protest outside a shop in Nagasaki
that sells whale meat
The whaling industry has lot a political clout in Japan and is strongly supported by nationalists and right wing extremists, who call the denial of the Japanese right to eat and hunt whales “cultural imperialism." Some whaling towns still have towers dedicated to souls of whales and lookout towers used to spot them offshore.

The Fisheries Agency, which is part of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, runs Japan’s research whaling program. Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “During the long tenure of the Liberal Democratic Party, whaling was one of the sacred cows of Japanese politics, embraced by a group of nationalist lawmakers within the party who saw it as a rare issue where Tokyo could appeal to conservatives by waving the flag and saying no to Washington. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, May 15, 2010]

It remains to be seen how the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which was voted into power in August 2009, will deal with the whaling issue. While there is also a group of pro-whaling lawmakers in the new governing party, it is much smaller, with just a few active members. The leader of the group, Tadamasa Kodaira, told the New York Times the DPJ was firmly committed to research whaling. Last summer, the party’s election platform included promises to seek a resumption of commercial whaling, though it did not specifically mention the government-run research program.

Kodaira told the New York Times said he recognized that Japan’s whaling industry had shrunk to just a few hundred jobs, mostly paid for by the government. However, he said that the recent aggressive actions of foreign environmental groups like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has clashed with Japanese whaling ships near the Antarctic, had fanned popular ire, making it impossible for Tokyo to compromise now. “We can’t change now because it would look like giving in,” said Mr. Kodaira, a lawmaker from the northern island of Hokkaido. “Will we have to give up tuna next?” As of 2011, the DPJ had left the program untouched.

“The Japanese government seems paralyzed by the same combination of nationalist passions and entrenched bureaucratic interests.” Fackler wrote. “Tokyo seemed to hint at a compromise in March 2010 when it said that Japan was willing to kill fewer whales. But whaling’s opponents and supporters alike in Japan say that it remains politically difficult for Tokyo to accept large reductions in its whale hunts.” “We’re entering a new period on the whaling issue, but we don’t know what it means yet,” Shohei Yonemoto, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Tokyo, told the New York Times.

Unsold Whale Meat and Subsidies Proping Up the Declining Japanese Whale Industry

The whaling industry in Japan is dying and manages to stay afloat only with the help of government subsidies. Most large fishing companies have gotten out of the whale meat business, partly to avoid bad publicity.

Many of those who like whale meat don’t eat it because whale meat is too expensive. It sells for as much as the best tuna (¥3000 a kilogram) and is promoted as a delicacy. Greenpeace is making an effort to convince Japanese not to eat whale by pointing out that whale meat contains high concentration of cancer-causing PCBs.

In the early 2000s, about 30 percent of the 725-ton harvest of whale meat went unsold and the wholesale price was cut to $11 a pound. Loses by the industry were covered by taxpayers. In 2005, 3,945 tons of whale meat was in storage, about three fourths of the catch for the entire year. Reducing prices 50 percent had little impact on the stockpile. Japan has had so much difficulty selling whale meat that it has resorted to using it in dog food according to the Britain-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky wrote in the Daily Beast: ““The Ministry of Fisheries said that Japan has to continue its whaling program because it needs to prove to the other nations that there is enough of a whale population worldwide to re-open commercial whaling. “We do not want to make profit out of research whaling, but we do not want the meat obtained to go to waste either. That’s why whale meat is sold in order to raise the funds to sustain the research each year,” he explained. In Japanese language materials, the JICR justifies research whaling as follows: “The world’s population is expected to increase to more than nine billion by the mid-21st century. Food produced on land is not sufficient to feed that many people … our research will eventually lead to the management and utilization not only of whales, but all marine living resources ... and solve future food shortages.”

“According to a Japanese political activist, Mr. Shun, who belongs to a pro-whaling group, the existence of the whale- and dolphin-meat industry in Japan is a matter of supply and demand. “This industry exists in Japan for ages and still does, because there is a demand for it. Japan is a democracy, people have the right to chose what they wish to eat, whether it is healthy or not, the decision should be made on the marketplace. ”Polls in the past conducted by Japanese mainstream media about whaling yielded results in which more than 75 percent of the respondents supported the reopening of commercial whaling.

