Japanese Whaling Research: a Façade for a Purely Commercial Enterprise

The Japanese Government is determined to keep its floundering whale “research program” on life support. A declaration made by Japanese UN ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa has officially spurned the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) ruling on the legality of research-based whaling in the Antarctic.[1] Furthermore, a new research plan called the New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic, or NEWREP-A, has been submitted to the International Whaling Commission (IWC).[2] These events are part of the ongoing history of a nation that industrially farms Minke whales under the feigned pretexts of ‘scientific research.’ Japan’s persistent attitude is enigmatic in the context of an international system that has largely accepted a moratorium on commercial whaling since 1986.[3] Understanding the historical background of Japanese whaling is important in order to grasp the current character of the ‘scientific’ whaling and to decipher why it persists. Japan should henceforth realign itself with global and domestic opinion and end the nefarious harvesting of whales under its scientific façade.

Image courtesy of Australian Customs © 2008, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Australian Customs © 2008, some rights reserved.

Whaling in Japan developed its large industrial capabilities under the U.S. occupational control of General Douglas MacArthur in the 1940s.[4] As a source of protein, whale meat served as a staple food source in the tumultuous post-war Japan culture. By the 1960s, the consumption of whale meat had peaked and thereafter began to plummet. The current consumption of whale meat is restricted to unique occasions and makes up about one per cent of the total meat consumed in 1962.[5] While the demand for whale meat has fallen, the supply has been routinely bolstered through government subsidies and expenditure. After the moratorium in 1986, the Japanese government has used a loophole in article VIII of the IWC constitution that allows for the killing of whales for scientific research.[6] The Japanese whaling industry uses this clause to create a scientific cloak to legitimize the commercial profit of slaughtering whales. Research plans JARPA I and II are the disguises used up until 2004 when both the IWC and ICJ collectively cracked down on the industry and deemed it “unscientific.”[7

NEWREP-A represents a continued effort to maintain the whaling industry through fabricating scientific programs. Alongside the recent denouncement of the ICJ ruling, NEWREP-A reflects a savvy political attempt to continue ‘business as usual’. Firstly, introducing the NEWREP-A plan to the IWC is a political move to gain the right to ‘research’ in the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica in the summer of 2016. The scientific community of the IWC is obliged to investigate the scientific integrity of the research plan.[8] Whilst this is happening, Japanese whaling boats are technically allowed to conduct activity because the plan has not yet been officially rejected. The result is a summer in which Japanese boats are free to whale because of clever political play in the IWC. Secondly, the denouncement of the ICJ ruling is a safeguard to protect against further repercussions from international law. By announcing its exemption, Japan can effectively whale this summer until a new court case finds NEWREP-A liable for any violations. Therefore, Japan is taking a clever political route to ensure it can whale in the coming summer season.

Japanese whaling has developed through time and is at the moment supported by the Shinzō Abe-led Liberal Democratic Party. The troubling question is why this false scientific endeavour continues in spite of clear disagreement with the international community and international law. One potential reason is the reluctance of the Abe government to cut all the jobs associated with the whaling industry. The whaling industry only directly employs 1000 workers[9] and therefore does not command a significant amount of power the way the coal industry did in Britain during the 80s. Secondly, the Abe government could be hung up on the idea of tradition in its continuation of whaling. Small, parochial towns were reported to have hunted whales as a means of nourishment in the shogun historical era. A focus on this traditional aspect of national identity could play an important role in the Abe government’s attempt to rally voters. This reason for continuing whaling is flawed as well because the industrial whaling process and the traditional process are completely different.[10] The current process involves traveling hundreds of miles to the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica and systematically slaughtering some 300 whales in a summer. The traditional alternative relied on hand made tools and only hunted in the area off the coast of Japan. Therefore the two are not compatible in the slightest and should not be used as a legitimizing factor. The most reasonable explanation for Japan’s support of industrial whaling is for larger geostrategic aims. Borders of sovereignty are a particularly thorny issue in East Asian waters. Under this explanation, the unusually tense relations between Australia and Japan over whaling rights makes sense. Australian politicians run on platforms that include an assertive stance against Japanese incursion into the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.[11] This explanation also shows why Japan throws so much money into an unprofitable business. What they lose in profit, they gain in asserting territorial dominance and control.

The scientific research, or as more accurately stated the industrial harvesting, of Minke whales is a thorny subject that creates difficult questions of its existence. In the beginning, whaling served the valuable purpose of feeding a war-torn country in dire need of sufficient nourishment. However through time this practice continued despite a change in domestic and international opinion. With Japanese consumption of whale meat rarified, and international norms dictating a moratorium on commercial whaling, it is strange to see the Japanese government continually supporting this illicit trade. It is time for the Japanese Government to realign its stance on commercial whaling with the international community and the Japanese domestic consumers. The scientific façade needs to end because whaling and its supporters are in the realm of antiquity.

[1] http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/japan-rejects-international-court-jurisidiction-over-whaling-20151018-gkc7rm

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jstor.org, (2015). IWC Sets Commercial Whaling Moratorium on JSTOR . [online]

[4] http://www.economist.com/node/15663372 “Not whaling but drowning”

[5] http://www.ifaw.org/sites/default/files/economics-of-japanese-whaling-japan-ifaw.pdf

[6] http://uk.whales.org/blog/2015/05/science-of-whaling-bending-science-to-fit-politics

[7] http://uk.whales.org/blog/2014/03/japans-antarctic-whaling-found-to-be-in-contravention-of-iwc-and-moratorium

[8] http://uk.whales.org/news/2014/11/business-usual-japan-publishes-new-research-whaling-plan

[9] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/07/world/asia/japan-spends-heavily-to-keep-whaling-industry-afloat-report-says.html

[10] http://www.seashepherd.fr/news-and-media/editorial-060627-1.html

[11] http://www.asil.org/insights/volume/14/issue/20/dispute-concerning-japan%E2%80%99s-jarpa-ii-program-%E2%80%9Cscientific-whaling%E2%80%9D

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