Japan is reportedly set to soon announce it is withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission.

Disagreements over Japan’s whaling operations have deadlocked the commission for three decades, during which the camp of anti-whaling nations has gradually gained strength. Japan’s decision is best understood through a combination of both international and domestic reasons.

Withdrawing from the IWC isn’t likely to have far-reaching diplomatic implications beyond the whaling issue. Japan and its opponents in the IWC will free themselves of the no-win confrontation over whaling and focus on their more urgent need for strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Japan will carry out a long overdue reform of the whaling industry through its normal framework of administrative reform and marketization.

International factors

Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC will deprive the anti-whaling nations of a very important reason of their opposition. Since the moratorium, Japan has sought a resumption of commercial whaling in international waters in general (including around Antarctica) based on scientific research and an internationally sanctioned resource management plan.

The failure of the IWC members to agree on a management plan kept the global moratorium in place, while Japan undertook unilateral research whaling in the Antarctic, which anti-whaling nations accused of being commercial whaling in disguise.

Strong objections to Japan’s research whaling came from Australia, New Zealand and France, which have territorial claims to part of the Antarctic — claims only the claimants mutually recognize. Japan’s research whaling took place on the coast of Antarctica claimed by these countries. For these partial claimants of Antarctica, not challenging Japanese research whaling would hurt their international legal position, as evidence of their non-exercise of administrative control would accumulate. On the other hand, exercising administrative control by explicitly permitting Japanese research whaling (presumably in exchange for Japan’s recognition of their territorial water claims) would invite domestic opposition from environmentalists.

The annual diplomatic protests over Japan’s Antarctic whaling were thus in large part political rituals to reaffirm, but not reignite, the dormant territorial claims, which the Antarctica Treaty effectively froze.

In 2010, Australia brought the Antarctic research whaling to the International Court of Justice. Japan, confident of victory, agreed to the legal adjudication but lost in 2014 on technical grounds. The world court did not rule against research whaling per se; Japan’s actual research activities were determined not to be scientific.

In the following year, Japan revised the plan and expanded the research areas into the high seas of the Northern Pacific. Based on the results of its research, Japan argued that the stock of some whale species have sufficiently recovered and in 2018 proposed resumption of commercial whaling. The IWC rejected the Japanese proposal.

Japan will not be able to continue its Antarctic research whaling when it withdraws from the IWC but will likely resume commercial whaling in the Northwestern Pacific. This will significantly reduce the attention of the most active opponents, including Australia and New Zealand.

Domestic factors

The initiative to withdraw from the IWC came from key leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, whose electoral bases include traditional whaling towns.

However, it would be misleading to attribute the decision solely to lobbying by the whaling industry or the nationalism of the LDP leaders. Whaling as an industry no longer has a large base in Japan. Only a few ports have maintained traditional coastal whaling, while domestic consumption of whale meat has declined.

The research whaling on the high seas has been conducted by a semigovernmental research organization. It has not been an economically profitable operation despite the sale of the whale meat after biological research on the caught specimen. It has, however, sustained the combined interests of fishery bureaucrats and scientists.

The government’s decision to withdraw from the IWC and discontinue the Antarctic research whaling is pragmatic and principle-oriented at the same time. Given the unfavorable condition of the domestic market, resumption of large-scale commercial whaling on the high seas is unlikely. By ending the government-subsidized research whaling in the Antarctic, the whaling industry will be left to market forces, which will be consistent with the government’s fiscal reform plan.

Diplomatic implications

On the surface, withdrawing from the IWC makes it look as if Japan is turning its back on multilateralism. Some even argue that protests in anti-whaling nations would hurt Japan’s otherwise good overall diplomatic relations with those countries. This will not likely be the case. Opposition has largely focused on the research whaling in the Antarctic. Some NGO protests may continue, but all governments are reluctant to make a big issue out of Japanese whaling in the Northwestern Pacific.

Moreover, it is questionable whether the anti-whaling nations will be willing to pay for the IWC’s bureaucracy after it loses Japan’s contributions. Japan is reportedly considering holding onto observer status in the IWC’s Scientific Committee, where it has played a leading role, or launching a parallel international organization of whaling nations.

Either way, Japan observes the International Law of the Sea, which mandates “international” management of maritime common resources, such as highly migratory tuna and whales. Competition among overlapping groupings is common in free trade negotiations and diplomatic summits. A similar development in international environmental regimes would not necessarily be a bad thing.

Yoichiro Sato is a professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture.

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