebastian the crab is singing about all the ocean animals playing various instruments. Is the child pondering over woodwinds in an underwater environment, amazed at the bright colors, or thinking mmm, everything looks tasty! I am not trying to be racist here. My childhood was spent in the midwest, where cow, pork, chicken, and Mrs. Paul's fish sticks were what I was accustomed to. Fish just wasn't much of an option, and let's face it, when a child is not raised on a particular food, it takes a while to develop a taste for it. Palates are strange things.

It might also be the Japanese lack of disguising their food, at least in sushi restaurants. There is no question what you are eating. Hell several kinds come out with their heads still on. Kids in kaiten restaurants reach over the conveyor belt, touching things as they go by. I am starting to wonder if they think it will start moving again.

Anyways, back to whale. Kiyoto-san enlightened me quite a bit, so I thought I would share. He is a good source of typical Nihonjin experience and knowledge, and also has a great sense of humor to deliver it. He said, when he was a little boy, whale meat was all the rage. Japan was a very poor country when he was young, because of the economic downfall after the war. Whale was easy to come by and a single whale could feed many people. Whale meat was also the only red meat that Japan had at the time, because cows were so rare, that beef was exorbitantly expensive. Whale steaks, whale on a stick, whale everywhere. He said, he quite enjoyed whale meat as a child because it was different. The rest of the time it was fish, rice, and vegetables, so whale was special. I asked him what he thought of whale now, and he said "Japan does not hunt whale because the world says it is bad." Umm... yeah they do, they say it's for science. "Oh, we must kill whales for science, but we do not eat them." Umm... whale is served in middle-school lunches at least once a month right here in Toyama. "No it is not." Yes, it is. My friends have eaten it. It is in the store. "No, we do not eat whale."

I knew this wasn't going to go down well, but I told him the truth of the whale still being eaten in Toyama and around Japan. I also gentley volleyed the original question back to him. What do you think about whale? "Oh, I do not eat whale now. Only when I was a child. Now, I like pork and beef." I asked why he doesn't eat whale anymore, since he used to like it quite a bit in his youth. His only answer, "Japan is not a poor nation." So, I am assuming from this, that eating whale meat has a psychological connection to the economic hardships in Japan's past, and that is part of why it has fallen to the wayside. I am sure international pressure has done it's fair share as well.

We moved on to the subject of whaling for "research". No one knew the details of the research (the ladies had joined us by this point), but said that the whale meat in Japan came from the whales who had been "researched on"(this was a switch from "we do not eat whales"). They defended themselves by saying that the Japanese use all parts of the whale, unlike the Americans who killed all the buffalo *low blow, I might add.

Ahh.. the buffalo attack. I was expecting this all along. Just to clarify, I had not been rude, accusatory, or snarky for the entire previous convo because I like these folks, and we learn a lot from each other. Sometimes it takes a while to break through cultural ways of thinking to the truth, on both our parts. We debated endangered animals, for a bit, and I swallowed the US guilt of whaling in the past, only using the animals for oil, killing the buffalos, I took it all in stride. Face it, our history is pretty bloody and shitty. I am a vegetarian, though, so I don't worry too much about the association (hell, later he asked me how I survive eating only salads all day every day). I think Kiyoto-san was just trying to unburden himself from pressure that I didn't mean to put on him. Let's call it whale guilt.

I was disturbed by the idea of feeding middle schoolers on "researched" whale meat to save a few bucks. We all were. So, our final question was:
Why does the Japanese governmet insist on whaling still, if the majority of the Japanese populous don't really care for whale meat at all?

Mysterious. Here's more info if you are interested in the political hub-bub.

why whale?

greenpeace vs. sea shepherd

Note: Sea Shepherd has damaged their name to the point in Japan, that after choosing them as recipient of our international charity show funds this year, we were chastised by the Japanese sponsors and asked to change charities.