“Are you the translator?” I was asked, after introducing myself to a crew member minutes after embarking on the M/Y Steve Irwin. We were just leaving port in Melbourne, Australia and about to embark on Sea Shepherd’s campaign to stop Japan’s whaling fleet from slaughtering whales in Antarctic waters.
“No,” I laughed nervously, hiding my shame. “I’m American. I never learned how to speak Japanese.”
To their credit, sometimes a Japanese-speaking translator was needed on these anti-whaling campaigns in case we had to contact the Japanese whaling fleet. But I was not used to these types of questions, and instantly I felt out of place. I was the only minority aboard the two ships that made up this campaign. The crew of about 50 people were all from western countries and all Caucasian, except me — I looked like the enemy.
I joined Sea Shepherd, an anti-poaching organization that stops the exploitation of the oceans by industrial fishing fleets and illegal whalers, as a bright-eyed, idealistic ocean advocate looking to make a tangible difference for our oceans. I studied marine biology in college and I was terrified by how we were killing our oceans and the fact that governments weren’t acting fast enough to save them. From plastic pollution to ocean acidification, to mass coral reef bleaching, our oceans are under serious threat from all angles.
The campaign itself was an experience I’ll never forget. I spent more than 90 days on a 194 foot ship in the most remote part of the world, living and working alongside some of the world’s most passionate environmental activists. Fueled entirely by vegan food and manned by volunteers, we were definitely the David to the whaling fleet’s Goliath. We worked tirelessly to find the Japanese whaling fleet, sending up a small helicopter almost every day in search of them. It was like a giant game of hide and seek amongst the ice, and it was endless.
Aboard the M/Y Steve Irwin, I felt like I was at war: there was mission planning, risky helicopter operations, military-like tactics, and a very clear enemy. I had chosen my side but as time went on and I learned more about the history of the campaign and the whaling fleet, my Japanese American identity made me question the reasons I was there. I am Japanese by heritage, though like most Nikkei, I have very little connection to Japan as a country. I have never lived there and have only visited once. Yet, I still felt a tinge of discomfort every time someone on the ship would talk about “the Japanese” with disdain, because I was technically still a part of that identity. As an American, I felt my protest was almost hypocritical. After all, it was America who suggested Japan start whaling again after their defeat in WWII as a way to solve their food shortage. I felt like my very existence on that ship was contradictory to the major facets of my identity: my nationality and my ethnicity. The inner conflict almost tore me in two and I had no one on board who I could talk to about it. No one on board could empathize with my unique cultural situation; to them the issue was black and white, but to me, everything became more grey.
Aboard the M/Y Steve Irwin, I felt like I was at war: there was mission planning, risky helicopter operations, military-like tactics, and a very clear enemy.
My Antarctic identity crisis reminded me of Issei and Nisei generations during WWII, and the conflict the soldiers of the 442nd and 100th Battalion must have faced as Japanese Americans fighting for the U.S. against their motherland, while their families were incarcerated back home. My experience was less extreme of course, but it still felt like I was going to war against my Japanese heritage and that I was trying to prove to be a good western environmental advocate.
The war-like environment and the extreme circumstances by which we were operating perpetuated the “Us vs Them” rhetoric that so many conservation and environmental organizations exploit. This notion may be good for raising money, but it does little to bring people together to solve the issues collectively. This approach also leaves out important historical, racial, socio-economic, and geopolitical context that intersect with these conservation issues. What was made clear was that in order to solve these big issues about the planet, we needed a vast array of perspectives, viewpoints, and ideas to bring cultural sensitivity and context to these conversations.
My Antarctic identity crisis reminded me of Issei and Nisei generations during WWII, and the conflict the soldiers of the 442nd and 100th Battalion must have faced as Japanese Americans fighting for the U.S. against their motherland, while their families were incarcerated back home.