In a landmark policy shift, Japan formally announced Wednesday that it would withdraw from the International Whaling Commission and resume commercial whaling in its territorial waters next year for the first time in more than 30 years.

Japan’s withdrawal will at the same time put an end to its IWC-sanctioned whaling activity in the Antarctic Ocean, long conducted under the name of “scientific research,” in a practice widely slammed as commercial whaling in disguise.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan will restart commercial whaling in July next year — its first such excursion since 1988 — but limit its hunting activities to its own territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.

The top government spokesman blamed the pullout on what he portrayed as an uncompromising attitude on the part of anti-whaling countries.

Despite scientific evidence showing that certain whale species are sufficiently abundant, no “tangible” step toward reconciliation, Suga said, has been made by countries which “focus exclusively on the protection of whales, while ignoring the other stated objective” of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling: sustainable management of whale resources.

He also slammed the IWC for failing to honor its legal obligation to review effects of a moratorium it imposes on commercial whaling by “1990 at the latest.”

That Japan’s calls for the resumption of commercial whaling were downright rejected at an IWC meeting in September, Suga said, “unveiled the fact that it is not possible in the IWC even to seek the coexistence” of states with different views.

With Wednesday’s announcement, Japan will move toward formally notifying the U.S., which oversees the international convention, of its decision to exit the commission by year-end. Its commercial whaling will apply to species whose abundance has been scientifically verified, such as the minke, sei and Bryde’s, a fishery ministry official said.

Officials in Tokyo, however, were emphatic that, even after its exit from the IWC, Japan will continue to attend its meetings as an observer and work toward rectifying what they called the “dysfunction” of the IWC.

Their insistence on Japan’s continued involvement with the commission is apparently aimed at fulfilling a condition set under international law for the management of whales. Under the U.N.-designated Convention on the Law of the Sea, member states are obliged to “work through appropriate international organizations” for whaling.

Foreign Ministry official Yoshie Nakatani said Japan attending IWC conferences as an observer can be interpreted as meeting this prerequisite and will be adequate to pave the way for the nation’s resumption of commercial whaling.

Suga, for his part, noted the possibility that Japan “will envision creating a new international framework in the future,” with some speculation about its potential collaboration with the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission — an organization comprised of pro-whaling countries such as Norway, Greenland and Iceland.

Japan’s announcement, however, was quick to trigger an international outcry.

“The declaration today is out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures. The government of Japan must urgently act to conserve marine ecosystems, rather than resume commercial whaling,” said Sam Annesley, Executive Director at Greenpeace Japan.

Humane Society International, meanwhile, expressed concerns that “Japan may recruit other pro-whaling nations to leave the IWC, leading to a new chapter of renegade slaughter of whales for profit.”

“For decades Japan has aggressively pursued a well-funded whaling campaign to upend the global ban on commercial whaling. It has consistently failed but instead of accepting that most nations no longer want to hunt whales, it has now simply walked out,” Kitty Block, President of Humane Society International, said in a statement.

Whaling is deeply ingrained in Japanese culinary culture, dating back as far as the earliest historical era of the Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C.). Whale meat also served as critical sources of protein in the postwar period as the nation grappled with poverty.

Under the pretext of scientific research, the nation caught 333 whales in the Antarctic Ocean as planned in the latest hunt that ended earlier this year.

Having peaked in 1962 at 230,000 tons, annual consumption of whale meat has since trended steadily downward, with an average of 5,000 to 6,000 tons consumed yearly today, according to fishery ministry official Hideki Moronuki.

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