Can International Pressure Really Keep Japan from Whaling?

A war rages in the far reaches of planet earth. Antarctica’s pristine waters run red with blood.” So goes the melodramatic intro to the popular reality show Whale Wars, in which a group of activists, led by Greenpeace outcast Paul Watson, work to disturb Japanese whaling activity in the Southern Ocean via a variety of aggressive methods, such as sabotage and ramming into whaling vessels in open ocean. Soon, however, the need for environmental activism in the Southern Ocean might become obsolete, thanks to a recent ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The case was brought against Japan by Australia, which has spoken strongly against whalers, demonstrating a willingness to add significant tension to its relations with Japan for the sake of saving the giant mammals. In late March, the ICJ withheld Australia’s bid to halt whaling in the Antarctic Ocean on the grounds that the scientific output from Japan’s whaling program did not justify the thousands of whales killed every year. Almost immediately though, Japanese bureaucrats began looking for ways to keep this source of national pride alive.

Japan signed a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, but has since been exploiting a loophole that allows for the killing of whales for scientific research. A 1946 treaty states that any whale meat left over from research must be sold on the market. A Japanese delicacy, whale meat resulting from state-funded research programs is readily available in Japan, mostly thanks to the Japanese government, which funnels $7.57 million into whale-related research each year. There was public outcry when the Ministry of Fisheries earmarked an additional $24.89 million for whaling in a budget designed to revitalize areas devastated by the 2011 tsunami. Early this year, there was a push to increase the amount of whale meat served in Japanese schools, in order to “teach children about the school lunches Japanese schools have served in the past.” Whaling in Japan is essentially not driven by demand by gourmands and specialty restaurants, but by the Japanese government itself, which finances and subsidizes the supply of whale meat.

In a flagrantly politicized move, Japanese members of parliament from across party lines organized a whale-meat eating event to celebrate whaling culture just a few days after the ICJ ruling. “Japan’s whaling is based on scientific reasons, while counterarguments by anti-whaling groups are emotional, saying they are against the hunts because whales are cute or smart,” said Shunichi Suzuki, a Lower House lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Other MPs equated Japan’s taste for whales with Australia’s taste for kangaroo meat, or Korea’s taste for dog. Japan’s attitude has therefore been to protest the ruling on nationalist and cultural grounds.With a growing interest in strengthening military and economic ties with Japan, the U.S. is comprehensibly uneasy about aggravating Japanese nationalist sensitivities; in fact, the Obama administration has openly shown signs that it would support a lift of the moratorium.

Despite strong Japanese sentiment over the symbolic value of whaling, Australia has shown little sympathy for what it sees as an irresponsible practice. Proponents of the ban argue that many species of whales are not only endangered, but have been shown to be extremely intelligent and complex animals. In addition, killing a single whale can be an arduous process, in which harpooned whales are dragged alongside vessels for hours on end while they bleed out. The oceanic nation has therefore been pushing against whaling for years, an issue that has become the source of much tension between the two Pacific countries. Australia, along with New Zealand, has served as a launch pad for Sea Shepherd campaigns, and many of the organizations volunteers are Australians. The court case brought by Australia against Japan is the latest chapter in this saga, and it might well be a conclusive one. The ruling was widely celebrated by Australian and New Zealand officials, with former Australian Prime-Minister Kevin Rudd stating that he was “delighted by the result.”

At least for now, Japan has promised to abide the ICJ ruling. Koki Tsuruoka, Japan’s agent in the case said that the ruling represented an imposition of foreign cultural norms, but that Japan would respect the rule of law as a responsible member of the global community. Activists are not so certain, however. Many believe the Japanese government will simply start a new research program in order to keep the whaling industry alive. There are several indications that this is true. The Japanese legislature has since demanded the government to redesign its whaling program so that whaling may continue. Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research, the government funded institution that legitimizes the whaling programs as scientific, has filed documents with the US District Court signaling its intention to return to the Southern Ocean in 2015-16 with a newly designed research program.

The primary reason Japan signed on to the moratorium in the first place was pressure from the United States, which threatened to restrict the importation of fishery and wildlife products from Japan if the later did not abide by international conservation law. With its scientific research loophole now closed, Japan is threatening to withdraw from the treaty.  With environmentalist concerns losing ground on the global political agenda, it is difficult to envision any sort of sanctions by the United States if Japan follows through with its intentions. With a growing interest in strengthening military and economic ties with Japan, the U.S. is comprehensibly uneasy about aggravating Japanese nationalist sensitivities; in fact, the Obama administration has openly shown signs that it would support a lift of the moratorium.

An interesting question in all of this is why Japan does not simply choose to withdraw from the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, as Iceland and Norway, the other two remaining countries actively whaling, have done. Norway, for example, objected to the moratorium from the beginning and has thus never been bound by it. Why doesn’t Japan do the same? One reason is that Japan has up to this point been successful in circumventing the moratorium while deflecting criticism by saying its actions conform to international law. Although Norway and Iceland are not bound by the treaty, Japan hunts a significantly greater number of whales on a yearly basis than its European whaling counterparts – about 1000 whales, compared to Norway’s 600 and Iceland’s 200. This discrepancy in numbers also explains why most of the focus of the international media and environmental groups has rested on Japanese whaling. Norwegian and Icelandic whalers are also not active in the Southern Ocean, which was declared an International Whale Sanctuary in 1994.

At least for now, Japan’s Antarctic whaling program has halted – a culmination of the Australian government’s peculiarly aggressive attitude towards anti-whaling measures. As Japan considers its many options for either conforming to or newly opposing the anti-whaling effort, only time will tell if whaling vessels will return to Antarctic waters. For the time being, however, Australians, environmental activists and whale lovers everywhere can celebrate a long awaited victory.


  • The culture in Japan concerning whaling and international affairs in general is really messed-up. Despite less than 10% of Japanese citizens admitting to ever eating whale meat, more than 60% of Japanese citizens say they support whaling.

  • Good analysis. One reason Japan hasn’t dropped out seems to be a sincere interest in engaging the other countries in a discussion that not all whaling is the same, and for species like Minke (not endangered, on the “least concern” list) that there is some level of safe hunting that won’t threaten the survival. Though their programs are poorly designed, in reality this is what they want to get the world to accept at some point. Note that in 2010 the ICW was very close to removing the ban on whaling – since so many countries were doing it anyway and they were considering a program that would instead regulate it better.

    Anyway here is the Japanese position on whaling:

  • Nice summary, its too bad Japan can’t see past its nose and realise the international criticism isn’t worth it. That plus those horrific dolphin stabbing fests. Look what out took to stop them during world watt two.

Comments are closed.