Japan takes baby steps toward a proper debate about animal rights

Photo  Jim Robertson

Photo Jim Robertson


by Philip Brasor Feb 22, 2014

On Jan. 10, convenience store chain Family Mart started selling a new bentō (boxed lunch) with a heavy-duty name to complement its hefty ¥600 price: Famima Premium Koroge Wagyu-iri Hamburger Bento, which “contains” high-quality Japanese ground beef. For an added touch of extravagance, it also came with a side of foie gras.

A month later, the company withdrew the product after receiving complaints about the foie gras, which is made from the fatty livers of geese. Animal welfare groups claim the manufacture of foie gras amounts to animal cruelty since the birds are force-fed. A Family Mart PR person told Tokyo Shimbun that the company only received 22 complaints, but that it was enough to persuade it to pull the item. The reporter hinted that the company may have actually withdrawn it due to bad sales, but in any case, it’s significant that complaints related to animal rights would be taken seriously by a Japanese business and picked up by the media. It’s not a topic that’s usually covered unless non-Japanese are involved.

Like Caroline Kennedy. The new U.S. ambassador to Japan recently attracted media scrutiny for a tweet expressing her and the U.S. government’s objection to the dolphin “drive hunt” taking place in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. Ever since “The Cove” won the Oscar for best documentary of 2009, the world has come down on the whaling town for its yearly cull, which involves scaring dolphins into a cove, separating some for sale to aquariums and marine shows, and killing others for food. Taiji says the condemnation is unfair, since this is how the town makes its living. People who object are hypocrites because humans raise cows and pigs for slaughter. What’s the difference?

Protests are viewed by the Japanese press as a form of cultural bias: Those who complain think dolphins are special, more intelligent than other animals and thus should not be killed for food. But recent editorials in the Tokyo and Asahi Shimbuns, prompted by the Kennedy tweet, downplay the cultural-chasm theory. Asahi says it is more about “how we want to live as human beings.” Why are dolphins special? The feeling is that there is “less distance” between our two species because dolphins are biologically equipped to “communicate,” thus giving them the means to display “intelligence.” And the more an animal “fulfills the condition of being human,” the greater its right to be treated the same way, meaning they should have similar rights as people do in a given society.

However, the logical pillars of this argument as erected by the Asahi were designed to be knocked down. The paper interviewed Koichi Tagami, a lecturer on ethics at Rissho University, who says human rights stem from self-consciousness, which implies “independent reasoning.” If other animals manifest self-consciousness in some way, they deserve to have their rights protected, including the right not to have pain inflicted on them. So if we grant those rights to dolphins, Tagami argues, then all animals that feel pain should have that right, including cows and pigs. Even robots, he reasons, have the right to object to being “controlled” by humans.

The editorial quotes other scholars who point out differing attitudes toward animals in other countries, and how certain animals are protected while others aren’t depending on the culture. The point seems to be that it is impossible to formulate legal guidelines that cover all aspects of animal welfare when there is no global consensus on what is basically a philosophical issue.

But the Asahi’s academic approach conveniently avoids touching on the most important aim of the animal welfare movement, which is to prevent suffering. Tagami’s theory about freedom from pain is merely a talking point. Though the average person may find advocacy of animal rights too intense at times, the worldwide trend is toward less suffering. Slaughterhouses in Europe must anesthetize livestock before they are killed. Most in the U.S. slaughter animals only after they are stunned. Last week, Denmark outlawed meat-processing techniques used for halal and kosher food, which dictate that animals be conscious when they are slaughtered. The move was met with condemnation from Muslim and Jewish groups. Even nonreligious people wondered about the law after a Danish zoo killed a perfectly healthy giraffe and fed it to lions because the giraffe could not be bred. Its genetic material was already over-represented in the captive environment.

Tokyo Shimbun’s editorial enters this realm by tying animal welfare to commerce. What’s cruel is the mass-production methods of most meat-processing businesses, which are designed to be cheaper and more efficient. Filmmaker Aya Hanabusa made a movie about a Japanese butcher that showed how he raised his livestock from birth and personally killed the animals before processing their meat for sale. She told Tokyo Shimbun that before you can call dolphin culls cruel, you have to apply the same ethical criteria to animals raised “as industrial products.”

In this regard, Taiji fishermen say they have adopted “slaughterhouse methods” to make sure the dolphins they kill “die instantly,” an assertion that anyone who has seen “The Cove” may have a problem with. In any event, they invited Kennedy to witness the cull and see for herself, since what galled them was her suggestion that it is “inhumane.”

