stomach of a minke whale
Japan is also one of the world's few whaling nations. As a member of the International Whaling Commission, the government had long pledged that its fleets would restrict their catch to international quotas, but it attracted international wrath for its failure to sign an agreement placing a moratorium on catching sperm whales in the early 1990s and its insistence to carry out “scientific whaling.” [Source: Library of Congress]

Whales have been prized in Japan for centuries as a source of both food and a variety of products. Japanese whalers caught 2,769 whales in 1986 the year before Japan ended commercial whaling in 1987, following the imposition of a worldwide ban on the hunting of endangered species of whales by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). At that time it announced that it would catch 875 whales for "research" purposes. The 2003 Japanese whale catch of 820 whales — mostly minke whales — represented about 42 percent of the world's whale catch. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Japan vigorously opposed the 1982 resolution of the IWC calling for a phaseout of commercial whaling by 1987. However, since most of its trading partners, including the United States, supported the measure and threatened retaliatory measures if whaling continued, Japan finally agreed to comply with the ban. After that the Japanese used a a loophole in the IWC rules to carry out hunts in protected Antarctic waters for "scientific" research purposes. Those hunts were fiercely criticized, and the issue has been a diplomatic headache for Japan for years.

Japan Withdraws from the IWC and Resumes Commercial Whaling in 2019

In December 2018, Japan announced it was withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and would no longer comply with a decades-old ban on commercial whaling. In July 2019, Japanese vessels set sail to hunt whales commercially for the first time since 1987.Harumi Ozawa of AFP wrote: “The hunts are likely to spark criticism from environmentalists and anti-whaling countries, but are cause for celebration among whaling communities in Japan, which says the practice is a long-standing tradition. Japan decided last year to withdraw from the IWC after repeatedly failing to convince the body to allow it to resume full-scale commercial whaling. [Source: Harumi Ozawa, AFP, July 1, 2019]

”Whaling ships set sail on commercial hunts from several parts of Japan, including the town of Kushiro in northern Japan's Hokkaido. The group of five small vessels could be seen at the port there. Sunday. The boats have come from different parts of the country, including Taiji, an area known for dolphin hunts. Another flotilla of ships that once carried out whaling under the "scientific research" loophole will set out from Shimonoseki port in western Japan. "We are very excited at the resumption of commercial whaling," Yoshifumi Kai, head of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association, told AFP ahead of the departure. "My heart is full of hope," he added.

After the whaling ships returned to port, Mari Yamaguchi of Associated Press reported: A Japanese whaling ship returned home after almost meeting its annual quota, ending its first commercial whaling season in 31 years. Operator Kyodo Senpaku Co. said its main factory ship Nisshin Maru returned to its home port of Shimonoseki after catching 223 whales during its three-month expedition off the Japanese coast. Nisshin Maru’s two support ships, Yushin Maru and No. 3 Yushin Maru, also returned to their home ports. [Source: Mari Yamaguchi, Associated Press, October 4, 2019]

“Kyodo Senpaku President Eiji Mori praised the whalers for returning with “better than expected” results despite earlier uncertainty because of their lack of experience in the area. “We were worried if we could catch any, but they did a great job,” Mori said. “We will examine the results closely and make a plan for the next season.” Of the quota of 232 whales allocated to the main fleet, they caught 187 Bryde's, 25 sei and 11 minke whales, only nine minke whales short of the cap. The fleet brought back an estimated 1,430 tons of frozen whale meat from the catch, down 670 tons from last year’s Antarctic hunts.

Separately, whalers operating smaller scale hunts in waters just off the Japan’s northeastern coasts were given a seasonal quota of 33 minke whales. Days after the resumption, their fleet of five small boats returned with two minke whales, whose fresh meat fetched as much as 15,000 yen ($140) per kilogram at a local fish market auction celebrating the first commercial hunt in three decades.”

Japanese Whale Hunting

whaling ship
There are four main whaling ports: Abashiri in Hokkaido, Ayukawa in Miyagi Prefecture, Wadamachi in Chiba Prefecture and Taijicho in Wakayama Prefecture. Kushiro in Hokkaido and Shimonoseki in western Japan also have traditions of whale hunting and continue the practice today.

Most of the "research whaling" was done in the Antarctic region. Some was done near the North Pacific. The Japanese whaling fleet operating in the Antarctic consisted of the 8,044-ton Nisshin Maru mother ship and three or four other boats that weigh around 700 tons each. A single minke whale can produce around $100,000 in meat.Whalers who work on these ships make about $75,000 a year, three times the average for regular fishermen. After the commercial whaling ban was put in effect in 2019, the Nisshin Maru hunted for whales in waters off Japan.

Whaling can be dangerous work. In February 2007, a Japanese whaling ship caught fire in seas off of Antarctica, killing one crew member. Environmentalist raised concerns about an oil spill from the ship threatening a large penguin colony on an island 175 kilometers from where the ship had trouble. In January 2009, a 30-year-old whaling ship crew man disappear and is thought to have fallen overboard and died in the frigid Antarctic water.

Japanese Whale Hunting in the Old Days

In the old days, whalers set off for six-months at a time, roaming the Antarctic in search of blue and sperm whales. It was not uncommon for them to kill 20 whales in a single day. The whalers endured their share of tragedy. A storm in 1879, capsized 30 boats, killing 111 men in a single town.

Describing a fin back whale hunt in his 1916 book “Whale Hunting With Gun and Camera”, Roy Chapman Andrews wrote, “Again and again Sorenson lances him, each time remaining a little longer and jabbing the lance deeper into his body. At last the gallant animal threw his fin into the air, rolled on his side, and sank.”

Describing the scene at a Japanese whaling station, Andrews wrote in a 1911 edition of National Geographic, “The entire posterior part of the whale was then drawn upward and lowered on the wharf to be stripped of blubber and flesh...Section by section the carcass was cut apart and drawn upward to fall into the hands of men on the wharf and be sliced into great blocks two or three feet square.”

Coastal Whaling in Japan

Japan’ carried out coastal whaling even during the ban on commericial whaling. Coastal whaling is based in four small ports where whale has long been a traditional food item, unlike much of the rest of Japan, where it was added to the menu only after World War II. Ayukawahama in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture is Japan’s main whaling port. In 2009 and 2010, a fleet of five vessels caught 60 minke whales in Japanese waters off the northeastern coast of Japan within an 80-kilometer radius of Ayukawahama. So central is whaling to the local identity that many here see the fate of the town and the industry as inextricably linked. “There is no Ayukawahama without whaling,” a 27-year-old fisherman and an occasional crewman on the whaling boats, told the New York Times. Another whaling town is Taiji, made infamous by the movie “The Cove.” [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, May 15, 2010]

Japanese whalers operating near Japan use boats armed with harpoons to go after single whales in the May-to-October whaling season. In October teams of 15 boats use nets to trap whales and drag them into a bay, where they are killed off with harpoons. This method is extremely bloody. It is usually done at night on a date that is kept secret.

Whaling is carried on a small scale off of Japan’s coast. In the autumn it is done off Kushiro, Hokkaido. In the spring between late April and June it has been done off the coast of northeast Honshu. Coastal whaling is usually carried out within 90 kilometers of the shore. The maximum quota is 60 minke whales.

Boats operating of the whaling station on Boso Peninsula of Wadamachi, Chiba prefecture have permission from the International Whaling Commission to catch 26 Baird's beaked whales. The 10-meter whales are butchered in about three hours with large knives at a port station. The slabs of meat are weighed and sold to processing companies. Wadamachi has a long history of consuming Baird's beaked whales. Local people who show up with buckets and other containers to collect blubber, which they take home and cut into pieces and dry under the eaves of their houses. The Japanese also legally hunt pilots whales in waters near Japan.

Coastal Whaling and Ayukawahama, Japan’s Main Whaling Port

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “Ayukawahama is a small harbor town of some 4,600 mostly graying residents on Japan’s northern coast, where whaling boats sit docked with harpoon guns proudly displayed, and shops sell carvings made from the ivorylike teeth of sperm whales. On a recent morning, crews prepared the two identical blue-and-white whaling ships for an annual monthlong hunt in nearby waters.” Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, May 15, 2010]

April is the whale hunting season, with much of the hunting done by coastal whalers like Ayukawa Whaling. April has traditionally been the town’s most festive month, especially when large whales were brought ashore. Ayukawahama was at its peak in the years after World War II, when Japan’s whaling industry boomed as a provider of scarce protein and whaling boats from Ayukawahama ranged from Alaska to the Antarctic. “Those were the glory days of Ayukawahama,” Fackler wrote, “when the population swelled to more than 10,000 and whaling crews swaggered down streets that bustled with crowds drawn by cabarets and movie theaters. Today, Ayukawahama plays up its whaling history for tourists. Smiling cartoon whales adorn shop fronts and even manhole covers. The town also built its own whaling museum, which was gutted by the tsunami.

