ISHINOMAKI, MIYAGI PREF. – The nation’s whaling fleet left port Saturday under tight security for its first hunt since the U.N. top court last month ordered Japan to stop killing whales in the Antarctic.
Four ships departed from the fishing town of Ayukawa in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, marking this season’s start to a coastal whaling program not covered by the International Court of Justice’s landmark ruling, which found Japan’s Antarctic Ocean expedition was a commercial operation masquerading as scientific “research whaling.”
Some observers had predicted the government would use the cover of last month’s ICJ judgment in The Hague to abandon what many have long considered to be a facade for commercial whaling. But the decision to continue whaling was likely to set off a new battle with critics who had hoped the ruling would bring an end to slaughters the government has embraced as part of Japan’s cultural heritage.
Some Diet lawmakers have derided the criticism from abroad as little more than cultural imperialism by the West while local residents in Ayukawa expressed fears the ICJ decision could ultimately ruin their livelihoods.
Around 10:30 a.m., whistles sounded as the flotilla, accompanied by three coast guard patrol boats, set off after a ceremony attended by about 100 local dignitaries and crew members.
There were, however, no protesters among the crowd — a clear difference from the wintertime Antarctic hunt, which saw often violent clashes on the high seas between the whaling fleet and activists trying to end the hunt.
Ayukawa, located on the northeast coast, was ravaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and still bears the scars. Local residents say their small community’s existence rests heavily on the whaling expeditions.
“No matter what the (ICJ) court ruling was, all we can do is let everyone see that we’re still hanging in there,” said Koji Kato, a 22-year-old whaling crew member. “People from outside are saying a lot of things, but we want them to understand our perspective as much as possible. For me, whaling is more attractive than any other job.”
Yuki Inomata, who works in a local whale meat processing factory, said he was glad the annual hunt got under way despite questions about the future of the industry. “I don’t know what will happen next, but I hope we can continue whaling,” said Inomata.
Tokyo has called off its next Antarctic hunt, slated to begin in late 2014, and said it would redesign the controversial whaling mission in a bid to make it more scientific. But vessels would still go to the icy waters to carry out “nonlethal research,” raising the possibility that harpoon ships might return to the Antarctic the following year.
That would put Japan on a collision course with anti-whaling nations such as Australia, which took the case to the ICJ, arguing that Tokyo’s “research whaling” was aimed at skirting a ban on commercial whaling.
Japan has hunted whales under a loophole in a 1986 global moratorium that allowed it to conduct lethal research on the mammals, but has openly admitted the meat makes its way onto store shelves and restaurant menus.
The government has always maintained that it intended to prove the whale population was large enough to sustain commercial hunting. Coastal whaling programs in such places as Ayukawa are considered part of “research whaling,” but were not targeted by the ICJ ruling.
Like the United States, Japan extensively hunted whales in the 19th century as a source of fuel and food. But its taste for whale meat has waned considerably in recent decades, as Japan burgeoned economically and became capable of farming more of its protein.
On Tuesday, a new poll said that 60 percent of the public back the whaling program, but that only 14 percent actually eat whale meat. Although not difficult to find, whale meat is not a regular part of most people’s diet in Japan.
However, powerful lobbying forces have ensured that the government continues to subsidize the whaling hunts with taxpayers’ money.