Japan’s apparent decision to exit the International Whaling Commission, a plan disclosed Thursday by government sources, carries the risk of forfeiting international trust and damaging momentum for conservation — all in exchange for an uncertain outlook on commercial whaling as demand for the mammals’ meat wanes.
While the government has considered leaving the international body many times in the past over the longstanding rift between pro- and anti-whaling members, the Foreign Ministry had stressed the importance of international cooperation and called for reforming the IWC from within.
But that position apparently changed when the IWC voted down the country’s proposal to resume commercial whaling by 41 to 27 at an annual meeting in Brazil in September, prompting Tokyo to issue a veiled threat of a pullout.
With the country’s pro-whaling groups, including the Fisheries Agency, criticizing the IWC for, in their view, offering no scientific or legal grounds for opposing whaling, the ministry came around to the idea to ditch the framework following the vote, deeming that it can no longer coexist with anti-whaling members.
Japan is the biggest donor to the IWC, and there are concerns its departure will lower the commission’s profile and undermine its conservation efforts.
But of more concern for Tokyo is the reputational damage it could suffer from pulling out, similar to the criticism the United States has faced for withdrawing from international frameworks such as the Paris agreement on climate change, in the view of some experts.
Yuichi Hosoya, professor of international politics at Keio University, said Japan’s move was “symbolic of a wave of populism spreading over the world.”
“It will become more difficult to have an international consensus on various issues, including Brexit,” Hosoya said, referring to Britain’s planned exit from the European Union.
A clear signal that Japan was planning to ditch the IWC came when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a Diet plenary session in October he is “determined to explore every possibility to resume commercial whaling at the earliest date.”
Abe’s electoral power base is in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, a city known as a former whaling hub, and ruling Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai is from Wakayama Prefecture, where the country’s traditional whaling techniques originated.
Although whaling municipalities welcomed the move, some consumers and wholesalers of whale meat have expressed worries about the government’s lack of a clear vision on the course of whaling after withdrawing from the IWC.
“The hard-line stance is almost like that of the administration of U.S. President (Donald) Trump,” said a 41-year-old customer at a whale steak restaurant in Tokyo.
“Whale meat is tasty, but I wonder if we need to increase the volume of catches even at the cost of being isolated internationally,” he said.
“I understand we have the option of withdrawing, but there is always a risk that accompanies deviating from international rules,” said Kunio Suno, 75, working for a whale meat wholesaler in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. The government “needs to remove our worries by showing what kind of strategy it will adopt after departure,” he added.
Some 30 years have passed since Japan stopped commercial whaling and whale meat consumption has stagnated and shown no signs of improvement.
Whale meat sold domestically comes from what the country calls research whaling in the Northwest Pacific and Antarctic oceans that targets smaller whales not controlled by the IWC, and imports from whaling countries, such as Iceland.
Although people in the industry hope the resumption of commercial whaling will help revive their businesses, others believe demand will be limited due to changes in the Japanese diet over the past few decades.
Whale meat was widely consumed amid food shortages in the years following World War II and was a feature of school lunches. In fiscal 1962, some 230,000 tons of whale meat were eaten.
But annual consumption has dropped significantly since the ban on commercial whaling and hovered around 5,000 tons in recent years due to international regulations on whaling and major supermarkets refraining from selling the meat in fear of attacks from anti-whaling groups.
“Whale meat used to be appreciated as a source of protein, but it is no longer regarded as valuable in the market,” said a person at a major fisheries company that used to be involved in whaling.
The exit from the IWC will redraw whale meat supply channels as the country will not be able to take part in whaling in the Antarctic and will have to review its activities in the Northwest Pacific as well. It now plans to resume commercial whaling in seas around Japan and within its exclusive economic zones, but will exclude species facing extinction from its catches.
Even as uncertainties remain over whether the industry will pick up again, traditional whaling municipalities are hoping to pass down whaling traditions and techniques they fear will be lost.
In Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, a city with a 400-year history of whaling, Wada elementary school has been holding classes for the past 20 years in which students observe how whales are dissected.
“There are different points of view on the IWC pullout,” said Naoko Hasegawa, the vice principal, “but what we worry about is what will happen to the food culture that has taken root in this region.”
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