Japan will accept an international court ruling that its whaling program is not conducted for scientific purposes and that such activity should be stopped, a government official quoted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as saying Wednesday.
“It is extremely regrettable and disappointing, but Japan will abide by the ruling,” Abe reportedly said.
He made the remark in a meeting with Koji Tsuruoka, who represented the government in the case presented to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Tsuruoka told reporters afterward that he — as the leader of the Japanese delegation — had been “sternly reprimanded” by Abe over the outcome.
The ruling was made Monday in a case lodged by Australia that sought to end Japanese whaling in the Antarctic Ocean.
At a Liberal Democratic Party meeting on whaling, held Wednesday, an official of the Fisheries Agency said the body will give up its so-called research whaling program in the Antarctic Ocean for fiscal 2014, given the U.N. court’s decision.
With the court’s judgment, which is binding, Japan’s whalers will now be forced to re-examine their program.
Japan has long maintained that most whale species are in no danger of extinction and that scientific whaling is necessary to manage what it sees as a marine resource that, after World War II, was an important protein source for an impoverished nation.
But with its whaling fleet in need of refurbishing and consumer interest in whale meat low, observers have said the court ruling might provide the government with an opportunity to abandon an expensive program and improve its international standing.
Meanwhile, other experts said Japan could try to rescue its Antarctic whaling program by sharply reducing catch quotas and devising a new, more persuasive program that requires killing whales.
One of the most likely scenarios seems to be that Tokyo will submit a revamped research whaling program for approval by the International Whaling Commission.
“One thing Japan needs to do is make its scientific goals match the number of whales that it takes,” said Masayuki Komatsu, formerly Japan’s chief whaling negotiator.
“It’s actually OK to hunt even more whales. But what will happen is that the number of whales taken will decrease,” added Komatsu, now a visiting research professor at the International Center for the Study of East Asian Development.
More than half of IWC members oppose whaling — a situation that has led Japan to call the body “dysfunctional” — so obtaining approval for any new proposals could be tough, Japanese media said.
The U.N. tribunal said no further licenses should be issued for scientific whaling, in which animals are first examined for research purposes before the meat is sold.
“The research objectives must be sufficient to justify the lethal sampling,” said presiding Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia.
Japan also conducts separate hunts in the Northern Pacific, while its fishermen engage in small-scale coastal whaling. An annual dolphin slaughter near the city of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, has also drawn harsh global criticism.
Japan signed a 1986 ban on whaling but has continued to hunt up to 850 minke whales in the Southern Ocean, as well as smaller numbers of fin and humpback whales, citing a 1946 treaty that permits killing the giant mammals for research.
But even though Abe himself hails from one of the nation’s key whaling regions, the ruling might not be entirely unwelcome in some parts of the government, said Jun Morikawa, a professor of Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaido, a specialist on whaling and politics in Japan.
“I have the impression that a lot of people in government may be relieved . . . It gives them a chance to stop, they can say that Japan fought hard but now needs to accept the result,” Morikawa said.