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On Monday, Japan recommenced commercial whaling for the first time in three decades. But could this actually mark the beginning of an end to the country’s whaling program? By Andrew Darby.

Japan resumes commercial whaling

A minke whale being unloaded at Kushiro in Hokkaido on July 1.
Credit: Masanori Takei / Kyodo News via AP

The Cetacean Death Star slipped its moorings in the Japanese port of Shimonoseki this week and headed to sea again. Nisshin Maru, given the Star Wars nickname by anti-whaling activists, is back at work.

This time the world’s last factory whaling ship sails in the name of commerce, not “research”. It will process the bulk of the 383-whale quota Japan awarded itself, having dropped the fig leaf of scientific inquiry and quit the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to recommence commercial whaling.

About 23,000 whales have been killed using the research loophole in IWC rules. It’s now up to Japan’s own whalers to decide how many more they take. Support for whaling is intact in Tokyo. International conservation law has been rejected. Whaling remains “an inherently and exceptionally cruel practice”, as a protest letter to the recent G20 meeting says.

So why should this shift by Japan be seen as a great step in the campaign to end all whaling?

The longtime Japanese whaling observer Patrick Ramage, a director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, points to a classic novella by Kōbō Abe, titled The Box Man, for an answer.

In the story, Ramage says, the central character “decides to divorce himself from his family and society, and retreat to the streets of Tokyo and live inside a cardboard box”. For the Box Man, it proves to be a disconnected life among the homeless. He observes the passing world, but is not part of it. He ends up alone, having failed to persuade a woman to stay in the box with him.

Ramage said the commercial whaling decision, wrapped as it was in defiance, had appeased domestic constituencies and saved face for a proud nation. “Japan has found its way out of the box of the whaling problem,” he told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “… They have done it in a way that is elegantly Japanese. It is a win-win solution that results in a better situation for whales, Japan [and] international marine conservation efforts … What we are seeing … is the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling.”

Japan first put itself in the box when it refused to abide by the IWC’s 1986 global moratorium on any commercial hunt. In the subsequent decades, it insisted on maintaining a “research” hunt as it watched the rest of the world leave behind any commercial pursuit of whales.

Rather than desisting after the IWC declared a Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, Japan set out to buy the support of Caribbean, African and Pacific Island nations. IWC meetings became, in Ramage’s words, “donnybrooks” where the protagonists would “strap on their helmets and their armour and come out swinging, and defend their diametrically opposed positions”.

In the far south, skirmishing between the whaling fleet, Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd shifted from rhetoric to steel-on-steel clashes. Vessels were rammed, one sank and many were damaged in perhaps the worst conflict ever seen in the Antarctic – the world’s “land of peace and science”.

Through successive governments, Australia often led the campaign by IWC countries to halt Japan’s whaling. At the urging of the then environment minister, Peter Garrett, the first Rudd government went to the International Court of Justice.

In 2014, the court ruled in favour of Australia and said Japan’s Antarctic program was illegal as it was not scientific research, but was conducted for logistical and political reasons.

In retaliation for that decision, Japan dressed up a new “research” program and moved towards entrenching its high-seas whaling. A business case was prepared to build another factory ship to replace the aged Nisshin Maru. New legislation gave the industry a subsidy and guaranteed the whalers better protection against direct action from Sea Shepherd, which gave up the pursuit.

Underpinning the whalers’ political strength were powerful advocates. Chief of these has been Japan’s prime minister, Shinzō Abe. He not only represents the whalers’ port of Shimonoseki, but is also the son of a politician who in 1976 guaranteed government support so “the flame of the whaling industry will not be put out”.

At the same time, outside the box, in the streets of Tokyo, appetites were changing. Again and again in surveys and television vox pops, whale meat turned out to be little more than a culinary curiosity, particularly to younger Japanese people, who were shifting to a Western diet. In this climate, government subsidies began to stand out.

Polling for the International Fund for Animal Welfare also showed, strikingly, the Japanese people were not for or against whaling – but they were “anti anti-whaling”. They objected to the finger-wagging of others, be it from Sea Shepherd or Australia.

In September, Japan’s whalers came to a meeting of the IWC in Brazil to mount what turned out to be a symbolic last hurrah, calling their proposal a “way forward” to start “sustainable whaling”. They wanted the IWC to establish a new committee to set catch limits, and replace its tough three-quarters majority with a simple majority when member nations voted on key issues.

An impossible ask, it failed as it was destined to. Many times before, when it had lost, Japan had threatened to leave the organisation. This time it did.

At home, the Japanese government could proclaim its independence by announcing the commercial hunt. The national daily newspaper, The Mainichi Shimbun, remarked that it was extremely rare for Japan to pull out of an international organisation. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said: “It’s become clear that … it’s impossible for countries that want to sustainably harvest whale resources and countries that want to protect [those resources] to co-exist, and that has led to this decision.”

But as a consequence, the whalers had to end both their Antarctic hunt and another “research” kill in the north Pacific. They had no legal guise left to conduct their forays into the high seas.

The Nisshin Maru fleet, already in the Antarctic last summer, kept on whaling, with the actual withdrawal not due to occur until July 1. According to its report to the IWC, “biological samples” were collected from 333 minke whales. Most were killed in a favourite hunting ground off the western part of the Australian Antarctic Territory. The last hunt of southern hemisphere whales ended on February 27, 2019.

On Monday, the “ex-alternate IWC commissioner for Japan”, Hideki Moronuki, officially said what the whalers would do next. They would take up to 25 sei whales, 187 Bryde’s whales and 171 minkes. Sei is a listed endangered species and the minkes include a heavily hit stock. Moronuki said under their plan neither would be “depleted”.

They sent five small coastal whaling vessels out of the port of Kushiro, and the factory fleet left Shimonoseki. The coastal whalers would likely stay inside the 12-mile limit of Japan’s coastal waters. Nisshin Maru and its attendant harpoon ships could work in waters out to the 200-nautical-mile limit of Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

On the docks at Shimonoseki there were streamers and speeches before a small crowd. Sombre news images from Kushiro showed something more akin to a memorial ceremony.

Patrick Ramage told The Saturday Paper the government had decided against building a replacement for Nisshin Maru, and it was phasing out subsidies for whalers. “The panic among coastal whalers is palpable,” he said. He believes that when forced to sink or swim on economic merits, Japan’s whaling industry will rapidly drown.

There remains one stick that anti-whaling countries could still wield. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea’s article 65 requires member states “to cooperate with a view to the conservation of marine mammals”.

A country with the appetite for it could take Japan to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. “I think they would have reasonable prospects of success,” said Tim Stephens, professor of international law at the University of Sydney.

But appetite is the thing. Since 2013, Liberal governments in Canberra have confined themselves to “deep disappointment” at Japan’s whaling moves – a low rating on the Richter scale of diplomatic idioms. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a G20 doorstop: “They are aware of our objections. But I must say, I’m not going to allow it to define our relationship.”

Lest the whalers think it all over with Australia, they might remember one last thing. The whaling company Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha still owes a $1 million Federal Court fine for contempt, imposed in 2015 after it kept on killing inside an Australian whale sanctuary in the Antarctic. It’s not out of that little box yet. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 6, 2019 as "Whale wishes". Subscribe here.

Andrew Darby
is a journalist and the author of Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling.