Nature & Conservation / East Asia

Japan resumes commercial whaling: what are the implications?

by Kathy Xu
Length 8 min

In December 2018, Japan announced its decision to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission. On 1 July 2019, it sent its first whaling fleet of 5 boats from Kushiro, Hokkaido. The fleet returned with 2 minke whales. Why did Japan make this decision and how will it impact the international whaling industry?

How did whaling begin?

The Japanese are among the first, alongside Norwegians and Icelanders, to start small scale coastal whaling. The practice of whale hunting started more than 4,000 years ago during the 12th century. Beached whales found on Japanese shores were used for food and making tools.

In the 17th century, there was a high demand for the byproducts from whaling. This was also when whale hunting technology became more advanced and efficient. Whales were hunted for their blubber, from which oil was extracted for lighting lamps in the days before electricity. The meat, blubber, skin, and organs of the whale were also eaten for protein, while whale bones were used to make corsets, umbrellas, and even hoop skirts.

Despite this, whales have always been considered sacred in Japan’s main religions — Shintoism and Buddhism. In Shinto ceremonies and Buddhist rites, the local whaling communities pray for the repose of the spirits of dead whales. Taking a life leads to karmic demerit. So the faithful also ask for forgiveness. Whales have also been revered as manifestations of the Japanese god, Ebisu, commonly known to bring in riches from the depths of the sea. The Japanese believe they demonstrate deep reverence for whales, through their annual Whale Festivals (Kujira Matsuri). During these festivals, whale dances are performed to honour the heroism that whaling symbolises.—These rituals show the deep connection that humans and whales have in Japan.

Japan resumes commercial whaling: Why and what are its implications?

Typical whale dance in a whale festival (kujira matsuri) in Japan.

Whaling evolved into a competitive industry during the 19th century with an increase in global demand for whale oil. American whaling fleets started to travel further to hunt for whales in Japan’s whale-rich waters. In the 1930s, whaling became an ecological problem with up to 50,000 whales being killed worldwide every year. This triggered fears that various species were on the brink of extinction.

Total whaling catches by country, 1985 – 2015 (data from IWC)

What is the International Whaling Commission?

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1948 to address this problem. It is an international body dedicated to conserving and promoting the sustainable use of whales, and to repopulate areas that have seen depleting numbers. It also coordinates and funds whale research.

In 1982, the IWC issued a moratorium on the commercial hunting of whales, when concerns were raised about the drastic decline in whale populations. Japan, who had been a member of the IWC since 1951, strongly opposed the move. But Japan was not alone—Norway also opposed the moratorium.

A clause was then added to the ban in 1986, which allowed Japan to hunt a number of whales for ‘scientific research’. This number is not decided by the IWC. Instead, autonomy is given to the individual governments to set and regulate these limits. Although Japan claimed their whaling activities were for scientific purposes only, the meat was still found to be consumed commercially. Further heat came from the global community when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Japan to halt all whaling operations in 2014. The country rejected the jurisdiction of the ICJ and claimed that the United Nations World Court does not have authority over global oceans and their resources.

Japan has been trying to overturn the IWC’s ban on commercial whaling since the moratorium was passed. After yet another unsuccessful bid to change the IWC’s stand on commercial whaling in December 2018, Japan finally decided to leave the IWC in June 2019. On 1 July 2019, Japan resumed commercial whaling after a 30-year hiatus. Five whaling boats departing from Kushiro, Hokkaido and returned in the afternoon with 2 minke whales.

Why is Japan so determined to catch whales?

Whale meat is no longer a main source of protein in Japan, as there are concerns that the meat contains unsafe levels of mercury. A street survey done in December 2018 found that only 33 percent of respondents wanted to eat whale meat. Nostalgia for whale meat is largely confined to Japan’s post-war generation, who ate it for school lunches.

Japan may be  reviving whaling for other reasons.  In the country’s small whaling communities, there is a  desire to pass down the culinary culture to younger generations. Japan’s national pride is also at stake. In 2011, the country cried foul when US lobbyists kept silent about the Inuit hunting of bowhead whales, while lobbying against Japan’s continued whaling. Bowhead whales are not threatened, but some marine species hunted for commercial consumption in Japan, including the sei whale and Pacific bluefin tuna, are globally threatened. Japan’s Fisheries Agency has taken the position that the return to whaling is a “sea wall” to resist any other bans on commercial fishing.

Whale meat consumption going down over the years in Japan. (data from MAFF)

Politics also comes into play. Whaling in Japan is a government-run venture.  Government officials’ promotions and pensions would be at stake if whaling operations cease. Several constituencies under the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are also whaling communities. These include Wakayama Prefecture, the birthplace of traditional whaling, and Yamaguchi Prefecture, where modern whaling took off. The Japanese see a need to continue whaling on a smaller scale, to help rejuvenate the local economy and attract tourists. This is especially crucial for small villages like Ayukawa in northeast Japan, where more than half the population still depend on whaling for a livelihood.


Japan’s departure from the IWC: good or bad?

In the current scenario, Japan will only be allowed to hunt for whales within its territorial sea and its Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). They will no longer be allowed to hunt for whales off the Antarctic Ocean or anywhere within the Southern Hemisphere where they had previously been hunting. This means that populations of the baleen and humpback whales will be given a chance to recover in numbers.

The country must also adhere to catch limits set by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, such as a kill cap of 52 minke whales. Cap numbers for other species include 150 Bryde’s whales and 25 sei whales, and a total of 3996 whales over the next twelve years. If Japan adheres to the catch limits, minke whales may reach sustainable population levels. With the declining demand for whale meat consumption in Japan, it is unlikely that more whales will be caught.


What’s next for the whaling industry?

International cooperation is vital for any real change. Japan’s withdrawal could weaken the IWC’s legitimacy as an international organisation. South Korea and Russia may follow suit and withdraw from the IWC, given that whaling is also a big part of their culture.

The IWC is open to any nation that accepts its 1946 Convention. Japan sponsored the membership of three landlocked nations — Mali, Laos, and Mongolia — who voted alongside the country during disputes.  Japan’s withdrawal may mean that all three countries will also leave the IWC in time. Its exit may prompt other whaling nations to leave with no fear of repercussions, weakening the IWC’s mandate.

Countries that are unhappy with Japan’s decision to resume commercial whaling, such as the US and Australia, might impose sanctions on Japan.

As whale meat demand and consumption wanes in Japan, prices will also fall. There may come a time when whaling will be too expensive to sustain as an industry. Economically, whale watching is already being seen as a better alternative in the long-run. But for the immediate future, neither international pressure nor the decisions of an international court will stop Japan from engaging in commercial whaling. The only thing the IWC can effectively do, is to focus on other threats to global whale populations.