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Japan in murky waters over research whaling after IWC proposal rejection

Ships leave a port in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on April 5, 2018, for research whaling. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Japan is facing an impasse after hinting at withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) following the body's rejection of its proposal to resume commercial whaling, as the move could jeopardize future Japanese research whaling.

During a general meeting held in Brazil that ended on Sept. 14, the IWC voted down Japan's first proposal in four years to resume commercial whaling of common species such as minke whales, instead adopting a declaration to promote the conservation of cetaceans. This prompted some government and ruling party officials in Tokyo to debate seceding from the global body entirely. However, the move has been met with opposition from others within the government who are concerned about possible adverse effects to research efforts.

Tokyo's hesitation to pull out of the IWC lies in concerns that it would make it difficult for Japan to continue research whaling in the Antarctic Sea and elsewhere. The Antarctic Treaty, to which Japan is a signatory, calls for resource control in conjunction with the IWC. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea also urges resource management in tandem with international organizations.

If Japan continued to be engaged in research whaling after leaving the IWC, that could violate the provisions of those treaties. Such an action would trigger backlash from the international community, causing diplomatic disarray.

Japan's proposal additionally called for relaxing the requirements for IWC's decision-making processes in a bid to secure cooperation from anti-whaling countries. For important decisions to be made by the body, approval from at least three-quarters of the member countries is required. However, as pro- and anti-whaling countries number 41 and 48, respectively, neither camp can technically reach that threshold. Japan thus proposed lowering the requirement to a simple majority so it would be easier to demarcate whale sanctuaries.

As the United States, a prominent anti-whaling country, was set to demand a whale-catch quota for Alaska's indigenous communities for the next six years, Japan had counted on Washington's cooperation as well as passive support from other anti-whaling countries to get approval for its comprehensive proposal.

However, negotiations did not go as planned. The catch quota for Alaskan indigenous hunters was quickly green lighted on Sept. 12, followed by the adoption of the Florianopolis Declaration for cetacean protection, proposed by meeting host Brazil, the next day. Though not legally binding, the communique highlighted the IWC's prioritization of whale conservation.

Japan's proposal for both the resumption of whaling and the change in voting, on the other hand, drew fire from anti-whaling countries, and was voted down 41-27 on Sept. 14, the final day of the meeting. The U.S. also objected to the proposition, having already secured the catch quota for Alaska two days earlier.

Following the rejection of the proposal, Japanese State Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Masaaki Taniai hinted at the possibility of withdrawing from the IWC, saying, "We will fundamentally review our status as a signatory and put all options on the table."

However, Japanese government officials scrambled to smooth-over the state minister's remarks, stating, "We haven't decided to secede from the IWC."

(Japanese original by Akiko Kato, Business News Department)

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