At a conference in Slovenia last week, the International Whaling Commission voted against allowing Japan to hunt whales in the Antarctic. In an email interview, Atsushi Ishii, associate professor of international relations and sociology of science and technology at Tohoku University, discussed Japan’s whaling program.
WPR: What role does whaling play in Japan, economically and culturally?
Atsushi Ishii: The Japanese have been whaling since ancient times and whaling-related culture flourished in rural coastal areas. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, whale meat was almost the only protein source for the Japanese people and became part of the national cuisine. Currently, Japanese people eat, on average, less than 40 grams of whale meat per person a year—less than the weight of a chicken egg. The whaling industry is so small that it currently employs fewer than 250 people and, in the case of the Southern Ocean whaling, cannot make any profit without subsidies—currently $5 million per year—and non-interest loans of $20 million to $30 million per year. Only rural coastal areas still have a culture of eating whale meat.
WPR: What is driving the Japanese government’s persistence in defending whaling, in terms of domestic interests and constituencies?
Ishii: As there is no demand for whale meat anymore, the Japanese government is defending whaling as a national symbol, signifying that Japan does not surrender to the anti-whaling countries and to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s violent protests from 2006-2013 against Japan’s whaling operation in the Southern Ocean. The cliche argument that the pro-whaling community is defending Japanese culture is not true, since there is no longer a nationwide culture of eating whale meat. The food security argument is also not convincing since Japan is the world’s largest waster of food and there is no domestic policy for minimizing food waste and improving food security.
WPR: Who has jurisdiction over international whaling, and what steps can the international community take to limit Japanese whaling and enforce compliance?
Ishii: The Fisheries Agency of Japan, with support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has jurisdiction over whaling. Since the whaling operation in the Southern Ocean causes a budget deficit of nearly $10 million for the Fisheries Agency, the agency is working to end Southern Ocean whaling and to continue small-scale whaling in Japanese waters only. These efforts have been blocked by the Parliamentary League for the Promotion of Whaling, who firmly believe that standing strong against anti-whaling countries satisfies their constituencies.
However, the tide is changing, as the International Court of Justice ruled that Southern Ocean whaling in its current form is illegal. Japanese people are very amenable to accepting international court decisions. The major Japanese newspapers are now arguing for ending Southern Ocean whaling and prioritizing small-scale coastal whaling. Opinion polls show that the majority of Japanese citizens think that Southern Ocean whaling is not needed. If the anti-whaling countries can offer Japan a compromise deal that enables Japan to do very limited coastal commercial whaling that is within science-based limits with very strict control and international verification, and at the same time prohibits Japan from any other form of whaling, it may facilitate the Japanese government’s decision to end Southern Ocean whaling.