Japanese politicians and whalers ignore criticism as whaling industry is revived

By Luke Mahoney, grape Japan
Photo: John1179 | © PIXTA

Japan has a long history of whaling, purportedly dating back to the 12th century. Historically, whale meat was a dietary staple. The nutritious and protein-rich meat-fed families and comprised school lunches throughout the nation for centuries. Nevertheless, the practice is considered barbaric by many members of the larger community. After announcing the end of the 30-year-old moratorium of its whaling program, government officials are facing complaints from numerous global leaders and activist groups. Unshaken, whalers are excited to revive the practice they consider a part of their cultural heritage.

The History of Whaling In Japan

Japan's history of whaling dates back to the Jomon period (14,000 – 300 BCE) when stranded whales were harvested for community consumption. Other early accounts of the practice stem from the spirituality and folklore of the Ainu, the native ethnic group of Japan. Yet, the practice did not begin to reflect the modern industry until the use of harpoons in the 12th century.

By the 16th century, whaling was highly organized with open-boat expeditions beginning in the 1570s. As the industry continued to mature throughout the 17th century, fisheries and organized hunting groups developed netting techniques. Hunting groups would spot whales offshore, quickly dispatch, and harvest their catch immediately upon returning to shore. The entire carcass was harvested for meat as well as for making lamp oils, fertilizers, folding fans, and many other products.

The Meiji period of Japan saw the introduction of the expeditious Norwegian-style of whaling. This industrialized technique relied heavily on power-driven vessels, munitions, and other imported expertise.

Whaler Juro Oka benefited greatly during this period. Considered the "father of modern Japanese whaling," he established the first modern Japanese whaling company in 1899. Under his dominance, the industry grew in size.

Although historians and authors had historically lamented the effect of whaling on whale populations, the industry began to face significant blowback during the 20th century. Confrontations erupted with local Japanese communities adversely affected by runoff and other oceanic pollution. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, a whaling moratorium was fiercely debated by the international community. Despite political resistance, the government was eventually forced to concede to the ban in 1988 under the threat of United States sanctions.

Whaling Nationalism and Lifting the Moratorium

Like all nations, Japan has a nationalist streak. Writing in the Japan Times, Shaun O'Dwyer suggested that a resurging cultural nostalgia has reignited a Japanese interest in its “unique whaling culinary culture.” Indeed, certain whaling communities and whalers themselves maintain interest in a practice that many considered anachronistic and unethical.

Politicians like Shintaro Maeda, mayor of the whaling city Shimonoseki, have aggressively campaigned for the resurgence. According to the above-mentioned Japan Times article, Maeda suggested at a public forum that an “official declaration of whaling history and culture as ‘Japanese Heritage'” be made through the Cultural Affairs Agency, a special body of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology that promotes arts and culture. The initiative implies state subsidies be allocated to reinvigorate the industry.

Maeda is not alone. Shigeto Hase, head of the fisheries ministry, has also championed a resurgence of whaling. He told the BBC, "the resumption of commercial whaling has been an ardent wish for whalers across the country." He continued, "the culture and way of life will be passed on to the next generation.

It would appear that the LDP and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were sensitive to such nostalgia. In December 2018, the Japanese government withdrew from the IWC. Previously limited to scientific research, commercial whaling reconvened in the country in 2019.

Domestic and International Outcry

Unsurprisingly, the decision was met with widespread criticism. Conservation groups and numerous governments were forced to denounce reinvigorating the industry. Australia labeled the decision "regrettable," while others called on the country to realign with international standards. Sam Annesley, executive director at Greenpeace Japan, said the move was "out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures." He also called on the Japanese government to conserve marine ecosystems.

Perhaps such criticisms are easy to support. Prior to 1987, whale meat was widely served in Japanese schools for lunch. Since its removal following the moratorium, the consumption of the meat has dropped precipitously as many now consider it an uncommon delicacy popular with a minority of residents. Reports of mercury contamination makes matters worse.

Observations such as these have inspired a burgeoning sense of domestic activism in Japan. Angered by how the industry distorts the image of their country abroad, opponents like Takayo Yamaguchi have launched online campaigns in defense of marine mammals. Members of Greenpeace, on the other hand, have worked aggressively to blow the whistle on whalers operating under the guise of scientific research.

Activists do this because the Japanese public is sensitively poised when it comes to the legality of the traditional marine stock. As mentioned, interest in whale meat has in general declined. Nevertheless, many residents do not want to appear complicit or be seen as folding to unruly international pressure.

Their unease is justifiable. Actors such as Sea Shepherd and Australian anti-whalers have instigated confrontations with whalers, and perhaps unwittingly, undermined their cause in terms of domestic support. Others still cringe when outlets such as the New York Times suggest that whales are highly intelligent and implies that their slaughter is tantamount to murder.

Nevertheless, criticism comes easily. Celebrities likely Ricky Gervais and Joanna Lumley have spoken out. In an open letter, the two, among other personalities, attempted to shame Japanese politicians. Others still called for an "international whaling intervention" to be staged at G20 summit meetings.

However, Japanese officials appear unsympathetic. Riding a wave of nationalism, they are likely uninterested in denying cultural and nationalist initiatives. After all, whale meat helped the nation survive post-WWII poverty, and the moratorium was essentially a foreign intervention. Folding to foreign intervention again would not serve nationalist sentiment.

