Japan’s decision to exit from the International Whaling Commission carries the risk of forfeiting international trust and damaging momentum for conservation — all in exchange for an uncertain outlook for commercial whaling as demand for whale meat falters.
While the Japanese government has considered leaving the international body many times in the past over the longstanding rift between pro- and anti-whaling members, the Foreign Ministry had stressed the importance of international cooperation and called for reforming the IWC from within.
But that position changed when the IWC voted down Japan’s proposal for resuming commercial whaling by 41 to 27 at an annual meeting in Brazil in September, prompting Tokyo to issue a veiled threat of a pullout.
With the country’s pro-whaling groups including the Fisheries Agency criticizing the IWCfor, in their view, offering no scientific or legal grounds for opposing whaling, the ministry came round to the idea of Japan leaving the framework following the vote, deeming that it can no longer co-exist with anti-whaling members.
Japan is the biggest donor to the IWC, and there are concerns that its departure will lower the commission’s profile and undermine its conservation efforts.
But of more concern for Japan is the reputational damage it could suffer from pulling out, similar to the criticism the United States has faced for withdrawing from international frameworks such as the Paris agreement on climate change, in the view of some experts.
Yuichi Hosoya, Keio University professor for international politics, said Japan’s move was “symbolic of a wave of populism spreading over the world.”
“It will become more difficult to have an international consensus on various issues, including Brexit,” Hosoya said, referring to Britain’s planned withdrawal from the European Union.
A clear signal that Japan was planning to ditch the IWC came after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a Diet plenary session in October he is “determined to explore every possibility to resume commercial whaling at the earliest date.”
Abe’s electoral power base is Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, a city known as a major whaling base, and ruling Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai is from Wakayama Prefecture, where Japan’s traditional whaling techniques originated.
Although whaling municipalities welcomed the move, some consumers and wholesalers of whale meat have expressed worries over the government’s lack of a clear vision on the course of whaling after withdrawing from the framework.
“The hardline stance is almost like that of the administration of U.S. President (Donald) Trump,” said a 41-year-old customer at a whale meat steak restaurant in Tokyo, referring to Japan’s decision to pull out of the IWC.
“Whale meat is tasty, but I wonder if we need to increase the volume of catches even at the cost of being isolated internationally,” he said.
“I understand we have the option of withdrawing, but there is always a risk that accompanies deviating from international rules,” said Kunio Suno, 75, working for a whale meat wholesaler in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. The government “needs to remove our worries by showing what kind of strategy it will adopt after departure,” he added.
Some 30 years have passed since Japan stopped commercial whaling and whale meat consumption in the country has stagnated and shows no signs of improvement.
Whale meat currently sold in the Japanese market comes from what Japan calls research whaling in the Northwest Pacific and Antarctic, from smaller whales not controlled by the IWC, as well as imports from other whaling countries such as Iceland.
Although people in the industry hope the resumption of commercial whaling will help revive their business, others believe demand will be limited due to changes in the Japanese diet over the past few decades.
Whale meat was widely consumed in Japan amid food shortages in the years following World War II and was a feature of school lunches. In fiscal 1962, some 230,000 tons of whale meat were eaten.
But annual consumption has dropped significantly since Japan stopped commercial whaling and hovered around 5,000 tons in recent years due to international regulations on whaling and major Japanese supermarkets refraining from selling the meat in fear of attacks from antiwhaling groups.
“Whale meat used to be appreciated as a source of protein, but it is no longer regarded as valuable in the market,” said a person at major fisheries company that used to be involved in whaling.
Japan’s exit from the IWC will redraw whale meat supply channels as the country will not be able to take part in whaling in the Antarctic and will have to review its activities in the Northwest Pacific as well.
The country now plans to resume commercial whaling in seas around Japan and within its exclusive economic zones, but will exclude species facing extinction from its catch.
Even as uncertainties remain over whether whaling will pick up again, traditional whaling municipalities are hoping to pass down whaling traditions and techniques they fear would otherwise be lost.
In Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, a city with a 400-year history of whaling, Wada elementary school has been holding classes for the past 20 years in which students observe how whales are dissected.
“There are different points of view on the IWC pullout,” said Naoko Hasegawa, the vice principal of the elementary school, “but what we worry about is what will happen to the food culture that has taken root in this region.”