The government should take the International Court of Justice ruling as a cue to fundamentally rethink Japan’s whaling practices and work out ways to balance declining consumer demand for whale meat with the desire of some to preserve the nation’s whaling tradition.

The United Nations’ top court on March 31 determined that Japan’s whaling program in the Antarctic, which has resulted in the hunting of hundreds of whales each year since the late 1980s, deviates from its professed purpose of scientific research, and ordered it halted.

The Japanese government said it accepts the ruling, which cannot be appealed, and the Fisheries Agency plans to halt Antarctic whaling for fiscal 2014, scheduled to begin this fall.

After the International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, Japan began in 1987 to hunt whales for “research” purposes — as authorized under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Japan said it needed to collect scientific data showing whether there was a sufficient whale population to warrant the resumption of sustainable whaling in the future.

Anti-whaling countries, including Australia, which took Japan to the ICJ in 2010, have charged that the Japanese practice is nothing less than commercial whaling in disguise and must be stopped.

The ICJ decision did not rule out research whaling activities, per se, but determined that the design and operation of Japan’s research whaling program fell short of its stated purpose. The ICJ cited (1) the doubling in size of Japan’s whale catch since the mid-2000s, (2) the program’s limited scientific output, and (3) its open-ended time frame. It also said Japan had not sufficiently explored ways of conducting research on whales’ ecosystems other than killing the whales.

Japan still has a choice. It could redesign — likely on a reduced scale — the Antarctic whaling program and submit a new plan to a review by the IWC’s scientific committee in a bid to resume operation in 2015. It could also legally continue its whaling activities in the Pacific, which was not covered in the ICJ ruling, but that would likely come under international criticism because Pacific whaling is conducted in much the same way as the Antarctic program.

The international debate about whaling has been marred by the emotional rift that has developed between pro-whaling and anti-whaling camps. Opposition to whaling on environmental or animal welfare grounds has often been viewed in Japan as an attempt to impose Western values in disregard of Japan’s whaling and culinary traditions. In recent years, Japanese whaling operations have been severely hampered by radical environmentalists’ violent sabotage activities.

Annual IWC meetings have turned into venues of fierce lobbying by both pro- and anti-whaling camps, all but killing chances for coolheaded decisions based on compromise. Long frustrated that Japan’s attempts to resume commercial whaling through IWC decisions have been quashed, some lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said after the ICJ decision that the nation should consider withdrawing from the whaling commission to free itself from the moratorium.

People nationwide — not just the parties with a stake in the whaling industry — should stop and consider whether all these frictions are worth the realities of Japan’s whaling and falling demand for whale meat.

Whaling has been conducted in Japan for centuries along its coastlines. It became one of the nation’s major industries after World War II. Whale meat at one point in the postwar period was an important source of protein for the Japanese diet. People of a certain age remember well that it was a regular feature on school lunch menus.

Now, Japan’s consumption of whale meat is down to a mere 2 percent of its peak in 1962 with a much more diverse supply of meat and the high cost of whale meat amid the decline in supply.

While fisheries minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said whale meat continues to be an important food for Japan, it’s certainly not an essential part of the regular diet for ordinary households, though it continues to be cherished as a delicacy, especially in communities long associated with coastal whaling.

Japan has said it needs to conduct research whaling to prove that the moratorium on commercial whaling can be lifted. But it is questionable whether Japan could sustain large-scale whaling in distant waters on a commercial basis even if the IWC ban were removed.

The Institute of Cetacean Research, the nonprofit entity commissioned by the government to operate the research program, is supposed to fund its operations using the revenue it receives from the sale of whale meat. But the steady decline in sales has led the institute to reportedly rely on government subsidies of ¥3 billion to ¥4 billion in its annual operating budget of ¥7 billion.

Officials say the nation’s whale meat supply will not be immediately disrupted by the halt in Antarctic whaling, as it accounts for about 20 percent of Japan’s total supply. Japan also imports whale meat from Iceland and Norway — which continue to engage in commercial whaling despite the IWC moratorium — and hunts along its coasts small cetacean species that are not regulated under IWC rules.

In 2010, the IWC weighed a proposal aimed at bridging the long-standing divide between pro- and anti-whaling countries. It would have authorized limited commercial whaling along Japan’s coasts while phasing out its Antarctic whaling.

Nothing came out of this proposal at the time, as both camps refused to budge. The idea, however, might be worth revisiting to bring an end to the whaling dispute.

One way for Japan to preserve its culinary tradition would be to rebuild its small-scale coastal whaling industry and rely on consumer demand, rather than government subsidies, to keep it afloat.

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