AYUKAWA WAS PUT on the map when it was wiped off it. A little-known hamlet of rusting hulks and geriatrics, its location on the south-eastern tip of Honshu's Oshika Peninsula gave it the grim honour of being the closest community to the epicentre of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the first landfall of the tsunami that followed and, for a time, the focus of world attention.

Eyewitness footage suggests a Godzilla movie scene: splintered houses float in a ten-metre-deep grey soup, boats caught in the adjacent forest like flies in a spider's web, cars flipped on their backs like stranded beetles. Over a thousand bodies washed up in the steep coves of the Oshika Peninsula in the days following the tsunami. In Ayukawa, three out of four houses were destroyed, seventy-eight of its 1,400 residents were confirmed dead while thirty-six remain unaccounted for.

I arrive thirteen months after the tsunami, but it looks like it happened yesterday: the camera crews have long since departed and the town's survivors have relocated to temporary housing on a nearby hillside. What was once a town, though, is now a scene of devastation. At the port, the only building left standing is a bunker-like public toilet, while beside it a half-collapsed three-storey car park has a smashed boom gate, a twisted car still trapped in the corner of the ground floor. Assorted rubble – bricks, shoes, a pencil case –litters the ground.

But amid the debris it isn't hard to find signs of what was once this community's economic mainstay and what it hopes will help revive its soul. At the entrance to town a mounted harpoon – prophetically, I'm later told – survived the tsunami, while on nearly every car I notice a bumper sticker depicting a breaching whale accompanied by prominent Japanese katakana script. When I ask my interpreter, Lily, what the stickers say she hesitates. 'You won't like what they say,' she eventually tells me. Why? 'Because they're aimed at you; they say something like: NO TO CULINARY IMPERIALISM!'


IN JUNE 1995, when, shortly after winning the keys to the Élysée Palace, Jacques Chirac announced the resumption of French nuclear testing on the remote Polynesian atoll of Moruroa, my parents' friend Pascal was held accountable. One of Canberra's best pastry chefs but originally from Gascony, Pascal's food van selling French cuisine was boycotted by Canberrans, and he was verbally abused. (Pascal, a canny businessman with a Chilean partner, promptly swapped croque monsieurs for churros and successfully rebranded his business as South American cuisine.) A kid at the time, I remember feeling sorry for Pascal but also being glad – and a little smug – that we didn't drop nukes on a tropical paradise.

Australians like to think of themselves as universally popular, readily and easily embraced abroad. According to the popular Australian view of the world, the Frenchman is arrogant, the American ignorant but the Aussie a lovable larrikin who can blend in anywhere. The world's class clowns, we accept that we're sometimes dickheads (I've been to Bali too), but we're funny, kind-hearted and ultimately harmless – right?

I've been to youth hostels in India where, fed up with shell-shocked and stoned conscripts fresh out of the Israeli Defence Force, the owners hang 'No Israel' signs on the door; in Bosnia once I found myself sticking up for an American hippie ludicrously accused of starting the Iraq War. But it never occurred to me that I might one day be personally held responsible for my government's actions or the behaviour of my compatriots.

I've come to Ayukawa to investigate the resumption of offshore whaling since the tsunami. As part of Japan's Pacific wing of the so-called 'scientific' whaling program (JARPN II), a quota of sixty minke whales is to be filled over three weeks, caught in Japanese waters and processed for consumption in a newly built station on the edge of Ayukawa. I want to learn about the role of whaling in rebuilding Ayukawa and whether, barely a hundred kilometres from the Fukushima nuclear reactor, the locals are concerned about eating radioactive whales.

But I am continually hampered by my nationality. 'You are green peas?' my guesthouse owner asks when I present my passport at check-in. Her question, quaint in its mispronunciation, nonetheless carries an air of menace. 'Journalist,' I mumble, 'tsunami rebuilding.' She looks unconvinced as she returns my passport and after initially welcoming me warmly, avoids me for the rest of my stay.

Attempts to interview the president of Ayukawa Hogei – the whaling company contracted to carry out the hunt – fail when he learns of my provenance. I'm told to stop killing kangaroos by one woman at a service station when Lily says I'm Australian and one restaurateur responded to my interest in whaling by taking a manila folder from under the bar and showing me blown-up photos he took the week earlier of the first minke to be killed since the tsunami (and which, he tells me, I've just eaten).

