Japan has never really stopped hunting whales, but its decision to leave the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to resume commercial whaling, effective July 1, has renewed attention to Japan and why its leaders are making the move.
The ships are ready to go, with vessels belonging to six Japanese whaling operators set to sail from a Hokkaido port next week. They’ll be hunting Berardius whales until shifting to minke whales in October. Despite the complaints from some environmental protectors and wildlife groups, many experts suggest that the decision – one that will end Japan’s whaling in international waters –may actually help whales.
Japan has a long economic and cultural history tied to whaling and has always resisted the international efforts to protect whales. While it reluctantly agreed to the international whaling moratorium after several years of negotiations in the 1980s, the Japanese continued whaling through a special permit process that designated the whaling activities as approved scientific research through its Institute of Cetacean Research.
Those whaling activities have rarely been accepted as legitimate by the international community. Conservation advocates and marine life experts long argued that “scientific research” was a ruse to cover for Japan’s commercial activities. In 2014, the International Court of Justice found Japan’s JARPA scientific program in violation of both the Southern Ocean protections and the international ban after Australia filed a legal challenge against Japan, claiming its factory ships were obviously commercial.
Now there will be no such pretense, and many observers have wondered why. Some have attributed the decision to political alignments, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party acting on behalf of rural communities and the economic opportunity in Japan’s whaling villages. Abe’s own family and close political connections are tied to Yamaguchi prefecture’s whaling legacy; in light of plans to pull out of the convention, Japan’s 2019 budget earmarked US$46.2 million in support of the whaling industry.
Others suggest that Japan is seeking to reintroduce whale meat into the national diet, where it once was a mainstay but fell out of favor as decades of history unfolded. The stresses following World War II led to the highest levels of whale consumption, at about 200,000 tons, but they dwindled after the 1960s. In that vein, the LDP has asked how and why other countries should dictate the dietary culture of their own, and argued that culture includes renewed promotion of whale meat – which some see as having lower climate impacts than beef.
Most analysts say it’s unlikely that either more Japanese, especially the young, are interested in whale substitutes for meat, or that the Japanese whaling fleets will produce enough of it to make a difference, yet there’s a concerted effort to reintroduce whale as food to Japanese children in the school system.
The “new” whaling may not be all bad, especially since the Japanese do not plan to harvest whales listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Experts from Germany and the U.S. have said it’s a good thing Japan abandoned its large-scale “scientific” whaling in international waters. On the other hand, climate change is bringing additional pressure to some whale populations, including the minke whale that Japanese ships hunt, and the return to whaling may prove to have worse impacts in the future.