Why Japan is reviving the cruel practice of whale hunting after 31 years

Whaling is neither humane nor economically lucrative — yet Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is resurrecting the practice as a symbol of nationalism. 

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For the first time in more than 30 years, Japan has authorised ships to embark on a commercial whale hunt. The hunters will be permitted to kill up to 227 whales from the waters within an exclusive economic zone. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was careful to avoid announcing the quotas before the recent G20 summit, during which Japan vowed to tackle plastic waste. If plastic is the symbol of the modern ocean conservation movement, whales are its original icon.

Whaling has long been a source of national embarrassment for Japan. Under a clause in a 1986 ban on commercial whaling, the country had been permitted to kill a certain number of whales in the Southern Antarctic Ocean each year for what it termed “scientific research”. Countries with an anti-whaling stance, including Australia, argued the justification was bogus, and that Japan was effectively cloaking commercial operations in a lab coat. In 2014, the International Court of Justice ordered a temporary halt to the whaling operations, ruling that they were not — contrary to what Japan claimed — scientific.

The ruling was a sharp rebuke to the Japanese establishment and its contentious whaling expeditions. In December 2018, Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission, the body that passed a moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1986. The ships that embarked upon a whaling expedition today will hunt in Japanese territorial waters and the country's exclusive economic zone, 200 nautical miles from Japan’s coastline.

If news of a modern whaling expedition seems atavistic, that’s because the practice has largely died out. Since the 1986 moratorium, Japan, Norway, Iceland and a small number of countries with indigenous populations, including Greenland, are the only ones that still hunt whales. In post-war Japan, whale was the single biggest source of meat; at its peak in 1964, Japan killed more than 24,000 whales. Yet most modern Japanese people do not eat whale meat. According to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the average per capita consumption of meat in Japan in 1960 was 5.2 kilograms, of which whale meat accounted for 1.6 kilograms. By 2017, though meat intake had risen to 32.7 kilograms per capita, whale meat accounted for zero kilograms. Indeed, decreasing demand has in the past seen culls end up in the subsidised commercial food chain or put into storage freezers. Reduced supply has not led to increased demand for whale meat as a luxury item.

So why is Japan intent on reviving a practice that is neither humane nor economically lucrative? Though whale consumption has flatlined, the government argues that whaling is intrinsic to Japanese culture, and that fishermen have caught whales for centuries. For a few older individuals in the Japanese government and civil service, the creatures retain totemic significance.

Yet the real explanation has more to do with Prime Minster Abe’s forthcoming re-election campaign in 2021. Abe’s own parliamentary constituency includes the city of Shimonoseki where Japan has based its so-called “scientific” whaling fleet of factory ships. On the domestic stage, Abe has wrapped whaling in the flag of economic nationalism as evidence of his leadership capabilities and his determination to counter past criticisms of Japanese weakness. 

With the exception of a few brief intervals, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has governed Japan since the party's creation in 1955. Each time it elects a new leader, rival internal factions vie for supremacy. Abe and others have used nationalism as a potent means of consolidating their status among the party’s commanding heights. The domestic pro-whaling lobby also exerts significant influence within the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

As countries increasingly defy the international rules-based order, seemingly without fear of consequence, Abe has been emboldened to withdraw Japan from the IWC and pursue a nationalistic pro-whaling stance. The deployment of economic nationalism — and the disavowal of international treaties — is a disturbing trend in democracies across the world. In this instance, whales will die: not because people need to eat, nor for reasons of cultural preservation, but because a small minority of politicians are willing to expend millions of pounds of Japanese taxpayers’ money to further their political interests. 

Chris Butler-Stroud is the CEO of Whale and Dolphin Conservation.