Why Japan Keeps Whaling

Recent Features

Features | Environment | Oceania

Why Japan Keeps Whaling

Every year, Japanese whaling provokes international outrage, resulting in huge damage to the country’s image. So why does it keep doing it?

‘It’s Gojira versus the whalers,’ the headline screamed. Welcome to the latest instalment of the whale wars, where truth has long been a casualty.

As Japan’s whaling fleet set sail this week for its latest expedition to the Southern Ocean, anti-whaling militants Sea Shepherd Conservation Society had already struck a propaganda blow by naming their interceptor vessel after the feared icon of their enemy. While the Japanese movie monster better known as Godzilla has fought many battles throughout his career, it’s fair to say that his creators would never have envisaged him combating his own country’s whalers.

‘This vessel is going to play a huge part in shutting down the Japanese whaling fleet for the entire summer,’Sea Shepherd’s Jeff Hansen told reporters in Fremantle, Australia, where it was registered with the backing of the city’s mayor. The group launched from Hobart its largest ever contingent of three vessels and a helicopter against the Japanese whaling fleet, which in 2009/10 comprised a factory ship, three harpoon ships, a supply ship and two security patrol vessels.

Meanwhile, the whalers were reportedly planning to put armed Japan Coast Guard ranks aboard their vessels to deter illegal activity. On the diplomatic front, Japan flagged its intention to set up a new pro-whaling organisation rivalling the divided International Whaling Commission (IWC), while the Australian government continued to pursue its case against Japan’s research whaling at the International Court of Justice.

It all adds up to yet another looming showdown between the warring parties, both at sea and diplomatically. Yet, rather than another ‘Gojira’ episode, will it end up being ‘Groundhog Day’ all over again this season for the main protagonists?

Ahead of the annual whale hunt, The Diplomat canvassed the views of experts both within and outside Japan on the rationale and future of the nation’s whaling industry, viewed by its supporters as a traditional cultural practice, but by its critics as ‘Japan’s diplomatic scarlet letter. ’While few could see signs of compromise, none favoured the continuation of the current stand-off.

‘The Japanese have been eating whale meat and utilising whalebones, blubber and oil for more than 9000 years,’ says Glenn Inwood, a spokesperson for Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR).

Established in 1987 and under the auspices of the Fisheries Agency, the ICR is responsible for Japan’s whale research programmes in the Antarctic and western North Pacific, which are officially conducted under Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW).

According to Inwood, the ICR’s whaling company Kyodo Senpaku plans to catch around 850 minke and 50 fin whales in the upcoming 2010/11 season, ‘scientifically calculated as the minimum sample size required to obtain statistically useful information.’

The Japanese whaling fleet typically departs in the first half of November, taking around three to four weeks to reach its destination and returning home in April the following year. However, this year’s delayed departure to early December has sparked speculation that the whale hunt may be curtailed.It’sa move likely to be welcomed by the Australian and New Zealand governments, which have condemned Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary surrounding Antarctica. The two countries have strongly backed the 50 million kilometre square sanctuary, which was established at the IWC in 1994 despite Japan’s opposition.

‘The Australian and New Zealand governments have made it clear that they want to eliminate all whaling from the Southern Ocean,’ Inwood says. ‘They maintain a NIMBY attitude—not in my backyard—and this explains to some extent those nations’ focus on Japan’s research programmes.’

He added, ‘Anti-whaling NGOs and others blatantly mislead the public with statements that Japan’s research is against the Southern Ocean Sanctuary.The fact is that the sanctuary applies only to commercial whaling. Activities undertaken through Article VIII of the ICRW, which allows for the issuance of permits for research whaling, are exempt from all other aspects of the Convention.’

Japan has taken more than 12,000 whales under its research whaling programme since 1986, when a moratorium on commercial whaling was enacted by the IWC. While the commercial industry was estimated at $100 million a year in 1986, in recent years sales have dropped below $50 million and the Japanese industry, which generates around 2000 jobs, was estimated at needing an annual subsidy of $12 million in 2008/09 just to break even.

However, Japan’s whaling outside its waters has incurred the wrath of environmental groups along with Western allies.

