For more than thirty years, the island nation of Japan has fought to expand its commercial whaling operations. That fight has mostly been a losing one, with its efforts often being blocked by anti-whaling countries around the world and condemned by the International Whaling Commission, an organization whose members include Japan itself. However, Japan’s recently proposed exit from the commission will allow the country to reclaim one of its most time-honored traditions, and the move is drawing international criticism.
In 1982 the International Whaling Commission, or IWC, imposed a global moratorium on all commercial whaling, save for subsistence whaling by Aboriginal communities. The moratorium went into effect in 1985 and was met with opposition from Iceland, Norway, and Japan, countries with strong whaling traditions. In Japan, whale meat generally served the same purpose that beef or lamb served in Western societies and this was especially true during hard times. In the 1940s as the country was recovering from World War 2, whale meat was the single most consumed meat among Japanese people, and it remained so through the 1960s. After the announcement of the IWC’s whaling ban, Japan petitioned for the right to continue whaling in the Antarctic for “scientific purposes” though the specific nature of its research remained unclear. Whale activists claimed that this “research whaling” was in fact, commercial whaling in disguise, and vessels like the Nisshin Maru, Japan’s largest whaling vessel and the world's only factory whaling ship, became a frequent target of animals rights groups, with some going so far as to board vessels of their own and try to disrupt the Maru’s whaling expeditions by obstructing its path. Earlier this year, Japan expressed a desire to develop new ships, fast enough to outrun those of the activists, but the plan appears to have been scrapped, as the Japanese government announced in late December that it will formally withdraw from the IWC, discontinue its operations in the Antarctic and resume commercial whaling operations in its own coastal waters. Though the demand for whale meat has diminished somewhat in Japan, the practice of whale fishing is still considered by many to be intrinsic to the country’s cultural identity.
Environmental conservation hinges on the idea that some of the Earth’s resources are non-renewable. Humans can hunt an animal to extinction, and that extinction creates an imbalance in the ecosystem that the animal once belonged to. The effects of that imbalance can, in turn, come back to haunt humans, either directly or indirectly. These are, however, relatively young ideas, and pitting them against hundreds of years of tradition is sure to be a test for all parties involved.
JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself.