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.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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?’