Commentary / Japan | Commentary

Boris Johnson's dismay over whaling

by Kuni Miyake

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reportedly told his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe that Japan’s decision to resume commercial whaling was “disappointing.” The remark was made when they met for the first time as prime ministers, during the Group of Seven summit in France, according to the Aug. 26 edition of The Telegraph.

Why did Johnson raise the issue of whaling now? The voices of hardliner environmentalists or certain media in the United Kingdom might have convinced the prime minister to reluctantly express disappointment to Abe. Of course, all politics is local, if not a family affair, but that was populism and not statesmanship.

As for “disappointment,” U.S. Secretary of States Mike Pompeo said on Aug. 22 that the United States was “disappointed to see” the South Korean decision to end its General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. The intelligence-sharing pact was adopted in 2016 after years of negotiations between Tokyo and Seoul.

Earlier, on July 20, Pompeo also conveyed the U.S. “disappointment” to his Turkish counterpart over Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which is considered one of the most advanced air defense systems in the world.

Those American “disappointments” were perfectly understandable, since the national security of the U.S. as well as its Asian and European allies would be at stake. Then, what about the British case? It doesn’t make sense to many in Tokyo. Why did Johnson raise the issue to Japan now? The following are the reasons:

1. Japan is catching endangered whales everywhere on Earth

That’s not correct. On the contrary, Japan is conducting commercial whaling only within its territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. Whaling operation is managed properly based on scientific methods so that there will be no harmful effect on the abundance of the target species.

As for the mink whales, for example, Japan’s catch limit is 171, while those for Greenland 176, for Iceland 217 and for Norway 1,278. Are they uncivilized developing nations? No, they are neighbors and allies of the United Kingdom. Even the U.S. and Russia have catch limits for other kinds of whales.

2. Japan’s method of catching whales is cruel

Carrie Symonds, a British conservationist and public-relations specialist who is Johnson’s partner, was quoted in The Telegraph article as saying, “It’s cruel beyond belief. We have all seen the pictures of the sea turning red with blood, while a whale dies slowly in agony with a sharp metal implement pushed through its body.” This is far from the reality of Japan’s whaling.

The picture of “the sea turning red with blood” which was used in the Telegraph article, was not taken in Japan, but, in fact, taken in the Faroe Islands, a Danish autonomous territory 200 miles north-northwest of Scotland. The article’s narrative was misleading, if not fake.

3. Whaling is not commercially viable

Possibly. However, it is the responsibility of a nation and its people to ultimately decide the future of a specific industry in the nation. Each nation has various minorities who have preserved the nation’s unique traditions and cultures. In this regard, certain level of civilized tolerance and mutual respect are required.

4. Japan is not cooperating with the international community

Yes, it is. In fact, Japan still sends observers to the International Whaling Commission to work closely with its member states. In fact, more than 20 nations have left and rejoined the IWC so far and Japan is not the only one. Japan continues to honor international efforts to preserve the species of whales.

5. Whales are cute

Of course! Love for living creatures is humane whether they are flora or fauna, mammals or non-mammals. The Japanese whalers are — like Norwegians, Icelanders or Danes — no exception. They respect and appreciate whales. Every whaling station in Japan has a whale barrow and an annual memorial service for whales.

So what were the real reasons why Johnson raised the whaling issue with Abe? It was not a most appropriate topic, to say the least. Now that the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, it is time for him to review its foreign policy and national security strategy for the future of the kingdom. Johnson is a well-educated patriotic politician and must be fully aware of that.

Was Johnson’s “disappointment” more of a personal nature than a matter involving of the U.K.’s national interest? Never and it shouldn’t be, although British media reported that Symonds, a die-hard environmentalist, has campaigned for some time on whaling and attended an anti-whaling protest outside the Japanese Embassy in London in January with the prime minister’s father, Stanley Johnson.

Boris Johnson is always expected to put the British interests first. It would be puzzling if the disappointment he expressed to Abe on whaling were more personally motivated than on mature reflection over the U.K.’s national interests.

Finally, should whaling define the strategically important bilateral relations between Japan and the U.K.? Hardly. Abe presumably explained to Johnson that the issue shall not affect the excellent bilateral relationship. Interestingly, earlier during the Osaka Group of 20 summit in June, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasized in a news conference that “I am not going to allow our relationship with Japan to be defined by this issue.”

As in the case of the United States and Australia, the U.K. is a strategically important friend and a former ally for Japan, especially on maritime issues. Many people in Tokyo hope that Johnson will not allow the U.K.-Japan relationship to be unduly defined by a still-important but strategically irrelevant issue like whaling.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.