Residents of Ayukawahama have said Tokyo should negotiate with the International Whaling Commission to allow them to double the size of the coastal hunt, even if it meant giving up the Antarctic program. They have broken long-held taboos to speak out against the government-run Antarctic hunts, which they say invite international criticism that threatens the much more limited coastal hunts by people in this traditional whaling town.

One Ayukawahama resident told the New York Times, “Antarctic whaling does nothing to help this town.” Other local residents said that with fewer people eating whale, the days were numbered for all kinds of whaling and that the government should just let it naturally disappear. “Japan doesn’t like being told what to do,” another resident, a former manager at the now-defunct Japan Whaling Company, said. “But like it or not, whaling is dying.”

Japanese Whale Industry and Illegal Whaling

whaling ship
Japan and Norway have the world's largest whaling industries. Shimonoseki in southern Honshu has been the home of major whaling operation since 1899 when Japan adopted the “Norway method” of hunting whales with steam-fired harpoons. The city once was home to a shipbuilding industry that produced steel-hulled whale ships and a fleet of 40 whaling ships that ventured as far away as the Antarctic Ocean and returned with frozen carcasses. Now only two ships remain. The Whale Museum in Shimonoseki is closed. It is a large concrete blue whale. When it was open visitors entered through the tail, walked past exhibits and exited out the mouth.

To give the local whaling industry a boost junior high school students are given tours of the last remaining whaling ships and a whale cooking festival, with tips on making whale burgers and whale carpaccio, is held. Slabs of bright red whale are still seen in stores and markets. Whale restaurants offer fried whale tail, grilled whale tongue wafers, boiled blubber and whale sashimi.

Japan wants to import whale products from Norway. Norwegians like whale meat but they don't like blubber, which makes up more than half the animal. They want to ship the blubber to Japan, where people like to eat it fried and served as sashimi. Whale meat from Norway has been shipped to Japan disguised as mackerel.

Studies of whale meat showed not all of the whale meat in Japan comes from legally-harvested minke whales. Some comes from endangered species and dolphins and porpoise. Also much of it has high levels of mercury, dioxin and PCBs.

According to one survey, 3.3 percent of whale meat sold at markets was illegally harvested. In Japan you can find meat for blue whales and humpback whales. It is not clear where the meat comes from. Meat from endangered humpback whales is sold at Hiroshima supermarkets. In May 1994, police broke up a whale smuggling operation, arresting three and seizing a Korean fishing boat with 11 tons of whale meat on board.

Scientific Whaling by Japan

Japan and Iceland have permission from the International Whaling Commission to kill whales for scientific research. Japanese scientists have argued they need to kill the whales — and dissecting their stomachs to determine what they eat, examine their skeletons and blubber for exposure to pollutants — to fully understand whales.

Japan began research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean in 1987 and in the northwest Pacific Ocean in 1994, both of which are "in line with the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling," according to the Fisheries Agency. A 1982 meeting of the IWC decided on a "temporary suspension" of commercial whaling, on condition the suspension would be reviewed by 1990. Research whaling is meant to study whales' ecological characteristics and their population in preparation for resuming commercial whaling. The plan to review the ban on commercial whaling by 1990 has been shelved due mainly to growing antiwhaling sentiment in many countries.

The Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) is the body in charge of conducting whale research. It was set up in 1987 after the whale moratorium was established with $9.6 million in start up fund from Nihon Kyodo Hogei, Japan's largest whaling company.

Conservationist argue that thousands of scientist are studying whales without killing them and "scientific whaling" is “just commercial whaling in disguise.” The WWF has said that Japan could glean just as much information about whales using non-lethal biopsy darts ideal for checking DNA as they do by harpooning and killing whales.

Mark Brazil wrote in the Japan Times, “With the development of so many non-lethal research techniques — whether DNA sampling, satellite racking, telemetric tagging of analysis of feces to determine diet — the government supports for killing whales even for “research” seems as odd as killing giant pandas, Siberian tigers or Japanese cranes.”

