Whales and geisha girls
Whether or not whaling and eating whale meat is a genuine part of Japanese culture is one of the hottest points of debate between a pro-whaling camp and an anti-whaling camp. The former claims that whaling and whale-eating culture has existed in Japan since the ancient time and is, therefore, a part of Japanese culture.
On the other hand, the anti-whaling camp asserts that Japan’s cultural claim is a fraud, as whale meat consumption is not a nationwide practice and there are a lot of Japanese who have never eaten the meat. Pointing to whaling, they insist, specifically referring to the Japanese scientific research whaling in the Antarctic, that the pelagic whaling with big ships and sophisticated equipments is a modern practice and not at all traditional.
Whenever I come across this debate over culture, I cannot help recalling another ‘icon’ of Japan – geisha. Yes, one of the most favoured icons of Japanese culture … mainly by the Westerners, I would say. Although anime and sushi are now on the front line on promoting ‘Japan’ overseas, geisha still has a magical and mysterious power which attracts eyes of the outer world. And actually I feel it is very uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable not because it is a symbol of discrimination against women or of orientalism kind of exoticism, but because a geisha world exists in a different space from where I live my life in Japan. It has got little to do with most ordinary Japanese people’s daily life.
The geisha world has got long tradition and rich culture such as singing and dancing (of course, in a traditional way) within their own world. However, the world is enjoyed by a very limited number of people – or should I clearly say small number of the MALE population – in the country. This is my understanding.
Thus, the geisha world – which is said and believed to be an icon of Japan – is a surreal world for me but I once luckily had a chance to have a sneaky peak into the strange and somehow hidden world. I met ‘real’ geisha ladies and experienced fine Japanese food and sake at a high-class Japanese-style restaurant which is called ryotei. But that was sort of a ‘training session’ … No, not as a geisha girl but as a corporate executive assistant.
Before I headed for Australia to undertake postgraduate studies, I was an employee at a Japanese retailing company and I once worked within the chairman’s office. And every month I took part in a meeting of a networking group which gathered executive assistants from various corporations. We met to exchange information and to brush up our skills.
The idea was to experience what exactly the geisha world was. You know, you book ryotei and arrange geisha for your boss’ business dinner but you never get to experience the world. For female assistants, there was no chance. Even for male assistants it was a remote world. Therefore, we thought that in order to do the job properly we had to ‘learn’ what ryotei and geisha world were like. Yes, it was something we had to LEARN. Sitting on the traditional tatami mats, we even seriously listened to one of the geisha ladies’ talk about her profession.
Now, let me bring back my main character – whales – into this geisha context. At least for me, whales are far more familiar than geisha. So if geisha is a part of Japanese culture and tradition, then whaling and eating whale meat are definitely included in our culture and tradition.
Here I would like to make clear that I am not ruling out geisha from Japanese culture. If they are something generated and cherished even by a limited number of people on the Japanese archipelago, I understand that they are all part of our culture. Whether they are mainstream or peripheral is not an issue. The exclusion of peripheral cultures is not a good move, I believe.
And by the way, I think it is maybe not a good idea particularly for Australians to bring in the argument of ‘length’ of the tradition into the whaling debate. Indeed, the pelagic whaling in Japan is a modern practice. It has only got around a hundred year history.
But if you stick to this theory, what would become of your ANZAC ‘tradition’? Counting from the Gallipoli incident, we are yet to see the 100th anniversary. Nevertheless, I recognise the ‘tradition’ as one of the most firm grounds which shape Australians and Australian minds today.
The discussion on culture and tradition is quite tricky, isn’t it?