By Sandra Cave

If Japan’s stolen whale meat scandal in 2008 or the Cove documentary in 2010 on the bloody annual killing of dolphins in Wakayama Prefecture gave you pause to contemplate whaling issues, you would know there are many divergent views on this complex and controversial topic, within, not only between nations, and how important it is to recognize such divergence – to be found among the Japanese people as well.

Edo Period Whale Hunting in Japan

Japan has been involved in some form of whaling for several hundred years, and before the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) moratorium to stop commercial whaling came into effect in 1986 (ratified by and binding on Japan) to enable whale stocks to recover from depletion in the 20th century, Japan was heavily engaged in commercial whaling.  From 1986, Japan, supported by all major political parties, has continued to hunt whales based on its own catch quotas for research purposes under Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), giving rise to conflict and argument between pro- and anti-whaling nations, individuals and environmental, animal-rights and other groups. 

In 1946 the ICRW, that led to the creation of the IWC, was signed aiming to “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the commercial whaling and the orderly development of the whaling industry.” 

Because the 1986 moratorium applies only to commercial whaling, whaling under the scientific-research and aboriginal-subsistence provisions of the ICRW is permitted.

Research Whaling

American biologist, J. Smith, longtime resident of Japan with close ties to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, explains, “Japan carries out its whaling in the northwest Pacific Ocean and the Antarctica Ocean hunting primarily the common minke whale and Antarctic minke whale. Though without full consensus, recent surveys estimate a population of 103,000 in the northeast Atlantic, but for Antarctic minke whales, in January 2010, the IWC stated it is unable to provide reliable estimates at present.”

Japan’s research whaling program, conducted by the privately owned and Japan-government funded Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) is the subject of intense debate.  ICR states the four objectives of the research as 1. Estimation of biological parameters to improve the stock management of the Southern Hemisphere minke whale; 2. Examination of the role of whales in the Antarctic marine ecosystem; 3. Examination of the effect of environmental changes on cetaceans; and 4. Examination of the stock structure of the Southern Hemisphere minke whales to improve stock management.

 Konomu Kubo, Secretary of the Japan Whaling Association (JWA) said, “The role of JWA is promoting the principle of sustainable use of abundant whale resources and supporting research whaling conducted by the ICR through public relations.  We do support the protection of endangered whale species such as blue whales. We are asking for the use of abundant whale species such as minke whales and sei whales.”

Several groups perhaps most famously Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society contest Japan’s claim of conducting research and say Japanese whaling is a disguise for actually being commercial whaling, and thus a violation or abuse of the 1986 moratorium which Japan agreed to be bound by.

 Genevieve Quirk, Greenpeace Whales Campaigner explains, “As an independent organization financially independent from political or commercial interests, our goal is to ensure the ability of the earth to nurture life in all its diversity and we take great care in developing our campaign strategies and policies to reflect our fundamental respect for democratic principles and to seek solutions that will promote global social equity. 

Greenpeace is opposed to all commercial whaling in all of the world’s oceans – this has been true for decades and is true today.

This includes Japan’s fraudulent “scientific” whaling carried out in the Southern Ocean, the Pacific and in Japan’s coastal waters. We are completely opposed to all commercial whaling wherever it is carried out and under whatever name. 

The Southern Ocean – where Japan’s whaling takes place – was made into a whale sanctuary in 1994, with only Japan voting against it.  Since then, Japan’s “researchers” have been gathering data to facilitate increased commercial quotas in an area that has been deemed off limits to commercial whaling.”

 Kobu responded, “Article VIII of the ICRW clearly states the right of research whaling by member nations,” that is “… any Contracting Government may grant to any of its nationals a special permit authorizing that national to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research.”

54-year old IT programs manager Kazunori Inohe notes, “The fact of the sale of whale meat in Japanese shops and restaurants shows there is no truth to the ‘research’ activities and that the killing of whales is obviously for commercial profit.”  But for  Kobu, “the costs and expenses of the research program are covered by the proceeds from the sale of whale meat and this process is also legal under Article VIII.” 

Though the ICR asserts almost half of the IWC members support the sustainable use of whale resources, Greenpeace’s opposition to Japan’s whaling program is largely based on its stance that whales are endangered and so must be protected.  For  Quirk, “Expectations for the recovery of whale populations have been based on the assumption that, except for commercial whaling, their place in the oceans is as secure as it was a hundred years ago.  Sadly, this assumption is no longer valid.  This is why we believe that commercial whaling in all forms must be stopped.”

 How Many Whales Are Killed?

Arguing that the targeted whale species are too healthy to be harmed,  Kubo said, “Under the special permit by the Japanese Government, the recent sampling quotas set by the ICR are 850 minke whales and 50 fin whales at maximum in the Antarctic and 220 minke whales, 100 sei whales, 50 Blyde’s whales and 10 sperm whales in the northwest Pacific Ocean.”

The IWC Scientific Committee has collected up-to-date data on catch limits and catches taken since 1985.  Numbers have ranged from less than 200 in 1985 to close to 1,000 in 2007.

Should Lethal Research Methods Be Used?

