The government’s decision to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission — and resume commercial whaling for the first time in more than 30 years — represents an extremely rare example of postwar Japan pulling out of a major international organization. The government says it made the decision because it judged it impossible for the nation to resume commercial whaling if it remained an IWC member any longer — after its latest plan to do so was voted down by the commission in September. With domestic consumption of whale meat now a fraction of its peak, however, it is doubtful whether whaling will be a commercially sustainable business. People involved in the decision need to carefully assess what the nation will gain — and at what cost — from this decision.

Following an IWC moratorium in 1982, Japan halted commercial whaling in 1988 and has since engaged in a research whaling program under the IWC auspices in the Antarctic and in the Northwest Pacific on grounds of collecting scientific data for resuming commercial whaling. Anti-whaling countries and campaigners accused Japan of engaging in commercial whaling in disguise, and, acting on a case brought by Australia, the International Court of Justice ordered Japan to stop the program in 2014, saying it was not scientific. The government then revised the program to resume scientific whaling.

International debate over Japan’s whaling has often been emotionally charged. In announcing the withdrawal from the IWC, the government blamed an uncompromising position of anti-whaling countries that “focus exclusively on the protection of whales” despite scientific evidence showing that certain species are sufficiently abundant. It says Japan will now try to get the rest of the world to “respect a diverse culinary culture” as it seeks to resume commercial whaling as early as next July.

Pulling out from the IWC would not automatically pave the way for commercial whaling by Japan. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which Japan is a party, obliges member states to “work through appropriate international organizations” for whaling. The government believes that its planned attendance at IWC meetings as observer would suffice to meet the prerequisite. It will also reportedly weigh the idea of establishing a new international organization among whaling countries.

It’s not clear whether the withdrawal from the IWC will increase Japan’s whale catch. By pulling out, Japan will not be able to engage in the research whaling that it had been doing under the auspices of the organization. The government says it will no longer catch whales in the Southern Hemisphere and limit the hunt to Japan’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.

But the volume of the catch will not be an issue. Domestic consumption of whale meat, which peaked in 1962 at some 230,000 tons, now hovers around 5,000 tons each year. Whale meat served as a critical source of protein during the food shortage after World War II and is remembered by older folks as a frequent component in school lunches. Today, the annual per capita consumption of whale meat by Japanese comes to a mere 30 to 50 grams. Despite the government’s emphasis on “diverse culinary culture,” it’s not clear whether the latest move will lead to reviving whaling as a commercially viable industry.

The decision to withdraw from the IWC was reportedly made with a strong push from Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers whose constituencies include traditional whaling communities, such as LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, whereas the Foreign Ministry is said to have been cautious in view of the possible diplomatic fallout. Nikai, who represents Wakayama Prefecture — which is believed to be where Japan’s traditional-style whaling originated — charged that anti-whaling members of the IWC won’t respect Japan’s culinary culture while insisting on protecting whales.

But resuming small-scale commercial whaling within Japanese waters, in exchange for suspending the research whaling in the Antarctic, was an idea that had long been discussed within the IWC as a compromise — and which would have been sufficient to meet the shrinking demand for whale meat in this country. It does not appear that such an option was weighed as the government rushed to withdraw from the IWC without open discussions.

It is believed to be unprecedented in Japan’s postwar history that the nation has pulled out from a venue of international talks on the grounds of a stalemate in the discussion. The parties concerned should stop and think about what the decision to withdraw from the IWC will entail — and what the nation will gain from the move in practical terms.

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