Stay sleeping, gentle giants

Today we are hearing reports that Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 2019 and resume commercial whaling. These reports are being greeted with some dismay but I wonder if they actually herald the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling.

The reports suggest that the Japanese whaling fleet will stop hunting in the Southern Ocean and restrict their whaling activities to Japan’s territorial waters. On its face this suggests that the fleet will be able to easily and comfortably catch as many whales as it wants, but there’s a problem with this: Japanese people don’t like whale meat, and whaling is only profitable if it is heavily government subsidized. But when the whaling fleet switches from a dodgy “research” program to a commercial whaling program, will the government still subsidize it? I wouldn’t be surprised if the subsidy gets withdrawn and whale suddenly has to compete on price and quality with beef and fish. I suspect then that commercial whaling will become unsustainable very quickly. Furthermore, many areas where whaling could be conducted will put it in direct competition with whale watching tourism (for example in Kochi, Okinawa and some areas around Hokkaido). This political battle played out for years in Iceland, and although the whale watchers finally lost it took a lot of work by the whaling organization to make that happen.

In the past a large part of the reason whaling was supported by the government was its political appeal in a few important rural electorates, but over the past 10 years there have been repeated efforts to reduce the political power of rural electorates, with electorates merging and being rebalanced so their effective vote is closer to parity with urban areas. This means that the government is under less and less pressure to support rural money-sink projects like whaling, and in an era of straitened finances where the boutique demands of a couple of rural electorates conflict with the growing and critical problem of aging in rural areas, I suspect the government will very quickly find it convenient to slash that subsidy (or not transfer it) and leave the whaling towns to sink or swim on their own. It’s worth remembering that one un-subsidized similar operation, the annual dolphin hunt, is not financially successful on the basis of the meat consumed – the main profits from that hunt arise from selling captured dolphins to aquariums (many of them international). With no such secret market to support it the whale hunt may well not be profitable, unless the operators can somehow convince Chinese people to eat whale meat.

This decision also removes much of the international embarrassment that Japan faced from whaling. Until last year, when the Sea Shepherds admitted defeat in their conflict with the whaling fleet, Japan endured an annual parade of shame on the global stage as its tiny pointless whaling fleet hunted endangered animals in international waters while being chased by an aggressive foreign fleet that sometimes had surprising victories. It was defeated in the international courts and forced to change its plans, and it only defeated the Sea Shepherds after militarizing its whaling fleet. In contrast, moving to commercial whaling in Japan’s territorial waters and leaving the IWC incurs a one-time PR hit, because the Sea Shepherds won’t be able to operate in Japanese territory, and so there won’t be annual vision of this conflict. It also removes all political disputes with Australia, which despite its small size remains an important trading partner for Japan and a good international friend, and with whom they disagreed on pretty much only this issue. It also strips the whaling program of all its nationalist political baggage, since it will be removed from the public eye, and potentially opens it to political conflicts within Japan over less politically-charged and more prosaic issues of budgeting and industrial strategy.

This decision also makes me wonder if prime minister Shinzo Abe has not been playing his nationalist base very well. Since he came into office he has implemented new programs to encourage women in work, increased annual migration numbers and relaxed rules on who can come here, made better friends with China, and now he’s stripping the whale hunt of all its nationalist overtones. His apology on the 70th anniversary of the war was actually an expansive improvement on previous apologies, and although there have been some restrictions on international aid Shinzo Abe has adopted a fairly radical global health program that puts the end of war, and international engagement, at the centre of Japan’s development programs. His introduction of this global health policy linked it to Japan’s violence towards women in the second world war, with an implicit rebuke of people who denied the comfort woman issue (which he also almost settled with the Koreans). So I wonder what his nationalist base have actually got out of him? Sure there have been some mild changes to the constitution to enable group self defense, but the most likely short term result of them will be that Japan ends up fighting in a war as an ally of South Korea (should that horrific scenario come to pass). Besides this mild concession, I cannot see that the nationalist wing of Japanese politics have gained a single thing from Abe. He doesn’t even visit Yasukuni Shrine anymore! I think Abe may have presented the world with a text book example of how to play to a nationalist base while implementing policies they don’t want, and stealing them of all their thunder.