Whaling Rights and Japan

In defiance of requests from the international community, Japan announced in 2000 it planned to kill 10 sperm whales and 50 Bryde's whales in the North Pacific. This decision was especially controversial because not so long ago these whales were nearly hunted to extinction. The Japanese have argued hunting these whales would not be harmful "because their populations are relatively abundant and in good condition." Minke whales in the northwest Pacific were added to the research whaling list in 2002.

whaling ship

In May 2002, the former whaling town Shimonoseki hosted an international whaling conference and Japanese used the meeting to insist on their right to whale and condemn anti-whaling nations as “mimics of Greenpeace.” Although the Japanese made little progress restoring commercial whaling they did manage to piss off many people and deny Eskimos and native peoples of the Arctic their whale-hunting quotas. Some Japanese complain about Japan singled out by anti-whaling groups while other whale-consuming nations such as Norway and Iceland are not.

In June 2006, at IWC meeting in St. Kitts and Nevis, Japan and its group of small nation allies won a vote that criticized the global whaling ban indicating they might have enough votes to challenge the 1986 moratorium. A 33 to 32 votes supported a statement that the whaling ban was no longer necessary, whale were responsible for depleting fish stocks and nongovernmental organizations were a “threat.” A 75 percent vote is needed to end the moratorium.

Whales and Culinary Imperialism

Polls in the 2000s indicated that 56 percent of Japanese approve of eating whale, with support especially strong among men and people over 40. “Much of this support isn’t because people are pro-whaling or are willing to eat whale meat,” Atsushi Ischii, specialist in environmental policy at Tohuku University told the Los Angeles Times. “People are against the anti-whalers. They don’t like being told what to by outside groups.”

Yukio Hattori, president of Tokyo-based Hattori Nutrition College and a leading food critic who admits a weakness for whale, told Time: "Whales are cute. They are intelligent, genius creatures that endear humans to want to interact with them," he says, "But we are a fishing people. Whale hunting is a part of our culture-not just our food culture." [Source: Coco Masters, Time, December 26, 2007]

whale at Hanada Airport in Tokyo

Many Japanese consider American, European and Australian criticism of eating whale to be "culinary imperialism." One whale meat lover told Time, "Japanese think it is strange that Americans hunt deer. But I don't tell Americans not to kill deer. Why should they ask us not to eat whale?" Other Japanese say that raising cattle in small enclosures with hormones and killing them with electric prods is much crueler than whaling. Another man told the New York Times, "We may eat whale but we also revere it. How can a total stranger tell us not to hunt whales without knowing how much this meat means to us?"

Even people who don’t like whale support the right of the Japanese to hunt whale, from the point of view that others don’t have the right to tell the Japanese what to do. One Japanese lawmaker told the BBC: “In Japan we have pet dogs. But we don’t tell the Koreans to stop eating dogs. Nor should people tell us to stop eating whale.”

Joji Morishita of the powerful government Fisheries Agency told the Los Angeles Times, “What would the Americans say if India suddenly said they should stop eating beef because the cow is special to their culture? That’s what is happening to us. “

Promoting Whale Meat in Japan

To keep the whaling industry alive the government subsidies the whale hunts and spends money trying to convince Japanese to eat whale meat. Japan subsidizes whale burgers and whale meat meals in schools. Children are encouraged to eat whale meat in colorful brochures entitled “Delicious Whales” that describe hunting them as a national heritage and say, “Even if we capture 2,000 whales a year for100 years, it’s okay because the whale numbers are growing.”

The Japanese whaling industry has said that it is important to boost demand for whale meat so that money will be available for research. It markets whale to restaurant chains that offer whale sashimi and fried whale and food processors that produce cooked whale and canned broiled whale. It is also markets whale meat to hospitals and universities. AFP reported that in 2013 that Japan’s whaling factory ship began producing certified halal-compliant whale meat for Muslim tourists.

