Following its militaristic adventurism in the Second World War, Japan has emerged as the model world citizen, often rendering national interest subservient to a rules-based global order. Hence, Tokyo’s recent decision to shrug off international censure and withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in order to unilaterally resume commercial whaling operations after a 30-year hiatus, can appear perplexing. Japan has been a member of the IWC, the organisation tasked with whale conservation, since 1951. In 1986, the IWC placed a moratorium on the commercial whaling of many whale species after these were almost driven to extinction.
However, an exemption was granted to Japan for so-called “scientific” whaling, wherein whale fishing was permitted for research purposes, with meat later sold for consumption. Consequently, Japan has caught between 200 and 1,200 whales each year since the exemption, mostly large, fatty minke whales in the Antarctic, saying it is investigating stock levels to see whether these cetaceans remain endangered or not.
Call for end to moratorium
Having concluded that the stocks have recovered, Japan has been asking the IWC for an end to the moratorium and a new focus on developing sustainable catch quotas. A proposal from Tokyo to this effect was, most recently, rejected last September, a decision that precipitated Japan’s withdrawal from the body.
Despite Tokyo’s claims that whale hunting and consumption is a talismanic part of Japanese culture, in fact very few people still eat the meat. And the numbers of those who depend on whaling for a livelihood are tiny. According to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, whale meat makes up only 0.1% of all meat sold in the country. Annual consumption has stood at between 3,000 tonnes-5,000 tonnes in the past few years, a fraction of the 2,00,000-tonnes peak recorded in the 1960s. Moreover, the total whaling crew count for the entire country is under 200, according to Japan’s Fisheries Agency.
Yet powerful, conservative political constituencies for whom whaling is important hold sway with many of Japan’s current top leadership, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Moreover, there is also some anxiety that accepting whaling restrictions might become the gateway to broader international control over national marine resources. For example, Japan is often criticised for being the biggest consumer of bluefin tuna, which has been identified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
A recent poll conducted by NHK on the issue suggested that a majority (53%) of people backed the withdrawal decision. The ‘scientific fishing’ expeditions in Antarctic waters are a large drain on government resources, having cost at least $400 million in subsidies since 1988, according to a study by the conservation group, International Fund for Animal Welfare. Taxpayers ultimately foot this bill. One argument for resuming commercial hunting is that it will put the industry on a self-reliant path that would end the subsidies.
After Japan restarts whale hunts on July 1, it will restrict these to its own waters, a respite for minke in the Antarctic Ocean. Japanese whalers will also still have to abide by certain rules that the country’s Fisheries Agency is currently drafting to identify the locations and types of whales that will be permitted to be hunted.
Critics of the decision remain unconvinced, seeing it as an unnecessarily provocative move that will only weaken Japan’s efforts in pushing for other international frameworks, such as one against the overfishing of Pacific saury by China.
When this writer approached the government-supported agency tasked with organising interviews for foreign media to arrange a briefing on the issue of whaling, an official replied by email that it would look into the request. But he also added, “Personally I don’t feel like it, since I myself do not think of anyone who can benefit from Japan resuming commercial whaling. I don’t think we can really say that it is necessary to protect our food culture. There are actually very few fishermen working for this industry.” For Tokyo, the issue continues to present a whale of a dilemma that the withdrawal from the IWC leaves unresolved.
Pallavi Aiyar is an author and journalist based in Tokyo.