So let’s hope that this decision causes the whaling issue to slide out of view, and then bankrupts the whaling fleet and forces them to be converted into expensive, high-class whale-watching ships. There’s a precedent for this: the first Sea Shepherd ship was a converted Japanese whaler. I hope that in the years to come the Sea Shepherds will be able to say that the Japanese fleet’s victory in the battle for the Southern Ocean was pyrrhic, and that the Sea Shepherds won the war.

This is a cute variant on chess that I bought in Japan as a souvenir for a friend. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything but a cute example of Japanese children’s game design, but it actually proved really interesting. The game layout and images of the pieces can be seen here: it’s obviously just a cute little chess game. The rules are similar to chess but with simpler moves and an additional way of winning. The board is a 3×4 matrix, with sky at the top and forest at the bottom. These regions constitute the players’ “areas”, which are similar to the back row of a chess board.

The pieces
Each side has only four pieces:

  • The lion, essentially the king in chess, that can move one square in any direction, making it as powerful as the queen on this board.
  • The Elephant, essentially a bishop, that can move one square diagonally
  • The Giraffe, essentially a rook, that can move one square horizontally or vertically
  • The Chick, essentially a pawn, that starts in the middle of the second row and can move forward one space. If it reaches the enemy area the chick becomes a chicken (which in play my friend called a “magic chicken” ) that can move sideways or forward diagonally, and backwards one step
  • The objective
    Winning is possible by catching your opponent’s lion or by advancing your lion into your opponent’s area. Catching the lion is called “catch” and winning by advance is a “try.”

    Replacable pieces
    The main change from the standard rules of chess is the ability to return captured pieces to the board. After you catch your enemy’s piece you put it next to your side of the board and can then place it on the board instead of moving an existing piece. You have to place them in the order you caught them, and you can put them in any empty square. It wasn’t clear from the explanation but the rules stated that the chick has to advance into the opponent’s area to become magical, so we figured that means you can’t enchant a chick by placing it in your opponent’s area.

    Differences from chess
    Replacable pieces on a board this size makes for an interesting variation on chess. You can see from the diagram that the chicks start off facing each other and able to take each other. This is of no benefit to the person who starts because both players end up with a chick in hand, but one player has his lion in the middle of the board. The lion is strong, not weak, so this is a good position to start.

    This is the other main difference from standard chess. Because no piece can take from range the lion is the strongest piece on the board, and moving it out early is good. Also, the ability to win by a try makes aggressive use of the lion a good tactic. In fact, over 10 or 12 games I got the impression that this game encourages aggressive play.

    Another difference from chess is the use of diversionary tactics, especially using captured pieces. For example, if you threaten the king with a newly-placed elephant from one side of the board, the king will have to take it. This gives your king a free run up the board on the other side. I don’t think these tactics are used as much in standard chess.

    Three special rules
    This game is a training game for child chess players (the website is on the women’s chess society homepage), and as such intended to introduce children to chess culture. So it introduces three special rules for all players:

  • Always say “please be good to me” (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) before you play and “thank you” at the end
  • Never let anyone help you: play under your own effort
  • Never say “again”: in mistakes are the foundation of learning, so try to accept your errors and play without taking moves back
  • Each game takes only 5 to 10 minutes, so it’s a pretty quick learning curve compared to chess and it’s cute and fun to play. I recommend giving it a go. It also has me wondering what other variations on chess might be possible. For example, if you doubled or tripled the board size could you play chess like a modern war-game, with great sprawling battles, and wargame-style tactics? I’ve not really seen variations of chess based on changing the board size and distribution of pieces, but it appears to offer opportunities to use the basic rules of chess to play a very different style of game. An interesting idea…

    Nothing to see here, move on...

    I get my inspiration from a variety of places, and I find the natural world offers a variety of spectacles beyond compare, on every scale from the minute to the gigantic. So I look forward every year to the Veolia World Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize. This year’s have just been announced, and were I still living in London I would no doubt be visiting soon, because these pictures are quit astounding up close. Since I’m not, I have to satisfy myself with viewing very small versions online (bastards!), but they’re still pretty stunning. As always, my favourite is an underwater one, this time involving a young sperm whale approaching the camera. I strongly recommend visiting the Natural History Museum, either physically or virtually, to check out the exhibition, and buying the associated “coffee-table book” if you have the chance. The pictures are stunning, and the settings for the photos, and stories behind the scenes, often inspirational for game content and ideas.