In 2013 Japan’s launched a new advertising campaign to promote whale meat as a nutritious food that enhances physical strength and reduces fatigue. Japanese media reported that the campaign involved selling whale meat to soldiers to help boost their strength. As part of the campaign, about 7,000 brochures were distributed that featuring recipes such as whale meat sashimi and whale cooked with Chinese chives. [Source: Mark Willacy, ABC, June 2, 2013]

Pushing Whale Meat on School Children in Japan

In Wakayama Prefecture there has been an aggressive campaign to make whale a fixture in public school lunches. Nutritionists have developed an array of dishes such as whale meat meatballs, whale hamburgers, deep-fried marinated whale fillet that were offered in 339 schools in 2005. The moved has been widely supported by parents and teachers in the traditional whaling own of Shirahama.

Most young people have never tried whale. In an effort to get the younger generation interested in whale meat, free whale-meat sushi rolls are handed in places where young people hang out in Tokyo. A restaurant chain that added whale meat said they attracted few customers with it. One diner who tried some told AP, “To put it simply. Whale meat tastes horrible.” Other tactics have included taking elementary school students on field trips to watch the butchering of Baird’s beaked whales. The efforts has born little fruit. Over 4,000 tons of whale meat still lies is stored in freezers because no one wants to eat it.

Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky wrote in the Daily Beast: “According to the Mainichi News, about 100 metric tons of whale meat is served in school lunches per year in Japan. The Ministry of Education says that it encourages schools to serve local specialities to their students, as long as the dishes meet the national nutritional standards set per meal for children. In Tokyo, the Higashi-machi and Shibaura elementary school in the Minato ward served whale meat this January as part of their traditional meals menu. “We do not serve whale meat just because it is cheaper than pork or beef, but to teach children about the kind of school lunches Japan had in the past,” a spokeswoman from Higashi-machi elementary school said. “Our whale meat lunch is one of our most popular menu items,” she added. The Minato-ward Board of Education insisted that schools do not serve whale meat every day to its students. Wakayama and Nagasaki prefectures serve more whale meat than other regions in Japan, partly because both prefectures still have a whaling industry, which is heavily subsidized by the government. [Source: Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky, Daily Beast, February 5, 2014]

Money Earmarked for Tsunami Relief Spent on Whale Meat Promotion Instead

Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky wrote in the Daily Beast: “Until recently, whale meat caught for research was sold to a limited number of meat traders. Under a loophole in the moratorium on whaling, Japan is allowed to keep and sell the whale meat obtained from their “research” into the whale populations. Money made from the whale product sales is then used to support whale research the next year. [Source: Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky, Daily Beast, February 5, 2014]

“A spokesman for the Ministry of Fisheries, said that after 1986, the year when a global moratorium on whaling was established by the IWC (International Whaling Commission), the Ministry of Fisheries has been pouring approximately 700 million yen (about $7.57 million) into whale research per year. In 2011, the Ministry of Fisheries raised public outcry, when it snuck a 2.3 billion yen (about $24.89 million) subsidy into the supplementary budget designed to revitalize the tsunami-devastated Tohoku region—money that was actually earmarked for whaling. Of that, 1.8 billion yen went to research whaling and the rest was set aside to charter a boat to monitor and possibly block the activities of anti-whaling activists. However, even the Japanese press considered this request to be a “highly suspicious” use of funds that were supposed to aid victims of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan on March 11, 2011.

“In response to The Daily Beast inquires about the use of these funds, the Ministry of Fisheries replied, “In the city of Ishinomaki, which was partly destroyed by the tsunami on 3/11, the whaling industry, is a major part of the economy and therefore we wanted to revitalize the business of the fishermen there.” However, the Ministry of Fisheries admitted, “It was an inappropriate request, despite the reasons given to justify it.” The City Hall of Ishinomaki responded to the Ministry of Fisheries explanations as follows: “Processing whale meat is not a major industry in our city, not even a significant percentage of our major businesses, and the tidal wave wiped out the few facilities that could process it.”

