Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Japan's resumption of commercial whaling met with anticipation, anxiety


Japan resumed commercial whaling on July 1 for the first time in three decades. Whaling ships departed from ports in Shimonoseki, in the western Japan prefecture of Yamaguchi, and in Kushiro, in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido -- where two minke whales were landed.

The same day, Japan's Fisheries Agency set the number of whales that could be caught by Japanese whalers -- who would be operating solely in Japanese territorial waters and Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) -- to 227 by the end of December. This aligns with the International Whaling Commission (IWC)'s position that "there will be no impact on resources even if whaling continues at the same pace for 100 years." Under Japan's research whaling program, about 600 whales were being caught every year.

The IWC adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982 due to concerns about declining whale numbers. Japan followed suit and switched to whaling for "research purposes" in 1988. In September of last year, however, Japan proposed a partial lifting of the moratorium, citing the recovery of whale numbers. After its proposal was voted down, Japan left the IWC on June 30 to resume commercial whaling.

Three whaling ships that left from Shimonoseki port are set to operate in Japan's EEZ until the end of August, at which point they will return to port.

"I am so deeply moved that commercial whaling is finally resuming," beamed Yoshifumi Kai, head of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association, at Kushiro port.

A minke whale is hauled onto land in the city of Kushiro in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido on July 1, 2019, the first day that commercial whaling resumed in Japan since 1988. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

Of the two whales that were caught that day, one was a female weighing 5.6 metric tons and measuring 8.3 meters long -- bigger than the minke whales that Japan had caught when it was whaling for research purposes. The whale was subsequently transported to a slaughterhouse in Kushiro, where those involved poured sacred sake on the cetacean in celebration of their first catch. The whale was slaughtered that day, and the meat cut up into blocks starting the morning of July 2. The whale meat will be shipped to markets in the city of Kushiro on July 4.

Under research whaling rules, whalers were required to catch whales of varying sizes, and they were not permitted to bleed out their catches aboard their ships. "Now that we can bleed the whales out on the ships, we can provide meat that is a lot fresher. We can also aim to catch whales that are fatty," Kai said, emphasizing the perks of commercial whaling.

However, since it has been 31 years since Japan last took part in commercial whaling, it remains unknown how profitable the venture will be, and some whalers remain anxious.

"Admittedly the ships setting out of port were accompanied by mixed feelings of anticipation and anxiety," said Eiji Mori, president of whaling ship operator Kyodo Senpaku Co. His company operates the whale factory ship Nisshin Maru that departed from Shimonoseki port on July 1.

"What we're able to see gives us hope; what we can't yet see is what we're anxious about," he said.

Particularly hard to picture at this point is the profitability of commercial whaling. The national government heretofore had allocated an annual whaling-related budget of approximately 5 billion yen, but going forward that amount will decrease in stages. Kai admitted, "In the future, we'll have to become independent and make a profit on our own, but it would pose a problem if our subsidies were eliminated right away."

Research whaling had taken place for the most part in the Antarctic Sea, where whales are plentiful, but in the waters off Japan, where commercial whaling will take place, the whaling environment has changed over the past 31 years. According to a senior Fisheries Agency official, it is unknown when and where whales are in the waters near Japan. This means there's a chance that costs could end up being much higher than predicted. Additionally, under research whaling, the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) and other bodies set the price of whale meat every year to raise money for research whaling the following year. Because the price of whale meat will be dictated by the market now, it remains unclear whether prices will be stable. The establishment of distribution channels will also be a challenge.

Japan's withdrawal from the IWC and resumption of commercial whaling is largely due to pressure from powerful politicians whose home turfs are in areas with a history of whaling. They argue that "whaling is culture," and that "it cannot be stopped." But unless profit can be secured, there's a possibility that the very survival of whaling could come into question.

Domestic consumption of whale meat is down to about 1/80 of what it was at its peak in the 1960s, and many young people are unaccustomed to it. There are no clear prospects that consumption will successfully recover to previous levels. Plus, anti-whaling countries and organizations are criticizing Japan from an animal rights perspective.

Darren Kindleysides, CEO of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, slammed Japan in a press release that read that Japan was "acting with impunity." Kindleysides also said, "Japan's whaling is out of step with the international community," and that "If the Japanese government thought that by leaving the IWC it could wash its hands of its duties under international law, then it was wrong."

Paul Watson, the founder and CEO of Sea Shepherd, which has long interfered with Japanese whaling and is being sought after by the International Criminal Police Organization (ICPO-INTERPOL), said in a written interview with the Mainichi Shimbun that Japan should look squarely at the drop in whale meat consumption rather than argue that it is a part of Japanese culture. At the same time, Watson welcomed Japan's withdrawal from the IWC, since Japan opposed the creation of a whale sanctuary in the Antarctic Ocean.

A July 1 article in the online edition of the New Zealand Herald said, "The resumption is condemned by many conservation groups, but others see it as a face-saving way for the embattled whaling industry to come to a natural end."

Because the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stipulates that whaling must be conducted through an international organization, some point out that Japan's commercial whaling violates international law. Amid harsh international opinion, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official asks, "Is coming into conflict with anti-whaling countries and putting other diplomatic negotiations at risk worth it?"

(Japanese original by Shuichi Kanzaki and Akiko Kato, Business News Department; Kimitaka Hirayama, Hokkaido News Department-Kushiro; Aya Takeuchi, Jakarta Bureau; and Isamu Gari, Paris Bureau)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media