It is the whalers who prove most elusive. With Lily heading back to her home city I spend four days alone in Ayukawa, spying on what I come to learn is a sleek operation. Upon catching a whale, the hunting boat calls base, because fifteen minutes before the vessel docks at the research station's jetty on the edge of town a crane and a truck come to await its arrival; when the boat arrives the minke is quickly hoisted into the waiting truck by the crane, driven the hundred metres to the research station and into a waiting garage, the doors of which are promptly slammed shut.

I think I'm growing paranoid the day I see a gumboot-clad whaling official pull out his mobile phone and make a call when I walk past the station in full view. But I feel vindicated when, later that afternoon, I take a long-range photo of the station and a whaling official there pulls a digital camera from his pocket and photographs me.


MY MISTAKEN BELIEF that Ayukawa's residents would be prepared to judge me on what I have to say and not on my nation's anti-whaling reputation is partly a result of past experience; some of my best friends are whalers. Travel writing assignments to the Arctic and a love of cold, remote places have exposed me to the other side of this debate; those who want to save the whales – for supper.

Juli, a ghostly-white Icelandic fisherman who I know, and who holds vegetables and vegetarians in equal contempt and keeps a harpoon mounted on his trawler 'just in case', loves to horrify foreigners with tales of his father's involvement in Iceland's 'scientific' whaling program. But it is mainly in jest and though we don't agree on much I count him a dear friend.

Similarly, in the Faroe Islands, a moodily beautiful North Atlantic archipelago of sod-roofed cottages and sheer cliffs, I've been embraced by the community I spent a day photographing as they butchered pilot whales; in Greenland my Inuit friends Kjeld, Naja and Aqqalu didn't let Australian condemnation of whaling (and sealing) prevent them from warmly receiving me into their homes.

But none of these countries have borne the brunt of Australian opposition to whaling quite like Japan. Bipartisan (and overwhelming electoral) support for a legal challenge to the veracity of Japan's claims of legal scientific research under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) and the fact that Japan's Antarctic whaling program (JARPA II) is conducted in Australia's sphere of influence are both explanations for a near-exclusive focus on Japan's whaling industry.

But there is a potentially more sinister reason Japan is singled out, one that could explain Japanese hostility towards Australian visitors to Ayukawa. University of Queensland social anthropologist Adrian Pearce (The Conversation, 13 December 2011), in arguing Australia should concentrate its anti-whaling efforts not on the faltering Japanese Southern Ocean whaling industry but on Iceland's booming Arctic fin whaling industry, claims this would be difficult because 'the superficial differences on which negative stereotyping turns do not apply.'

'Demonising the Japanese has long been the other side of the coin to worshipping the whale,' Pearce argues. 'But Icelanders look like us and talk like us, their science is much the same as ours (including the science which sets whale quotas) as are their political processes. Turning our gaze northwards to Iceland's whaling economy will require realignment of our moral compass.'

Indeed, one day while I'm in Ayukawa waiting for the whaling boat to appear I read Anna Krien's account of Tasmania's forestry wars, Into the Woods (Black Inc, 2011), and am struck by her repeated meetings with loggers who, while happy to provide Japanese consumers with woodchips, are overtly racist and surprisingly personal in their condemnation of Japanese whaling. 'The Sea Shepherd are my heroes,' one tells Krien. 'Fuck the Japs.'

In Tokyo, I talk to Greenpeace Japan's Executive Director Junichi Sato about whaling, nationalism and racism. He is careful not to name names but concedes that television images of a certain militant anti-whaling organisation that contains Australian crew, is harboured in Australian ports and loved by many Australians, physically ramming Japanese whaling ships, are widely seen here as an attack on Japan itself and sometimes serve to embolden otherwise apathetic Japanese to support whaling – and foment anti-Australian sentiment. 'Japanese people don't like the idea of outsiders telling them what they should or should not do,' Sato says. 'When we ask them if they eat whale meat regularly, they say "no". When we ask them if Japan should keep whaling, they say "yes".' Culinary imperialism, right? He smiles. 'Culinary imperialism.'

Perhaps it is normal for any foreigner, judgment of their nation's shortcomings clouded by distance and homesickness, to hold an unrealistically optimistic view of how they will be received abroad. Most travelling Kiwis will tell you they are the real loveable larrikins; Canadian self-congratulation abroad can take a particularly lofty form feeding on the widespread contempt of their southern neighbours. But there is something singularly naïve about the prevailing Australian view of how others perceive us.