Australia has long threatened legal action against Japan, having dispatched Australian Customs ship Oceanic Viking to Antarctic waters in 2007/08 to collect evidence as part of its proposed case. The frustration of the government of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with the failure of diplomacy was underscored in May 2010, when it finally followed through on its pledge by initiating legal action at the ICJ against Japan’s research whaling.

‘We want to see an end to whales being killed in the name of science in the Southern Ocean, ’then Australian environment minister Peter Garrett said in announcing the action, a move described by a Japanese foreign ministry spokesman as ‘regrettable.’

While doubting the effectiveness of the legal move, the University of Adelaide’s Joel Rathus says the reasons for Australia’s opposition to whaling in what it considered to be ‘our waters’ were obvious.

‘It can hardly be described as traditional fishing or research whaling if you’re willing to get a fleet of commercial boats and travel halfway around the planet to take these things—it’s a very deliberate act of coming here and taking whales from a sanctuary,’ he says.

Temple University Japan professor Jeff Kingston describes the practice as a diplomatic ‘own goal’ by Japan and a black mark on its green credentials internationally.

‘There really is no other policy that draws such universal condemnation as Japan’s whaling policy,’ he says. ‘The number of people in Japan that benefit from whaling is minimal, the economic importance of whaling is minimal and whale meat constitutes less than one percent of the Japanese protein intake. Given how much grief the government gets over this, it’s mind boggling that it continues to pursue a policy that very few Japanese people support.’

What, then, are the real reasons for Japan’s whaling?

‘Regulatory capture’

Japan’s whaling advocates support the industry as a part of national identity, condemning the ‘racist’ attitudes of Western opponents in opposing whaling.

‘Many Japanese are of the view that among the anti-whaling environmental groups such as Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace, there’s an element of racism within their public communications and that Sea Shepherd especially is a racist organization and publicises anti-Japan sentiment,’ Inwood says.

Tokyo-based journalist David McNeill says domestic support for whaling had actually been boosted by the activities of activists such as Sea Shepherd, which has sought to obstruct Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean sanctuary.

A collision in January 2010 between the group’s Ady Gil and whaling ship Shonan Maru No. 2 and subsequent arrest of the Ady Gil’s captain, Peter Bethune, further inflamed nationalistic sentiment against alleged foreign ‘eco-terrorists.’

McNeill says the Japanese media focused on Bethune’s assault on a crew member of the Japanese ship which he boarded, with ‘very little sympathy’ for the militant conservationists.

‘The press take their cue from the Fisheries Agency, and the media angle was look at these lunatics on the high seas attacking our fleet—we’ve finally arrested one,’ he says.‘Most Japanese are not pro-whaling, but they’re anti anti-whaling. Japan’s line is that it has a legitimate right to whale, and the illegality is on the other side.’

McNeill says Japan’s overseas whaling activities gave it an otherwise rare opportunity to ‘stick its finger up’ at overseas pressure.

‘Japan is so diplomatically and politically under the thumb when it comes to its foreign policy. It doesn’t really have a chance to let off steam, but whaling is one area where it can. In some ways, pressure from abroad is fuelling the Japanese campaign,’ he says.

A reported recovery in certain whale species since the end of commercial whaling has also supported Japan’s call for a scientific-based approach to the industry instead of a permanent prohibition.

In its briefing note issued at the latest IWC annual meeting in June 2010, Japan stated its objective was to ‘resume sustainable whaling for abundant species under international control, including science-based harvest quota and effective enforcement measures…we are committed to conservation and the protection of endangered species.’

Yet according to Malcolm Cook of Australian think tank the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Japan’s whaling policy is a classic example of ‘regulatory capture’in a nation where bureaucrats have long held the upper hand over elected lawmakers.

‘Regulatory capture is the reason Japan’s whaling industry continues, and it’s hard to see it escaping this,’ he says.‘As a share of government spending, the whaling subsidies are very, very insignificant, and clearly certain districts in the whaling areas near the coast which are held by the ruling party have a strong domestic political interest in keeping it going.

‘I’m sure many within the Japanese government know that whaling gives them a bad name for very little economic return, but in the end, the iron triangle of industry, local politics and the bureaucracy work to maintain the industry.’

