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Attention on anti-whaling countries after Japan withdraws from IWC amid global pressure

Whaling ships leave a port in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in this file photo taken on April 5, 2018. (Mainichi/Atsuko Motohashi)

TOKYO -- Japan has decided to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), largely because Tokyo has come under growing criticism from the international community for its research whaling.

The number of restaurants serving whale meat gathered in the process of research whaling has sharply decreased due to fear of international criticism. Now, there are concerns that Japan's tradition of eating whale meat could disappear completely, and there have been more calls for early resumption of commercial whaling from the retail industry as well as regional communities engaging in small-scale coastal whaling.

The IWC's annual meeting in Brazil this past September prompted Japan to withdraw from the organization. The IWC adopted a declaration calling for the continuation of a moratorium of commercial whaling, impressing upon the international community its commitment to protecting whales.

At the conference, Japan proposed reform to lower the requirement of votes for important decisions -- including for lifting the whaling moratorium -- from the current three-fourths to a simple majority, but the proposal was voted down.

Disappointed by the IWC decision, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Takamori Yoshikawa said, "It has become clear that the IWC will not accept different positions or opinions."

In October, a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora panel pointed out that the sale of meat of sei whales Japan caught in research whaling in the Pacific Ocean violated the pact. This made it even more difficult for Japan to continue catching whales during the 2019 fiscal year and beyond.

Yoshifumi Kai, a senior member of a fisheries cooperative in Taiji, in the western Japanese prefecture of Wakayama, welcomed the government's decision to pull out of the IWC, saying that it was their "earnest desire to resume" commercial whaling. Taiji has been the center of international criticism in the past for its well-known whaling traditions.

Still, it is no easy task to resume commercial whaling, even after Japan leaves the IWC. Under international law, Japan will be banned from whaling in the Antarctic Sea if it does not belong to the international body.

Moreover, in resuming commercial whaling in the Pacific Ocean, Tokyo is required by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to work through "appropriate international organizations" for the conservation, management and study of whale species. It remains unclear whether Japan can meet this condition by simply cooperating with the IWC's Scientific Committee only.

Anti-whaling countries could also take legal action against Japan if Japanese fishermen catch minke whales, which are subject to IWC restrictions, even if the animals are caught within Japan's exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

Eiji Mori, the president of Kyodo Senpaku Co., which has operated research whaling vessels, urged, "I'd like the government to present a complete picture of Japan's whaling policy at an early date."

-- Politician-led change in policy stance

Japan decided to pull out of the IWC via the initiative of politicians, rather than ministry bureaucrats. At a House of Representatives plenary session on Oct. 29, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared, "We'll explore all possible measures to resume commercial whaling as early as possible."

Following this statement, the attitude within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the issue shifted to "whaling no longer being an issue in which bureaucrats can intervene," a senior ministry bureaucrat explained.

Ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) legislators and the Foreign Ministry were at odds over how to respond to the issue, even though both sides shared displeasure with the IWC's rejection of Japan's reform proposal at the September meeting.

The Foreign Ministry fears that the issue could worsen Japan's ties with Australia, Britain and other countries that are Japan's "quasi-allies" but are also anti-whaling countries. On the other hand, many LDP legislators in favor of commercial whaling are influential in Japan's political sphere.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Prime Minister Abe in November that Canberra is opposed to resuming whaling. If bilateral relations are chilled, it could adversely affect the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy economic sphere that Japan, the United States and Australia are promoting.

For now, all attention will be on just how anti-whaling countries will react to Japan's pullout from the IWC.

(Japanese original by Akiko Kato, Business News Department, Hirotaka Abe, Wakayama Bureau, and Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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