The Japanese government’s decision to send the whaling fleet to the Antarctic defies a decision by the International Court of Justice in March that the hunting of whales in the numbers planned runs counter to Japan’s international legal obligations. The court did not accept the excuse that whales were only being slaughtered for reasons of scientific investigation.

The Foreign Ministry must have been consulted before this decision was accepted. It must surely have drawn up a balance sheet comparing what Japanese interests would be damaged by such a decision and what the potential benefits were for Japan. Its submission to ministers has not been published and under the draconian secrecy laws may never be.

Japanese diplomats are professionals and competent. I guess that the balance sheet probably covered all of the following points.

The Treaties Bureau would have considered the legality of the proposed action under international law. The bureau staff were probably told that their job was to find some kind of legal basis for Japan’s action. But they would have explained that whatever legal quibbles they could adduce would be unlikely to convince the world court to overturn its March decision. They must surely also have pointed out that Japan has a significant interest in upholding the powers and rulings of the world court. Japan’s claims to islands in the East China Sea are only one of the issues affecting Japan’s national interests that may some day come before the court.

To flout the court’s ruling in this case would suggest that Japan only supports international law and the court if the law and the court’s decisions accord with Japan’s interests. The Foreign Ministry must have pointed out that the decision to ignore the whaling ruling would undermine Japan’s international reputation and ability to appeal to the court in the future.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has publicly declared his personal commitment as well as that of his country to uphold international law. He must certainly have been warned that the decision to send out the whaling fleet would lead to questions about the sincerity of his protestations.

The ministry’s bureau responsible for relations with Australia and New Zealand as well as for the Antarctic would have warned that the two governments and public opinion in both countries would be highly critical of the move. Japan seeks the cooperation of both countries over political and economic issues and Japan’s national interests could be adversely affected by the friction over whaling.

Ministry officials will surely also have warned the Cabinet ministers that environmental concerns over threatened species and fish stocks have grown much stronger in recent years. These concerns do not just reflect the attitudes of “sentimental animal lovers,” but are shared by a majority of scientists and environmentalists.

Security experts no doubt pointed out that Japanese embassies must expect more protests and vilification. This means that increased vigilance and security measures will be needed.

Greenpeace may well attempt to disrupt the actions of Japanese whalers. Counteraction by the whalers against the protesters could be counterproductive in the court of world public opinion.

This is a formidable list of reasons why the decision to send out the whaling fleet should not have been made. What could Japan hope to gain from it?

The days when whale oil was needed for household purposes are long past. Whale meat was once an important source of protein in the Japanese diet. It no longer is. Indeed it has been reported that meat from the whales taken in the fleet will have to be kept in cold storage. This suggests that the enterprise will be costly and unprofitable.

Another “benefit” from the decision could be that it mollifies the Japanese whaling lobby and whaling industry, which has been declining in recent years. It may also help a small number of politicians garner votes in the next election in the few constituencies affected, but the LDP majority is not threatened and the party doesn’t need such political support.

The balance clearly lays against the decision. Why then did the Abe administration make what must seems to outside observers a decision harmful to Japan’s long-term interests?

Could it be that the politicians reached their decision not with a cool-headed assessment of positive versus negative but on an emotional wave that “we Japanese are different and we won’t be pushed to cast aside our traditions by a bunch of foreign sentimentalists? We Japanese don’t think that the legal judgment against Japan was fair and we will therefore ignore it.”

Whatever the reasons for Japan’s mistaken decision, I find it depressing that there doesn’t seem to have been any full and proper debate over this issue in the media or in the Diet.

If a decision with similar international aspects had been taken by the British government there would have been much critical comment in the British media. Questions would certainly have been asked in the House of Commons and the government would have been forced to issue a fully argued justification. British missions abroad would then have been sent a detailed brief about the rationale for the decision with guidance on how to deal with questions.

The failure of the Japanese government to explain its decisions to people abroad suggests a contempt not only for the International Court of Justice but also for public opinion outside Japan.

Hugh Cortazzi was the British ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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