Kingston agrees, saying the bureaucrats were more interested in protecting another source of ‘amakudari’ (descent from heaven) post-retirement jobs.

‘Whaling is just the excuse—one of the main functions of the ICR, other than promoting whaling in a country where most people don’t eat whale, is to provide nice, lucrative sinecures for high level retiring bureaucrats,’ he says.

Kingston says the agriculture ministry’s Fisheries Agency had cultivated a pro-whaling lobby of Diet lawmakers, which reliably voted in favour of whaling appropriations. A 2009 report by the anti-whaling World Wide Fund for Nature estimates cumulative subsidies of $164 million since 1988 have been granted to the industry, to cover the rising costs of its whaling operations and declining income.

According to Kingston, whale meat consumption in Japan is ‘an invented tradition ’which didn’t become nationally prevalent until after World War II. Whale meat was a major source of protein in school lunches in the early post-war period, and while the industry has recently pushed for its reintroduction—an August 2010 survey found that nearly one-fifth of 30,000 elementary and junior high schools polled had served it—it has faced opposition amid health ministry concerns over high concentrations of toxic chemicals, including mercury.

A 2008 survey conducted by Japan’s Nikkei newspaper found that only 12 percent of Japanese in their 20s had ever eaten whale meat, while a 2006 survey by Nippon Research Center reported that 95 percent of Japanese had rarely or never eaten it.

Another 2008 poll commissioned by Greenpeace Japan found that only 31 percent of Japanese supported commercial whaling, with the majority favouring whaling ‘along the Japanese coast but not on the high seas.’

According to Fisheries Agency data, the nation’s stockpile of frozen whale meat had reached a record high 5,670 tonnes as of September 2010, the highest level since records were first collected in 1999, despite efforts to promote consumption in schools and supermarkets.

Atsushi Ishii of Japan’s Tohoku University says the industry had become reliant on subsidies for its survival, and the bureaucrats are determined to maintain them.

‘In the Japanese bureaucracy, losing subsidies and jurisdiction is considered a very bad thing, and the amakudari posts at the ICR are very important to the Fisheries Agency,’he says.‘If there was big money involved, maybe it would be addressed. But it’s a pretty nationalistic issue and for such tiny money, why would you stop it?’

Ishii says Japan was committed to scientific whaling rather than commercial whaling, which he describes as ‘the worst scenario for pro-whaling circles in Japan.’

‘If the moratorium on commercial whaling was lifted, there would be no justification for scientific whaling and the subsidies and free interest loans provided for scientific whaling operations would be reduced and ultimately eliminated,’ he says.‘The reported stockpile of whale meat is a record, and there’s probably even more stored elsewhere which isn’t subject to data collection. If the whaling industry loses the subsidies and loans, it would face bankruptcy as there’s no demand.’

Another explanation for whaling given by the industry is Japan’s long-stated goal of ‘food security,’a notion supported by the University of Adelaide’s Rathus.

‘The food security issue is about diversification more than anything else. If it becomes impossible for Japan to take staples such as blue-fin tuna or import substitutes, where is it going to get its meat from? The Japanese want to leave the door open for whale meat—they don’t want to close that door.’

Inwood says the Japanese government takes the food security issue ‘extremely seriously,’and that whale meat consumption had declined only due to restrictions on whaling.

‘The government of Japan maintains a whale meat stock of around 3000 to 4000 tonnes permanently in storage…there’s a permanent beef stockpile of around 60,000 tonnes, and the pork stockpile is 50,000 tonnes on average. Are these (anti-whaling) groups saying beef and pork isn’t wanted by Japanese people?’

‘Anti-whaling groups like to say, for example, that only five percent of Japanese people eat whale meat…(but) the anti-whaling argument based on whether a minimum number of people eat a particular meat is farcical,’he says, citing data showing twice as many Japanese eat whale meat compared with Australians who eat kangaroo.

Other analysts say Japan’s whaling policy was more due to its concern for protecting its fisheries rights internationally—a key issue for one of the world’s biggest seafood consumers.