Nevertheless, if Japan continues with commercial whaling, it will be forced to endure calls of "barbarism" and "anti-environmentalism" from the larger community.

Read more stories from grape Japan.

-- Japanese artist’s striking illustrations show Tokyo overrun by whales and giant flowers

-- Chef YouTuber shows how to prepare giant seafood catches to make mouth-watering Japanese cuisine

-- This Tanuki Raccoon dog has been spoiled by its owner

© grape Japan

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Some whales are endangered so leave them alone! Others for example, the Minke are plentiful so there is no reason not to hunt and eat.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Exactly. Don't hunt any endangered species. Feel free to harvest any other animal, as long as it is done responsibly and not to the point of extinction.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Japanese whaling policy is a complex product of domestic political forces, an industry maintained by direct and indirect subsidies, and, as noted in this article, an increasing nationalistic whaling narrative. 

This nationalistic linkage to whaling goes back to at least 1982. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), then, as now, wishing to shore up its rural political support, including from fishing communities, has been careful to back the establishment's whaling position.

Indeed, with Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s parliamentary constituency including Shimonoseki and with the LDP Security General, Toshihiro Nikai constituency being Wakayama Prefecture, we should not be surprised that their personal political interests dominate Japan’s international position on whaling.

This nationalism that blights Japan’s whaling position also perverts Japan’s overseas aid programme (ODA). Whilst Japan has been rightly lauded for using overseas aid to help developing countries, its use of aid with regard to fisheries and whaling in particular have been condemned; embarrassing Japan internationally and tarnishing Japan’s record.

The Kuranari Doctrine of 1987  attempted to set out a multidimensional approach to Japanese ODA and foreign policy, but in 1999, Hiroaki Kameya, the then vice-minister for fisheries, went further, stating with respect to the International Whaling Commission (IWC),

‘We would like to utilise overseas development aid as a practical means to promote nations to join, expanding grant-aid towards non-member countries which support Japan's claim.’

In 2001, Masayuki Komatsu, who has previously served as head of Japan’s Fisheries Agency’s International Affairs Division as well as a representative of Japan at the IWC, gave an interview to the Australian ABC network in 2001, in which he stated,

‘Japan does not have a military power, unlike the US and Australia. You may dispatch your, you know, military power to East Timor, that is not the case of Japan. Japanese means are simply diplomatic communication and ODAs. So, in order to get appreciation over Japan’s position, of course, you know that is natural that we must resort on those two major tools, so I think there is nothing wrong.’

In the same interview the then New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark was quoted in reaction to Japan’s admission, as saying,

‘It is just outrageous to use aid money to buy votes on this issue, indeed on any issue, internationally development aid is supposed to be for development not for procuring a vote for purposes like this.’

We now know that human activity has removed some 80% of the biomass of whales and dolphins form the ocean in the last 100 years. Indeed, almost three million great whales were killed in commercial whaling operations in the 20th century; more than two million on their feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean.

We now also know that whales play a critical role in climate mitigation and ensuring we the healthy seas that Japanese fishermen rely on. I did a quick estimate which suggests that since Japan’s disregard of the IWC 1982 moratorium, the 22,000 plus whales Japanese whalers have killed could be equivalent to the impact of taking over $400 million dollars out of carbon mitigation efforts.

The recent decision by Japan to apparently disregard the IWC's scientific committee's critiques and to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) appears to increasingly indicate that Japan's powerful Ministry of Fisheries seeks not be bound by international norms with respect to whaling and should be a warning bell for any nations engaged in any resource access debate with Japan.

The withdraw of Japan from the jurisdiction of the ICJ and its preference for any future adjudication under other provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) may evidence an underlying strategy of increasingly militating against the effects of multilateral governance regimes when it inconveniences them.

As a closing note, Japan will never achieve its ambition of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council whilst it continues to undermine international law and continues to rob other nations of a vital resource in our battle against climate change - all in pursuit of a few people’s selfish nationalist agendas.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Japan has all the right to hunt abundant species of whales. The moratorium was a temporary measure and the agreement at the IWC was to review it based on the best scientific evidence. However, it was not respected. The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which created the IWC, enshrines the balance between the use and conservation of whales on equal footing and it was, hence, breached and the right to protect cultural diversity and a milenary tradition a blow to tolerance. The two stocks of Minke species is estimated at 1 million individuals. Science seems to have been ignored and that creates a dangerous precedent for the management of other species. Many of us feel that species hunted and used for human consumption in different countries, should not continue but we can not imposed our values and beliefs on others. The same should apply to Japan and other whaling nation's.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Writing in the Japan Times, Shaun O'Dwyer suggested that a resurging cultural nostalgia has reignited a Japanese interest in its “unique whaling culinary culture.”

Resurgence? They been on the nationalistic binge of cultural nostalgia for decades now. In this aspect, Japanese are no different than the Chinese. They will hunt every blue fin tuna and whale out of existence. Remember the guy who was chasing them all over the pacific and what happened to him? there were some nuts here who wanted him severely punished.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

The whaling industry has to be subsidized by the tax payer-a waste!

Japan is in a recession right now so surely it is better to promote more viable businesses.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

If it's commercial whaling then it stood stand on its own tow feet and free market priciples and not receive billion of yen in subsidies.

Less and less people eating whale meat.

1 ( +1 / -0 )


I don’t presently know any Japanese person consuming whale meat.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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