Australia, the world's thirteenth-biggest military spender last year, a post-GFC economic poster child and an increasingly prominent regional player (or bully, but I'll get to that) is no longer small, insignificant or particularly isolated. Foreign perceptions have evolved beyond dangerous animals and shrimps on barbies, and, frankly, this is a good thing. Julia Gillard won Japanese fans when she became the first leader to visit the devastated area, but doubts linger.

With an expanding global role comes increased scrutiny of our actions and broadening perceptions of who were are and what we stand for. The more foreigners learn about Australia – and the more travelling Australians they encounter – the more opportunities there are for disagreement. Whaling in Japan is one example but it isn't hard to think of others.

What, I wonder, do those in Dili, aware of the hard bargain the Howard government drove in negotiating oil rights with newly independent East Timor, have to say about Australia's love of a 'fair go'? Do Solomon Islanders regard us as a regional sheriff or a big bully? The recent expulsion of AFP officers from neighbouring Vanuatu suggests bully. What would the Afghani parents of the five children killed in the village of Sur Murghab in 2009 by Australian commandos think about the larrikin streak of the Anzac myth? Oh, and next time you meet a Brazilian you might want to hold your question about crime in their country – they may just ask you about the use of tasers by the NSW police.

Nor is it always possible to separate ourselves from our nationality when we travel. As glib as it sounds, we are ambassadors for our passport, that's the easiest way for outsiders to judge us. As Juli, my provocative Icelandic mate, likes to say, 'stereotypes save time.'


I EVENTUALLY GET what I want in Ayukawa – a chat with a whaling insider – but only after conducting an experiment in national stereotyping that is inspired by a scruffy blond beard I notice one morning in the bathroom mirror. On my last afternoon before joining a team of tsunami clean-up volunteers I react to the tell-tale signs of an incoming whaling boat – the truck and crane leaving the whaling station to meet it – not by watching the proceedings unfold from afar but by casually walking down to the jetty to meet it.

'What is your country?' a lanky man in jeans and a spray jacket standing beside the crane immediately asks. 'Norway,' I lie; 'I've come from Oslo to help with the tsunami clean-up but heard you guys are catching some whales so wanted to see.'

What follows is a bizarre but enlightening five-minute conversation conducted in my best Scandinavian English accent. It turns out Shin, as he introduces himself in perfect English (me I'm 'Jens'), is a Fisheries employee in town to oversee the scientific whaling program. We talk whaling ('You Japanese catch minkes? Same as us!'), 'science' (all he'll say about this front for the whale meat industry is that it's 'like when you chop down a tree and count the rings inside to determine the age – we conduct similar investigations') and even my presumed homeland ('You must visit in summer,' I urge him, 'the sun never sets!'). Presented with such an opportunity, I also can't resist gleaning Shin's views on Australians.

I say that I have read about 'troublemakers' clashing with Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean and ask Shin whether this is also a problem in Japanese waters. 'Sometimes, but not so much.' Because Antarctic whaling takes place close to Australia, I venture? 'Exactly.'

My fun ends when, with the approaching whaling boat's silhouette in view, two detectives from the nearby city of Ishinomaki introduce themselves; the Norwegian disguise fails when they demand to see identification.

I'm deliberately not carrying ID and curse myself for this decision; the police succeed in removing me from the scene as they accompany me to my guesthouse to see some. There I am accused of being a 'Sea Shepherd operative' and my (non-Norwegian) passport details are dictated to someone over the phone (presumably to check for previous piracy and/or rancid butter assault convictions). My backpack is searched and I'm made to show the detectives photos on my SLR to prove that I haven't been taking any of the whaling station (I have but they are luckily hidden amongst shots of tsunami damage).

I feel guilty using it as a cover, but my tsunami volunteering registration form proves my saviour; I claim that I am solely in Ayukawa to volunteer and that I'd lied about my nationality because I suspected Australians would not be popular in Japan's whaling heartland.

The two detectives inspect the form closely, talk in Japanese for a minute then hand it back, along with my passport, backpack and camera. 'Thank you for volunteering,' one says as he and his colleague prepare to leave. 'It is unusual for Australians to help us.'

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