Researchers keep the whale sex organs and ear parts for research. The meat, blubber and much of rest of the whale is sold commercially as a "byproduct" to fish markets. The oil is used to make cosmetics and perfumes. Much of the meat is sold as "whale bacon.” One whale researcher was sharply criticized for eating some of his research in home-made sashimi. The sale of whale products generates about $35 million a year. The cost of the "scientific whaling" is about $40 million. A $5 million subsidy makes up for the shortfall.

Japan is the only country engaged in scientific whaling although Iceland did some in the recent past. Any country can engage in the practice if it wants to. The IWC can review permits but not reject them. Most of the Japanese research whaling is done in the Antarctic. Some is done in the North Pacific.

Yushin Maru and the Nisshin Maru Whaling Ships

The Yushin Maru and the Nisshin Maru, managed by Tokyo-based Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha Ltd., are Japan’s largest whaling ships. The Nisshin Maru is the mother ship, and the smaller Yushi Maru does the actual hunting and harpooning. Japan’s whaling fleet, which usually plans to catch about 110 whales, comprises four vessels, including the Nisshin Maru and the Yushin Maru. The crew spends eight months a year at sea.

As the ships were preparing to ship out from Shimonoseki, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The crew of the 754-ton Yushin Maru said an experienced whale spotter can spot a whale’s spout from 6 miles away, while dealing with Antarctic Ocean temperatures as low as -10 Celsius. “It’s cold out there, but the research begins with finding a whale. We have to maintain concentration,” said Kenji Tsuda, a 34-year-old second wireless operator who also assumes the role of visually spotting whales. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 16, 2014]

“The 8,145-ton mother ship, the Nisshin Maru, was anchored at Innoshima island. Equipped with conveyor belts below decks, the ship is tasked with receiving whales from the Yushin Maru and dissecting them. Under international law, it is allowed to sell the whale meat it catches. The whale meat is cut into certain sizes, sterilized, frozen and boxed in an about 700-square-meter workplace on the ship. The workplace, developed at the end of 2013 at the cost of 600 million yen (about $5.9 million), is an incredibly advanced facility, according to the company official.

Onboard a Japanese “Scientific” Whaling Ship in the Open Sea

The Yushi Maru has a blue discovery button that is pushed when a whale is spotted to alert the crew. A harpoon cannon located at the bow of the ship is used to capture the whales. A ramp is employed to reel whales onto the Nisshin Maru. Each whale is weighed and dissected on the rear deck. Researchers work in a lab aboard this ship.[Source: Haruka Teragaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 2014]

Haruka Teragaki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “On the side of the 724-ton Yushin Maru’s rear hull, “RESEARCH” is painted in large white letters. The vessel set sail from Shimonoseki for the northwest Pacific Ocean on May 16....Gondolas used to spot whales are attached to the mast of the Yushin Maru in three layers. When the ship arrives at its destination, most of the 20 crew members will be perched up in the gondolas on whale-watching duty...Each crew member has a discovery button at hand, and reports must be made as quickly as possible.

“The ship’s gunner, Shinatao Takeda, 44, said water expelled through the whales’ blowholes “looks like smoke from a factory” in the vast oceans. A whale is harpooned from a cannon located at the Yushin Maru’s bow. “I use the cannon with the utmost care, so I don’t miss my mark and cause them to suffer,” Takeda said,

“The 8,145-ton Nisshin Maru, mother ship of the Yushin Maru, pulls up a captured whale with ropes. The deck of the Nisshin Maru is as large as two tennis courts and is made of the same material as some kitchen cutting boards. Whales are weighed using a scale embedded under the deck floor. It is then dissected with 1.5-meter-long knives and parts are removed for biological sampling. In an Institute of Cetacean laboratory, there are a number of containers used to store and preserve samples in formalin.

“Inside crew cabins are a bunk and a simple desk. In one cabin, Yoshihisa Ina, a 45-year-old production team leader was reading an e-mail from his wife...Crew members are looking forward to reunions with their families when the fleet returns to Japan at the end of July. Until then, however, they will scour the ocean for whales.”

Charade of Research Whaling

Jun Hoshiawa, executive director of Greenpeace Japan wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “For decades, Japan has exploited a loophole...and masqueraded its clearly commercial hunt as a “scientific research” operation. Over 10,000 whales have been killed to date, but only a handful of studies have been published...The industry, which relentlessly damages Japan’s international reputation, drains the public purse by about ¥1 billion every year.”

