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The unusually complex issue of why the Japanese still whale

Curiously, despite international opposition, an International Court of Justice order and a decrease in commercial demands for whale meat, Japan appears resolute in continuing to whale in the Southern Ocean.

At the end of November last year, a fleet of Japanese whaling vessels set-off to recommence their controversial annual three-month-long scientific research on whale populations in the Southern Ocean.

This annual practice of scientifically researching the region’s whale populations has consistently made headlines and has been criticised as a cover for commercial whaling since a moratorium—temporal ban—on commercial whaling was set by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986.

Despite the ban, the IWC placed a clause in their convention that allowed for governments, to apply for grants to whale for scientific research purposes, a loophole Japan uses to whale in international waters.

In fact, the Japanese have never hidden the fact that the whales they catch end up on plates, nor that the goal of their research is to establish that whale populations are viable and healthy enough to end the ban.

Minke whale, the most abundant baleen whale and the species that is most targeted by whaling around the world.
Minke whales, the most abundant baleen whale species in the world, and the species that is most targeted by whalers internationally.

This year’s journey to capture 333 Minke whales has become particularly controversial as it follows a ruling by the International Court of Justice suggesting their whaling did not qualify as valid scientific research.

The court ordered they cease their operations until they submitted an acceptable revised plan of how to effectively implement research—an order that has now been disregarded.

They are not the only nation to have disregarded the moratorium. Many nations have argued the scope of the convention, and others have either withdrawn from the committee or rejected it.

Norway, Iceland, and Denmark (Faroe Islands) have long disregarded the ban and set their own annual catch quotas within their own waters. Japan is the only government that continues to whale while persisting to abide by the rules of the IWC

Sea Shepherd crew member hurls a bottle of butyric acid (rotten butter) at Japanese harpoon whaling ship, the Yushin Maru No. 1.
Sea Shepherd crew member hurls a bottle of butyric acid (rotten butter) at Japanese harpoon whaling ship, the Yushin Maru No. 1.

Geert Vons, from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society—who are renown for taking radical measures to inhibit Japan in its Southern Ocean whaling operations—said the difference between what these nations do and the Japanese is they do not hide the issue that they are whaling commercially.

“Whether or not I agree with it, someone can choose to eat whale meat if they wish,” said Mr Vons.

Mr Vons said the majority of opposition to Japanese whaling is focused on their use of the scientific research loophole in order to whale in the Southern Ocean’s International Whale Sanctuary.

international whaling sanctuary

“This is not an emotional argument, this is about protecting whales in a designated sanctuary. This is what gives us the authority to oppose them,” said Mr Vons.

Mr Vons said a concern was if the whaling moratorium was disregarded, what would be disregard next.

Possibly the most baffling aspect to consider in the Japanese persistence to whale is the fact the industry only employs a few hundred people and generates at best marginal profits.

California State University political science Professor, Keiko Hirata, who has published key articles on the matter, said part of the disregard of international policy has come as a shift in values around the world.

Ms Hirata said Japan initially supported efforts of the IWC to confront the issue of a serious depletion of certain whale stocks.

However, over time, the norm moved from stopping the killing of whales that may otherwise become extinct to ending the suffering of whales irrespective of conservation status and the benefit of such actions to humans.

Simply, the Japanese have not accepted this anti-whaling norm, and there are few reasons that are typically given for this.

Within the culture, the animal is regarded as a fish, and it has not gained the special love it has gained with animal rights activists outside of Japan. Related to this, decisions and views on whaling are based upon scientific ideas rather than moral grounds—for example, the Minke whale is specifcally targeted because it is non-threatened species.

whale meat
Whale meat sashimi and sea urchin

High levels of government bureaucracy within the nation also play a role. This has discouraged people from seeking to change the national stance.

Whaling is considered by some a unique part of the culture, and tied to this, there is an idea that anti-whaling policy is a form of Western cultural imperialism.

“Many believe that opposition to Japanese whaling is an expression of racism and that white Americans and Europeans do not tolerate the culturally unique cuisines of non-white people,” said Ms Hirata.

“This perspective fuels the sentiment that Japan should not yield to the demands of supposedly imperialist Westerners,” she said.

Dr Lindsay Black, lecturer in Japan studies at Leiden University said, “In part, the issue has been sold as one of preserving Japan’s cultural heritage”

However, Dr Black emphasised that people are generally ambivalent about the issue—as this Greenpeace survey illustrates . “They have other things to worry about.” Whale meat is not particularly common either. “It is not something you’ll find on the menu at most Japanese Restaurants or in many Japanese homes,” he said.

Dr. Black also pointed out that it was actually the US who introduced commercial whaling to the Japanese in the 19th century, and they were also responsible for promoting the use of whale meat as a form of protein at the end of World War 2.

This is important because it shows that despite originally being encouraged to take up whaling by the west, they have now become the ‘big bad other’ and represent everything wrong with whaling.

Through this, there has been a ‘loss-of-face’. To add to this, quitting because of pressure applied by the international community may be perceived as weakness, which would mean potentially ‘losing face’ again.

In this way, Japan reserves the right to say no, not only to preserve their honour, but in protest to the ‘moralising’ forces of the west.

There is no simple answer to the issue of why Japan persist in whaling the Southern Ocean. A soup of political, scientific, cultural and bureaucratic factors are at play, making this an unusually complex issue.

It seems that despite continuing efforts to discourage commercial whaling, it is unlikely that it will end any time soon.


–J. Kollar

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