Semantics mean something here, and both sides stretch points to their advantage. Taiji claims outsiders are interfering with their “traditional way of life,” but the town didn’t start the drive hunt until 1969, when it needed live animals for its recently opened whaling museum. The anti-cull activists, on the other hand, insist that dolphin meat is dangerous due to high levels of mercury, a contention that is incidental to the cruelty argument. In a world where meat-eating is common, it’s unlikely either side is going to budge unless the Japanese media joins the discussion in a meaningful way.


6 thoughts on “Japan takes baby steps toward a proper debate about animal rights

  1. The “traditional way of life” argument is laughable. Many great harms and ills can be attributed to a traditional way of life, including slavery, infanticide, misogyny, and genocide. Let’s hear it for the “traditional way of life.”

    Honestly, it’s hard for me to believe that those who claim killing the dolphins like this is humane even believe it themselves. It seems to me that it’s part of the typical delay tactics practiced by those who engage in indefensible activities. Deny it as long as possible, and question every premise of your critics, even if those premises are universally accepted.

  2. Even robots, he reasons, have the right to object to being “controlled” by humans.

    Um, no. This is sounding downright Cartesian. It’s about humans (supposedly) having the ability to recognize suffering to those who are suffering, and to alleviate or stop it. All of these arguments just do not hold up.

  3. Rationalizing arguments of Japanese and porpoises, and all peoples and the animals they kill and the arguments for doing so they present: We cannot wait until all species are protected, wild and domestic (farm), before we make efforts to protect some, and efforts are being made to protect the wild in the wilderness, and farm animals and to re-think what we eat. Efforts have to go forward on all fronts and sometimes if not usually start in steps, such as eating less meat and protecting threatened and endangered species. Sentient means capable of feeling pain and emotions, self-aware and capable of making plans and solving problems. If you cannot see, as a human, that other animals feel pain and feel emotions, and think and solve problems, you are a blunt not very sentient being yourself, such as many humans evidently are. Humans, maybe the most cruel beings in the universe, certainly the known universe, kill 60 billion animals a year to eat and kill animals for sport and has 1 in 3 animals and plants threatened or endangered. If humans could stand back and look at the “progress of civilization” it would look like a disease is sweeping around the earth at a fast pace and the disease is us. Regarding us as the most sentient (humans), we elevate ourselves as superior and anthropomorphize our measures of intelligence and sentient, looking through out own glass darkly, and when we do that fail to see the brilliance and intelligent adaptations of other animals, especially animals like the major predators, who we fear so much and makes some of us crazy, and animals like the porpoise/dolphin and Orca and wolf and bear and lion and the place and value of all animals in the ecology.

  4. Man Versus Aliens

    Man: The ugliest, most predatory creature in the universe (!?). We have movies about aliens and predators like Independence Day (movie) aliens. They are us. Impact of man: 38-40 million sharks a year, maybe more, for their fins, 1 in 3 species threatened or endangered, around 2 % true wilderness left in the continental USA! Genocide, sterilization of the earth, debating the last 1-2% for exploitation or not! For those of us who care we must be on the alert and take action over and over to protect wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, wildlife, national forests and parks. Else, the march of civilization, development, recreational destruction and intrusion (euphemism is multiuse), extraction industries (oil, gas, coal, minerals, lumber), effects of global warming, those who do not care, provincial attitudes and values, and over population will destroy it all.

    The International Union for Conservation of Nature list percentages of threatened or endangered species (with lower and upper estimates) for each group are: cycads 63% (63-64%); amphibians 41% (30-56%); reef-forming corals 33% (27-44%); sharks & rays 33% (17-64%); freshwater crabs 31% (16-65%); conifers 30% (29-33%); mammals 25% (21-36%); groupers 17% (12-43%); birds 13% (12.5-13%); wrasses 5% (4-19%); lobsters <1% (0-35%).

    A steady climb in greenhouse gases has been plotted and studied by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other organizations. Graphs show a sudden and continuing climb of greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution (late 1700’s). Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere warming the earth. Man’s activities and industry appear to be the major factors in global warming. Man and the Earth: See The Day The Earth Stood Still with Keanu Reeves, protecting the Earth from man.

  5. Pingback: Japan takes baby steps toward a proper debate about animal rights | sophiewoolley1

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