“The Ministry of Fisheries, in replies to other Japanese media, did point out that some of the whalers who participate in the annual Antarctic expedition live near Ishinomaki and keeping them employed indirectly helps the city.

Reasons Given for Continuing Whaling by Japan

Japan wants minke whales taken off the endangered list and the right to hunt around 2,000 minke whales a year. There argument for taking this number is that there are 760,000 minke whales in the Antarctic Ocean alone and more than 1 million in the world's oceans, and taking 2,000 whales should have no impact on the minke populations.

In recent years the Japanese have begun making the argument that whales eat so much fish they are starting to cause fish stocks to decline. According to these argument killing whales will result in more fish for humans to eat. One of Japan's whaling negotiators even went as far as calling mink whales "the cockroach of the ocean" because of the each large amounts of fish they eat.

One Japanese survey reported that whales annually consume between 300 million and 500 million tons of fish resources a year while the world’s fishing boats only harvest about 100 million tons. They have also gone as far as saying that decline in fish stocks are the result of whale not overfishing by humans.

One Japanese whale representative said, "We estimated the total volume of fish which are eaten by whales is approximately three or four times the world fisheries catch. Humans are in the position of the highest rank of the ecosystem. If we leave some world species untouchable, they will increase" and “compete with humans for food."

Responding to the Japanese argument, one Greenpeace representative said, "That's like blaming woodpeckers for deforestation...It’s a fairly brazen argument" coming from a country that has "wantonly exploited fisheries."

Why the Whaling Program Endures

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “Officials said that one reason the program remained hard to cut was that its budget was so small: only $86 million, of which only $17 million is paid for by the government in cash or zero-interest loans, according to a freelance journalist, Junko Sakuma, who has written extensively about whaling. The rest comes from the sale of whale meat, mostly that of the nonendangered minke whales. That means anyone trying to cut the program would risk a huge political outcry from nationalists for only marginal budget savings, all of which creates a huge incentive to do nothing.”[Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, May 15, 2010]

“The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, one of the most secretive ministries in Japan’s powerful central bureaucracy, has also fiercely resisted any efforts to shrink the program. Among its crucial weapons have been Japanese journalists, who enjoy close ties with the ministry and have tended to dutifully report its claims that research whaling defends Japan’s traditional culture.”

Whaling experts say the real reason the ministry wants to keep the program alive is to secure cushy retirement jobs for ministry officials, a common practice that is widely criticized. A study last year by the Democratic Party showed that the Institute of Cetacean Research, a ministry-controlled agency that oversees the research whaling program, reserves jobs for at least five former ministry officials, including one earning an annual salary of more than $130,000. Kyodo Senpaku, a government-owned company that operates the whaling fleet, hires another one.” “Research whaling claims to be protecting science and culture, but it is really just protecting bureaucratic self-interest,” Atsushi Ishii, a professor of environmental politics at Tohoku University in Sendai, told the New York Times.

“Even its proponents concede that the only real purpose of research whaling is to sustain the shrinking whaling industry,” fackler wrote, even though much of the meat piles up uneaten in freezers and the last private company dropped out of the Antarctic hunt four years ago. That, in turn, has led to a new round of criticism over the program’s failure to fulfill its own goals of preserving Japan’s whaling industry and traditional whaling culture.”

Involved directly in the research whaling are the government-affiliated Institute of Cetacean Research and companies offering whaling boats and personnel under contracts with the institute. Only about 180 people go whaling in the Antarctic Ocean every season, according to the fisheries agency.

minke whale

Japanese Whaling an International Relations

Japan has given the six small island countries in the Caribbean–St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Antigua, Dominica, Grenada and St.. Kitts and Nevis — over $100 million in aid between 1998 and 2006 essentially in return for their support on pro-whaling issues in the IWC. These countries began receiving the aid after voting in favor killing whales as members of the International Whaling Commission.

Japans has been accused by Greenpeace of "buying back the right to whale." One of Japan's whaling negotiators seemed to admit as much when he said, "To get appreciation of Japan's position, it is natural we must resort" to using overseas development adi and diplomatic persuasion.

