Japan’s dogged pursuit of whale hunting despite global outcry puts at risk its international standing

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s insistence on scientific research is simply pandering to nationalists stuck in a different era

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 December, 2015, 4:33pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 December, 2015, 4:33pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made no secret of his desire for a resumption of his country’s whaling in the Antarctic, going against the world community and a ruling by the International Court of Justice. The symbolism was therefore unavoidable on Monday when two ships left the port of Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi prefecture, the leader’s electoral base, bound for the southern ocean to hunt whales in the name of scientific research. But the mission is less about science than nationalism; the nation already has a decade of data on the endangered giant mammals through the thousands that have been caught and slaughtered. If Japan’s intentions are truly about fact-finding, it should work with the world community, not against it.

Abe contends whaling is a Japanese cultural right. His supporters claim international opposition to whale hunting is an attack against the nation’s culture. Eating the mammal’s meat was commonplace during the difficult days during the second world war and in the decade after, but it is now consumed by just 5 per cent of the population and the figure is falling.

There has been an international moratorium on whaling since 1986 to protect the creatures, all species of which are declining in numbers. Iceland and Norway were the only countries not to sign up and exemptions were made for indigenous communities, some in Japan. Rising Japanese nationalism, led by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, prompted ships to resume hunting in Antarctic waters. To get around the ban, a loophole allowing catching whales for scientific purposes was used; the meat from many of the more than 3,000 animals killed was sold as food to fund the programme. Resuming commercial whaling, halted in the 1980s, is the eventual aim.

The court ordered Japan to stop whaling in March last year after determining that the programme could not be considered scientific in nature. Six months later, the International Whaling Commission adopted a resolution aimed at delaying a planned resumption of the hunt, again on research grounds. Both those decisions have been ignored with the departure of the fleet and a chorus of international protest has understandably greeted its sailing. Proposals to target smaller, more plentiful, minke whales, reduce the number to be taken by two-thirds to 333 and carry out more non-lethal research have failed to appease. Whales are important to marine ecosystems and of major interest to scientists for their intelligence and human-like behaviour. Japan’s international standing is being put at risk by the latest hunt. The Abe administration’s wisest move is a policy reversal.