Douglas Chadwick, author several books on whales, wrote: “As for Japan, the flesh of minkes rendered for “research” all ends up in the country’s fish markets and restaurants which helps explain the nation’s lack of interest in nonlethal techniques that could provide the same biological data. Japanese officials insist that they need to cut open he stomachs to examine what whales are eating, even though DNA techniques now allow a thorough determination of a whale’s diet merely from small samples of the dung it leaves floating on the surface.”

Joji Morishita, an official with the Japan Fisheries Agency, wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Japan supports the regulated and controlled utilization of abundant whale species such as minke whales, while strongly supporting the protection of endangered species such as blue whales or right whales...Japan has no intention of being involved in the extinction of a whale species.”

In support of “scientific whaling” and sale of whale meat, Morishita wrote: “Hundreds of scientific papers have been submitted to the IWC Scientific Committee and published in peer-reviewed scientific journals as the fruit of our research. After research and data collection have been performed, the meat is released to the Japanese commercial market, in accordance with the requirement of the paragraph 2 of Article VIII which reads: “Any whales taken under these special permits (scientific whaling) shall so far as practically be processed.”... The whaling controversy is almost always about Japan and not a few people feel that Japan is unfairly singled out. We are also curious as to why hunting deer and kangaroos is considered OK, while hunting highly populated whale species is regarded as evil.”

Japanese whalers have said they want to hunt humpback whales in the Southern Ocean sanctuary to investigate if they are competing with minke whales for food. In response to that the Australian government has said it would send ship and spotter plane into the sanctuary to monitor what the Japanese whalers were doing.

Whale Numbers Not Declining: Survey Team Says

In November 2011, Kyodo reported: “There is no sign Japan's "research whaling" has led to an overall decline in whale stocks, a team of researchers said upon completing a survey of Pacific waters off eastern Hokkaido, during which they caught 60 minke whales as planned. The research team detected 150 minke whales in the waters off Kushiro during its 52-day survey from early September. "Almost the same number of minke whales as seen a year ago came through the waters," team leader Toshiya Kishiro said. [Source: Kyodo, November 3, 2011]

“Japan has conducted research whaling off its own coast in spring and autumn in recent years, in addition to its research whaling in the Antarctic. Autumn research whaling has been conducted off Kushiro since 2002. Usually, the spring research whaling is conducted off Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, but it was transferred to Kushiro this spring after Ishinomaki was devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

A warm ocean current known as the Kuroshio (or Japan Current) flows northeastward along the southern part of the Japanese archipelago, and a branch of it, known as the Tsushima Current, flows into the Sea of Japan along the west side of the country. From the north, a cold current known as the Oyashio (or Chishima Current) flows south along Japan’s east coast, and a branch of it, called the Liman Current, enters the Sea of Japan from the north. The mixing of these warm and cold currents helps produce abundant fish resources in waters near Japan. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Whale Catches by Japan

The Japanese have killed more than 10,000 large whales since starting its scientific whaling in 1987. They have killed about 600 to 700 whales a year in the early and mid 2000s, including the 440 minke whales it is allowed by the IWC to take from the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in Antarctica "for scientific purposes." Norway takes about 460 minke whales a year.

Despite a IWC vote that rejected Japan’s plan to expand its quota Japan decided unilaterally to double its 2000 quota. Japan planned ro kill 1,070 minke whales in Antarctica and the North Atlantic in 2006, 400 more than in 2005. In 2006, Japan also planned to hunt 10 fins whales in the Antarctic and total of 160 Bryde’s, sei and sperm whales in the Pacific.

Japanese whaling peaked in 2005-2006 when over 1,200 whales were caught. During the 2006-2007 whaling season in Antarctica, Japanese whaling ships returned early, with only half the catch they had expected to take. The hunt was dogged by criticism from Australia, New Zealand and other nations, harassment by anti-whaling vessels and a fire on one of the ships. The whale catch in the Antarctic Ocean in 2007-2008 was 551, all minke whales, well short of the target of 900 whales.