Japan has encouraged countries like Palau, Cape Verde, Gabon, Nauru, Tuvalu and land-bound Mongolia to join the IWC to support their positions. In 2010 allegations were that Japan bribed small-nation members of the International Whaling Conference to vote for relaxed whaling rules with cash and prostitutes.. [Source: Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky, Daily Beast, February 5, 2014]

In retaliation for Japan's decision to kill 10 sperm whales and 50 Bryde's whales, the United States decided in 2000 to prohibit all Japanese boats from fishing in the 200-mile fishing zone of the United States. This prohibition wasn't a very harsh punishment considering Japan had not fished in these area since 1988.

The IWC has effectively become paralyzed by its division into anti-whaling and pro-whaling camps, with the two sides hardly even talking to one another. The Japanese claim the IWC had been "hijacked" by special interests NGOs such as Greenpeace and anti-whaling nations such as Australia and New Zealand. It has threatened to quit the IWC and form a new whaling body after facing strong opposition to its proposal to allow small-scale coastal whaling for four communities.


Australia and Japanese Whaling

The Australian government and Australian Prime Ministers often criticize Japan on the whaling issue. In December 2007, the Japanese government announced it was suspending its plan to hunt humpback whales. The move came at least partly in response to heavy pressure by from Australia, which threatened to follow Japanese whaling ships in the Antarctic and take legal action against Japanese whalers in international courts if Japanese whalers hunted the humpbacks. The assertive stance by Australia was the result of the new liberal-led government voted into power in November 2007.

In January 2008, the Australian government dispatched a vessel to follow the Japanese whaling fleet, monitor their activities and take photographs that could be used if legal action was taken against the whalers. Aircraft from Australia’s Antarctic division also monitored the whaling fleet.

The Australian government published photos of a mother minke whale and calf being processed by a Japanese whaling vessel. The photos were taken by an Australian customs vessel that was tracking the Japanese whaling fleet. The Japanese government complained. The New Zealand government has also sharply criticized Japanese whaling operations, calling them “deceptive” for operating under the guise of a scientific operation.

e 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 that resulted in the March 2013 by the the International Court of Justice -- the highest court of the United Nations -- that Tokyo was abusing a scientific exemption set out in the 1986 moratorium on whaling.

Support for Whaling Declines in Japan

In a Asahi Shimbun survey in 2002, 47 percent of those asked supported the resumption of commercial whaling and 36 percent were against. In 1993, 54 percent were in support whale 35 percent were against it.

These day more people in Japan go on whale watching trips than eat whale. Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky wrote in the Daily Beast: In late November 2012, The International Fund for Animal Welfare in conjunction with the Nihon Research Center "announced the results of a poll of 1,200 Japanese people, in which only 27 percent of the respondents supporting whaling, and 11 percent opposed it. The younger the respondent, the lower the support for whaling. Only 2.6 percent of the respondents between 15 and 19 supported whaling. 88 percent of the respondents said they did not purchase whale meat in the past year. [Source: Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky, Daily Beast, February 5, 2014]

“The poll results came out after the first demonstration in Japan organized by Japanese citizens on November 24, last year, to protest the slaughter of sea mammals. A group of about 70 activists, 40 of whom were Japanese, staged a 90-minute rally in Tokyo against Japan’s practice of hunting dolphins for profit and killing whales under the guise of research. The protesters claim these practices are inhumane, unhealthy, and a waste of taxpayers' money. Right-wing activists, who were allegedly paid by the whaling industry, organized a counter demonstration saying that, “Killing the practice of whale hunting is the same as killing the Japanese people.”

“Mr. Nagai, one of the demonstration organizers said, “Research whaling and dolphin killing are bad for Japan’s image. The meat piles up in storehouses because no one wants to eat it. It’s time to stop this practice, which benefits no one. It is a problem that has to be solved between the government and the citizens of Japan.”

Image Sources: Sea Shepherd, 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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