‘The fight over whaling is not so much about whaling—it’s about Japan’s access to fisheries internationally,’ Kingston says.‘If Japan gives in on the whaling issue and allows nations to proclaim sanctuaries and cut off Japanese access, that doesn’t really bother a lot of people if it’s just whales.

‘But when you start talking about tuna and other favourite Japanese sushi items, then you’re getting people where it hurts, and that gets a lot of attention. In the fight over whaling, the Japanese are trying to establish a principle that they’re not going to relinquish their overseas fisheries rights.’

Solution in Sight?

Given the rancour over Japan’s overseas whaling—the nation’s domestic whaling activities attract far less publicity—the prospects for a resolution appear bleak. However, optimism overan eventual solution remains, and from some unlikely sources.

‘The key issue is that the Japanese whaling fleet is ageing,’Kingston says.‘It’s badly in need of modernisation, but in the current fiscal climate it’s hard to see the government justifying much of a budget to upgrade the whaling fleet.’

Supporting this theory has been the delayed departure of the Japanese whaling fleet, amid claims by Greenpeace Japan that it had difficulties finding a replacement refuelling ship due to negative publicity.

‘Kyodo Senpaku lost the refuelling ship it had been using, and it’s difficult to find a ship owner who will take the risk of being associated with internationally condemned whaling activities,’Greenpeace Japan’s Wakao Hanaoka was quoted saying by The Japan Times.

Former Sea Shepherd activist Peter Bethune says Japan was ‘looking for a face-saving out’from its Southern Ocean whaling, and changes in shipping regulations could provide the opportunity.

‘New rules governing vessels in Antarctica come into force soon, and one of these prohibits the use of heavy oils. They would have to use diesel-powered vessels and (Japan’s main whaling ship) the Nisshin Maru cannot take diesel fuel, so they would have to completely rekit the vessel,’ he says.

‘The second one is that vessels have to be double-skinned—effectively using two hulls instead of one. To do this to their entire fleet would be a massive undertaking—it might cost them $300 million, and this is only a $50 million a year operation.’

He adds: ‘Japan may choose to ignore the new regulations as it’s done in the past, but it’s harder this time round with so much public scrutiny. If I was to take a punt, I’d reckon in five years they’ll have stopped whaling in Antarctica.

‘Withdrawing from there would take a lot of heat out of the issue from New Zealand and Australia, which regard the area as their backyard.’

Bethune also points to Japan’s willingness to compromise at the latest IWC negotiations as a positive sign.

But Inwood says the Japanese government has been ‘disappointed’by the response of the anti-whaling camp to its concessions at the Morocco meeting, which included halving its quota for the Antarctic. He noted that ‘the majority of the anti-whaling countries offered no compromises.’

Japan has been accused of using its economic clout to win votes at the IWC from countries with no interest in whaling. However, its failure to win concessions may be behind its latest push to set up a breakaway pro-whaling group of 27 countries and a region, as reported by Kyodo News.

While a December 7-8 conference in the whaling town of Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture on the ‘sustainable use of cetaceans’ ended only with a call by Japan’s Fisheries Agency for further discussion over the new group, the participants pledged to ‘strengthen their solidarity at the International Whaling Commission’ in the continued push for the resumption of commercial whaling.

Yet the nation’s whaling policy could be taken out of its hands, should the ICJ rule against its research whaling. While the analysts polled by The Diplomat gave little chance of such a prospect coming to pass, the Australian National University’s professor Donald Rothwell says the Australian government could seek provisional measures preventing whaling while the case continues.

‘The ball is in Australia’s court right now to seek provisional measures, which are effectively an international injunction, and my view is that doing so during the middle of the whaling season would be most opportune,’ he says.‘There’s also nothing to stop a diplomatic settlement. One way to view these international court cases is that they’re as much a political initiative as a legal initiative—sometimes you might lose on the law, but ultimately win on the politics.’

However, the recently elected Julia Gillard Government has played its cards close to its chest, saying no decision has been made regarding further court action or monitoring of Japanese whaling activities.

It might not make great cinema, but neutral observers will no doubt be hoping that the Gojira re-runs will be kept to the theatres rather than the international whaling arena.