THE imminent return of the Japanese whaling fleet following their annual “scientific” mission to hunt and kill over 300 minke whales in Antarctic waters is no less controversial this year.
It has again attracted international condemnation from animal rights groups and governments alike.
The Australian government was reportedly “deeply disappointed” when the Japanese were found slaughtering protected whales in Australia’s Antarctic whale sanctuary in January this year. This was followed by calls from the Australian Marine Conservation Society for the Australian government to take “every legal and diplomatic avenue available” to prevent continued whaling.
Killings in Australian waters were carried out despite the 2014 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling stating Japan’s Southern Ocean whaling programme was illegal and must stop.
Animal rights and environmental groups, as well as the general public, have yet again come out in force against this season’s hunt.
— Loyal Poppy (@AniroC_2) March 18, 2017
Humane Society International (HSI) renewed its call for an end to the “cruelty of harpooning whales.”
“Each year that Japan persists with its discredited scientific whaling is another year where these wonderful animals are needlessly sacrificed,” HSI executive vice-president Kitty Block said in a press release on Wednesday.
“It is an obscene cruelty in the name of science that must end. There is no robust scientific case for slaughtering whales. Commercial whaling in this or any other disguise does not meet any pressing human needs and should be relegated to the annals of history,” she said.
In January, the European Union issued a formal statement of concern regarding Japan’s whaling practices. The whaling nation was certified four times under the US Pelly Amendment, allowing the president to place an embargo on the country, for diminishing the effectiveness of the International Whaling Committee’s (IWC) conservation measures.
Despite almost universal international condemnation, Japan continues whaling unapologetically. But why?
The guise of the pursuit of knowledge has been widely discredited with vocal criticism from the scientific community of any research associated with the practice.
The Scientific Committee of the IWC has repeatedly denied Japan’s proposals and concluded so many scientific studies had been conducted that the small amount they may contribute “couldn’t make a valid difference” to current data.
Whale meat is not widely eaten in Japan. It hasn’t been common on the menu since a short period post-World War II when it was used as emergency nutrition to feed the starving.
Today, consumption stands at approximately 5,000 tonnes annually, which while sounding significant, pales in comparison to the 600 million tonnes of total seafood consumed in Japan each year.
Whaling is a minor industry which provides a negligible contribution to the Japanese economy.
According to a report in the Journal of International Wildlife and Policy, the money generated from whale meat sales through scientific whaling programmes barely matches the funds Tokyo spends to cover the IWC membership fees of small developing nations, paid for in an attempt to influence IWC voting practices.
It is surprising to many this practice is so fiercely fought for and appears impervious to international pressure.
The reason, analysts believe, is partly due to Japanese people seeing whaling as part of their national identity. Any attack by international organisations or governments is painted as an affront to traditional Japanese customs.
According to Chris Burgess, a lecturer in Japanese Studies at Tsuda Juku University, Tokyo, the issue has been framed as Japan vs. the West.
In an article written for The Asia-Pacific Journal in 2016, Burgess argues the issue of whaling in Japan is often framed as them being “victims of Western discrimination, imperialism, and ‘Japan bashing’.”
The practice of whaling has been portrayed by its supporters as one of prejudice and persecution by white people against the Japanese race.
Burgess said anti-whaling rallies in Japan would often be represented as being organised by international organisations when in reality, it is Japanese citizens who organise and largely attend the demonstrations.
Pro-whaling groups also channel this sense of national identity and tradition when conducting their own protests. At one such rally outside the Australian Embassy in Tokyo in 2012, one placard read “Killing the practice of whale hunting is the same as killing the Japanese people.”
According to Burgess, the whaling industry is inherently connected with conceptions of Japanese nationalism, making it incredibly difficult to make any progress towards the abolition of the practice.
“The growing polarisation of the debate, with ‘Western’ moral and green arguments being matched in emotional intensity by the Japanese emphasis on national pride and racial identity, make prospects for a compromise more distant than they have ever been,” the report reads.
In some cases of international pressure, criticism of the industry has actually compounded the problem rather than endearing Japan to the idea of elimination.
Aggressive environmental movements like Sea Shepherd, Burgess found, have actually fuelled nationalist sentiments and boosted the demand for whale meat, thereby prolonging the life of the whaling industry.
A fierce nationalist understanding of whaling, adding to the pressure felt by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry to maintain their political turf, means an end to Japan’s whaling agenda appears unlikely anytime soon.