The Whaling Controversy: Harpooning the Gordian Knot

A 'cockroach of the sea' breaches in the Pacific Ocean - whether it will be visited by whalers or whale watchers is an open question

On December 26, the Government of Japan informed the International Whaling Commission of its intent to withdraw from the organization. It chose to remove itself in order to resume commercial harvesting of baleen whales — large, plankton-eating whale species whose killing is prohibited by an IWC moratorium imposed in 1986. It was a decision that was bound to cause a backlash. In the hopes of softening it, Japan simultaneously announced that it would permanently end the hunting of whales in areas surrounding Antarctica, an activity it had carried out for years in the name of research and which was opposed by the Australian government and anti-whaling groups. Japan said its resumed commercial baleen whale hunts — specifically for sei, Bryde’s and minke whales — would be restricted to waters near Japan, inside the country’s maritime economic exclusion zone (EEZ). Given Japanese consumers’ weak demand for whale meat, whether this will be an economic boon for Japan’s whalers or a death knell is another question.

Reaction to Japan’s decision was split. The New Zealand and Australian governments both protested the resumption of commercial baleen whale killing, which is scheduled to start on July 1 this year. The Australian government had to admit, however, that its longstanding demand for a whale sanctuary in the Southern Ocean had been met. Greenpeace, the international NGO whose 1970s call to battle, “Save the Whales!” found its apotheosis in the imposition of the 1986 IWC moratorium, found nothing to like in Japan’s announcement. Yet the more radical Sea Shepherd Society, which had traded blows and lost ships in direct confrontations with Japanese research whaling expeditions in the Southern Ocean, declared victory.

On the broader politics, liberal internationalist scholars and commentators lamented what they saw as parallels between Japan’s action and the withdrawals of the Donald Trump administration from the Paris Accord on climate change and the INF Treaty, or even Japan’s withdrawal in 1933 from the League of Nations. The action, they said, damaged Japan’s and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s claims to be staunch supporters of the post-1945 liberal world order in a time of rancid unilateralism. But Japanese commentators and editorialists by and large praised the GOJ’s decision, as the IWC has long been portrayed in Japan as an intergovernmental organization gone bad, its offices captured and mission distorted by NGOs with anti-whaling agendas.

The fight over the resumption of commercial whaling is riddled with hypocrisy and opportunism

The fight over the resumption of commercial whaling is riddled with hypocrisy and opportunism. The 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling has been never been as total as NGOs and certain governments claimed. Japan’s coastal commercial whaling industry never closed down; its harpooners merely shifted out of hunting large baleen whales into hunting smaller, toothed whales. Japan continued to hunt whales in the Southern Ocean and the north Pacific under the name of research — an approach that suffered a severe blow in 2015 when the International Court of Justice ruled against the Japanese program, questioning its scientific and legal basis.

Japan’s management of the atmospherics of whaling has always been hobbled. It did itself no favors by recruiting countries without whaling traditions – including landlocked countries – to become members of the IWC, where they duly supported its point of view. It also gave its IWC negotiators too much free rein, with embarrassing results — as when Masayuki Komatsu famously referred to minke whales as the “cockroaches of the sea.” That phrase and others like it, pleasing though they may have been to Japanese nationalists for poking the international community in the eye, made it hard for other governments to seek compromises with Japan. When in 2010 Tokyo approached other governments with a plan for a limited resumption of commercial whaling — one whose harvesting targets, in large part, resemble the current unilateral Japanese proposal — they had to do so in secret. However, the necessary secrecy of the exploratory meetings blew up in everyone’s faces, as anti-whaling forces portrayed the effort as a conspiracy to overturn the international system of ocean management.

Japan has never managed the biosphere-impact argument, either. Minke whales may not be cockroaches but their population is in the millions. The harvesting of even a few thousand individuals will have no lasting effect on total numbers and genetic diversity. By contrast, the numbers and diversity of the Pacific bluefin tuna have declined to crisis levels. For the population of bluefin to recover there should be a bluefin moratorium. Many of the countries whose governments have opposed the resumption of the hunting of baleen whales are indeed big traders of bluefin tuna — a point not lost on Japan’s whaling community. Japan could never make use of this hypocrisy, though, as own insatiable appetite for bluefin has made it a captive of the global bluefin producers.

Japanese nationalists will now have to demonstrate their fervor by eating enough whale to keep a small domestic industry alive

The intertwining of motives and histories made the resumption of commercial whaling under IWC authority into a Gordian knot — its enervating insolubility highlighted by the failure once again of a Japan-sponsored resumption proposal at the IWC’s Florianopolis conference last September. With a looming decision on how to replace Japan’s aging factory ship — the mothership of its Antarctic whaling fleet — the Abe administration decided to make an end of the hypocrisies on both sides and withdraw from IWC, becoming in the process a roguish (i.e., a not quite international pariah) whaling nation like Iceland and Norway. Japan had tried demonstrating its commitment to international law and the international liberal institutionalist order by working within the IWC system to persuade other governments that the commission had devolved into a perverse mirror-image of itself — a whaling-management organization that does not allow whaling. It failed to do so, but not out of a lack of reasonableness in its proposals.

Under the new regime, hypocrisies will be fewer. So, possibly, will be the number of whales killed. No membership in the IWC means no research whaling, a fully government-subsidized activity that produced a huge mass of unsaleable whale meat and hunts outside of Japan’s area of sovereignty. Without compulsion, Japan will oversee whaling done under IWC rules meant to guide sustainable commercial hunts after the end of the moratorium — rules that have been prepared but, with the moratorium having become open-ended, never implemented. Nationalists in Japan, quick to defend whaling when it meant Japan was standing up for its rights in international organizations, will now have to show their patriotic fervor by actually eating whale in sufficient quantities to keep a domestic, small-scale industry alive — which may be a bigger challenge than it sounds, as changing tastes in food mean that most Japanese would prefer to watch whales swimming in the waters about Japan than see them sliced up for sale in their local store.

Michael Cucek is adjunct professor of the Department of Political Science at Temple University Japan Campus and adjunct professor of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Waseda University, teaching political science and international relations. He was adjunct professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Sophia University in Spring 2015, teaching courses in globalization and political leadership. He is the author of the blog Shisaku: Marginalia on Japanese Politics and Society (http://shisaku.blogspot.jp/ ) and has been a contributor to Foreign Policy, the East Asia Forum, Al-Jazeera and The New York Times‘ Latitude blog.

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