In 2007 Japan said it wanted to take 50 humpback whales to expand its “research” of whales but backed down after being sharply criticized by Australia. If Japan had gone through with the plan it would have been the first known large scale hunting of humpbacks since 1963. Japan has also announced plans to harvest sei whales. Japan had a quota of 1,300 whales in 2008-2009, including 850 in the Antarctic and 450 caught around Japan. Japan caught 680 whales (679 minke whales and 1 fin whale) in the Antarctic that year far short of its target of 850.

Japan killed 251 minke whales in the Antarctic in the 2013-14 season, 103 in 2012-2013 and 266 in 2011-2012, far below its target because of direct action by conservationist group Sea Shepherd. Japan’s Fisheries minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said in 2012-2013 the Japanese whaling fleet caught 103 minke whales and no fin whales, the lowest number since so-called research whaling began in 1987. Hayashi blamed the low number on the "unforgivable sabotage" by Sea Shepherd, with Japan’s Fisheries Agency saying the militant conservation group disrupted the hunt four times. [Source: AFP, April 5, 2013]

No Whales in 2014 After U.N. Court Ruling Against Japan but 333 in 2016

In April 2014, Japanese whaling ships returned home from the Antarctic for the first time in nearly 30 years with no catch onboard, after a UN court ordered an end to their annual hunt. AFP reported: “The two ships -- the 724-ton Yushinmaru and the 747-ton Daini (No 2) Yushinmaru -- arrived at a port in western Shimonoseki city. It was the first return by Japanese whalers without catching any whales since 1987 when the country began the annual "research" hunt in the Antarctic, the Asahi Shimbun said.[Source: AFP, April 26, 2014]

“The two ships did not face any attacks by anti-whaling activists during their three-months voyage, the daily added. Tokyo had said this season’s excursion would not involve any lethal hunting. Harpoons normally used in the capture of the giant mammals were removed from the vessels. Crew members on the two boats carried out "sighting surveys" and took skin samples from the huge marine mammals, news reports said.

“The non-lethal research came after the International Court of Justice -- the highest court of the United Nations -- ruled in March 2013 that Tokyo was abusing a scientific exemption set out in the 1986 moratorium on whaling. The UN court concluded Tokyo was carrying out a commercial hunt under a veneer of science. After the ruling, Japan said it would not hunt during this winter’s Antarctic mission, but has since expressed its intention to resume "research whaling" in 2015-16. In a new plan submitted to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and its Scientific Committee, Tokyo set an annual target of 333 minke whales for future hunts, down from some 900 under the previous programme. It also defined the research period as 12 years from fiscal 2015 in response to the court’s criticism of the programme’s open-ended nature."

Australia filed the case against Japan in May 2010. During the court proceedings Japan was asked to prove its whaling was for scientific research. Japan has clashed repeatedly with Australia and some other Western countries, which strongly oppose whaling on conservation grounds. Japan has argued that minke whales and a number of other species are plentiful and that its whaling activities are sustainable. The meat from the slaughtered whales is sold commercially in Japan. A spokesman for Greenpeace UK, Willie MacKenzie, welcomed the ICJ’s decision: "The myth that this hunt was in any way scientific can now be dismissed once and for all," he said.

At the end of the 2015-2016 whaling season, the Japanese fleet of four ships returned to Japan from the Antarctic with 333 whales. Elahe Izadi wrote in the Washington Post: The quota of 333 is a third of what Japan used to haul in on average every year. Now, it’s the maximum number of kills allowed under the program, which Japanese officials say is all done in the name of science. But not everyone agrees, including the United Nations International Court of Justice. In 2014, the court ordered Japan to halt the program after concluding that research claims couldn't justify the number of kills. [Source: Elahe Izadi, Washington Post, March 25, 2016]

“Japan temporarily stopped the hunt and proposed a new plan: 4,000 whales killed over 12 years. The International Whaling Commission asked Japan to revise the plan again, but the Asian nation went ahead and resumed the controversial hunt in late 2015. The fleet spent four months in the Antarctic, killing 333 minke whales, 207 of which were pregnant. "The number of pregnant females is consistent with previous hunts, indicating that the breeding situation of minke whales in the Antarctic is healthy," the Japanese Fisheries Agency said in a statement, Reuters reported. The Fisheries Agency said it also conducted non-lethal research. "Attaching GPS devices helps us study minke whales' migration routes by tracking them for several days," agency official Hiroyuki Morita told AFP.

