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Will Japan's decision to quit the IWC pay off?


In its decision to quit the International Whaling Commission and resume commercial whaling, announced Wednesday, Japan prioritized the protection of the practice as part of the nation’s traditional culture over the potential backlash it could face from the global community.

Behind the government’s decision were pro-whaling lawmakers, mainly of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, whose constituencies include traditional whaling communities.

“No country is allowed to complain about other countries’ food cultures,” LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai has argued. Nikai is from the well-known whaling prefecture of Wakayama.

Hopes for a breakthrough in the deadlock at the IWC had grown in Japan ahead of a general meeting of the international body in Florianopolis, Brazil, in September, the first Japanese-chaired meeting in about half a century.

Tokyo’s delegation was twice as big as at previous IWC meetings and ready to “fight with its back to the wall,” according to a senior official of the Fisheries Agency.

But the proposal to restart commercial whaling was voted down at the key IWC meeting, sparking calls at home for the country’s withdrawal from the international body and movement toward that end by the government.

“We gained understanding from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe” on the move, an LDP lawmaker said.

Questions remain, however, about whether the Japanese decision will prove worthwhile as the move could damage international trust in the country.

Meanwhile, annual consumption of whale meat in Japan has plunged well below 10,000 tons since commercial whaling was suspended in 1988, compared with levels over 200,000 tons in the 1960s, when whale meat was a major source of protein in the nation’s diet.

It is uncertain whether the resumption of commercial whaling will lead to a rebound in domestic consumption, as many young people have never eaten whale meat and major retailers are reluctant to sell it due to possible criticism from opponents of whaling.

Major seafood firm Maruha Nichiro Corp., which withdrew from the whaling business more than four decades ago, has recently made clear its intention not to reenter the business even after the government leaves the IWC.

Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd. ended its production of canned whale meat in 2006 due to sluggish sales.

“We can’t expect demand for dishes using whale meat,” said an official of a major izakaya (Japanese-style pub) chain.

The resumption of commercial whaling, now planned for July next year, may not just draw protests from anti-whaling countries but could even provoke a domestic backlash.

The planned move “could lead to Japan’s isolation from the international community,” said Yukio Edano, head of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.