Proposals and Negotiations to End Scientific Whaling in Return for Allowing Coastal Whaling

The IWC has no control over the number of whales that are hunted for research purposes. Some have suggested it is time for Japan to come clean and admit it is really carrying commercial whaling and for the IWC to allow Japan to carry out commercial whaling but at substantially reduced numbers under the control of the IWC. The problem for Japan under such as scheme is that it hands over control of decisions on whaling that it now makes itself to the IWC.

The IWC began studying a plan in early 2009 in which Japan would phase out the catching of whale in Antarctica in return for being allowed to catch minke whales in coastal waters, using ships based in the whaling ports of Abashiri in Hokkaido, Ayukawa in Miyagi Prefecture, Wada in Chiba Prefecture and Taijicho in Wakayama Prefecture. There were strict rules in the proposal. The meat had to be consumed domestically and Japan must present detailed reports of how many many whales were killed and the circumstances of their deaths. Australia and other nations opposed the proposal.

At around the same time the United States and other anti-whaling countries were working on a deal that would close loopholes in the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling in exchange for allowing the main whaling nations — Japan, Norway and Iceland — to resume much more limited commercial hunts.

In April 2010, Japan proposed lowering its catch of southern minke whales to 440 from 935 in part to gain permission to catch more whales in waters off Japan. The IWC proposed allowing Japan to hunt 200 minke whales in Japanese coastal waters in return for reducing “research whaling.” catches to 400 by 2015 and 200 by 2020. At a IWC meeting in June 2010, a proposal was put on the table to allow the resumption of commercial whaling in a limited form under a more enforceable scheme. In the end it was decided to postpone taking up the proposal for a year.

End of Japanese Whaling Coming Soon?

Critics condemn Japan’s commercial whaling say it should end for ethical reasons. Others question if it can hang on in the face changing times and tastes and economic challenges. When Japan resumed commercial whaling in 2019 it promised that its whalers would stay within the country’s exclusive economic waters, ended its provocative "scientific" expeditions in protected Antarctic waters.Harumi Ozawa of AFP wrote: “Some campaigners say it is the first step towards the end of Japanese whaling. "Japan is quitting high-seas whaling... that is a huge step towards the end of killing whales for their meat and other products," said Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. He said commercial whaling, in Japanese waters, was unlikely to have much of a future given dwindling subsidies and the shrinking market for whale meat. "What we are seeing is the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling." [Source: Harumi Ozawa, AFP, July 1, 2019]

Ayukawahama in northwest Japan was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. "Japan’s tsunami seems to have succeeded — where years of boycotts, protests and high-seas chases by Western environmentalists had failed — in knocking out a pillar of the nation’s whaling industry, Fackler wrote. “This could be the final blow to whaling here,” said Makoto Takeda, a 70-year-old retired whaler. “So goes whaling, so goes the town.” “I wish we could eat whale meat every day,” another resident said. “But the whalers are so old, I think they’ll just quit or retire after what happened.” Yet another said, “There was Sea Shepherd, and now this.” “Whaling is finished.” [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, March 24, 2011]

The employees of Ayukawa Whaling survived but te tsunami but lost their jobs. The owner of the company, Minoru Ito, 74 years old in 2011, told the New York Times he intended to rebuild, hopefully in time for an autumn hunt off the northern island of Hokkaido, though he acknowledged the recovery might take more time. He said the most costly part would be getting the whaling ships back in the water, an undertaking that the company cannot afford without government help.

Once the ships are ready, Ito told the New York Times he wants to hire back the employees. However, he admitted that the waves might have scared some employees away, from both whaling and Ayukawahama.”If we can fix the ships, then we’re back in business,” Ito, whose father was also a whaler. “They should not be afraid, because another tsunami like that won’t come for another 100 years.” Another resident said the town needed to resume whaling as soon as possible to lift its spirits.

Initially after the disaster there were food shortages and people worried about just surviving. One resident told the New York Times. “We are so hungry that if they brought a whale ashore now, the whole town would rush down to eat it.” Shin Okada, an official in the disaster-response office, said the town had its hands full bringing in more food and finding shelter for the homeless. He said officials had not had time to think about steps to revive the fishing and whaling industries.

Image Sources: 1) 4) 16) Ray Kinnane 2) BBC 3) Japan Whaling Association 5) 6) 7) 8) 9) 10) 11) 12) Institute of Cetacean Research 13), 14) 15) Greenpeace

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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