J. Smith notes, “The need for lethality of Japan’s research whaling is hotly contested and the credibility of the science is questioned.  The US, UK and Australia among others say it is unnecessary to kill whales to study them, though ICR asserts that some indispensable data has to be collected by lethal means – such as that relating to ovaries, ear plugs and stomach contents essential for population and ecosystem modeling.” 

Greenpeace weighs in, “Japan’s research has been continually dismissed by the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) scientific committee as “unnecessary”, and was condemned in a resolution passed at the 2007 meeting, when a majority of countries voted for Japan to suspend indefinitely the lethal aspects of its research program. 

In an article in the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper in October 2005, Professor Toshio Kasuya of Teikyo University of Science says, “The Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) argues that lethal research is the only appropriate method to collect the needed data. But examination of biopsy samples reveals the amount of blubber or reproductive rate, and analysis of faces provides information on what whales are eating.

“In reality, of course, the ‘scientific whaling’ program is a way of keeping a foot in the door for Japan, while pushing for a return to commercial whaling at the IWC and actively marketing the ‘byproduct’ of its research – the whale meat at home in Japan.  By keeping its whaling fleet functioning, it hopes that, sometime in the future, commercial whaling will resume.  Greenpeace pledges to ensure this doesn’t occur.”

 Quirk says Greenpeace believes whales do not need to be killed in order to be studied, “Whale scientists all over the world study whales without killing or injuring them.  Meanwhile, the JARPA (Japanese) ‘researchers’ insist on using lethal methods not because they are necessary but because they supply whale meat to the markets in Japan and offer an opportunity to train new crew, thus keeping the whaling industry alive.

“Non-lethal methods have huge advantages over lethal ones because they permit repeated observations of the same individual.  Lethal methods, by their nature, offer only a snapshot. Once a whale is ‘observed,’ it cannot be observed again later.  This makes lethal methods particularly unsuitable for the studies of whale behavior, such as migration, which is of great interest to scientists.”

J. Smith adds, “The Japanese, like the Inuits in Greenland, Norwegians, and New England Americans (among others) have a long, cherished tradition of whaling to supply their vital needs. Other whaling countries include Norway, Russia, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, 2 small whaling communities in Indonesia, and natives of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Traditionally, whale meat was a staple, and whale blubber and oil, a vital heating source. After WWII, whale oil was also used as an important additive to fortify milk with Vitamin D. When I came to Japan in 1970, kujiradon (grilled whale meat on a bed of rice) was still a staple of students as it was very cheap (about 150 yen per bowl as a lunch special). Today, the meat from ‘research’ whales finds its way to Tsukiji fish market and mostly a few kujira (whale) restaurants in the Kanto area. Many right-wing Diet members strongly favor continued whaling, although the average Japanese could not care less. Surely whale meat is no longer a vital resource, but traditions die hard.”

Present-day’s Whale Hunting in Japan

New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Australia are among those countries staunchly opposing Japan’s interest in resuming commercial whaling for reasons including that whaling involves unacceptable cruelty, is not based on genuine needs, and the necessity to conserve endangered species. 

But Toshi Ito, 29-year old Tokyo dentist originally from Osaka argues, “Although I heard about the admittedly gruesome sounding method that whales are killed by having a grenade-tipped harpoon into them with the grenade exploding into the whale’s body and that if the whale is not instantly killed a second harpoon may be used or the whale may be shot with a rifle until dead, people should remember that the killing of foxes and other domestic animals often takes longer, as can the killing of animals on safari, and that some animals like ducks are killed for sport – so how can these acts be said to be more humane?”

Is Whale Meat Safe to Eat?

 Quirk warns, “If you’re thinking of eating whale, you might want to think again – the blubber of dead whales in some areas is so highly contaminated with organochlorines such as PCBs and pesticides that it would be classified as toxic waste!

“Dr. Yosuke Seki, bariatric (weight-loss) surgeon at Yotsuya Medical Cube, Tokyo, adds, “Some point out that whale meat may contain high concentrations of toxic substances such as mercury, PCB etc., because whales are at the top of the food chain in the sea, but as to the separate matter of its nutritional status, whale meat is very high in protein and very low in saturated fat.

“The whaling issue is very controversial and covers various aspects such as nutrition, environment, food, culture, money, politics, perhaps even religion, among others and these multiple factors make the related issues very difficult to solve.

“Different people in different parts of the world have different opinions.  To me, it seems almost impossible to make any judgment on this.  Maybe I can say that the current impact of whale meat on the general Japanese nutritional status would be practically naught because we very rarely eat it nowadays — though around 30 years ago, it was still eaten in homes and as a school lunch.

“It would be very difficult to draw any conclusion on this issue at the moment and if we really want to do that, I think we definitely need more objective, neutral and scientific evidence. Otherwise this problem will never be finally sorted out.  I know Japan and Australia, which is one of my very favorite countries, argue about whaling – I’m sincerely hoping and do believe that Japan and Australia will always remain the very good friends that we are.”

What Is the Fuss About?

Miyuki Nomura, a 39-year old mother and bank employee doesn’t understand the fuss made over whaling, “I don’t understand why whaling causes so many disputes in the world.  As Japanese, I feel that Sea Shepherd and some of the other environmental protection groups are being too radical about all this.

“In Japan after WWII, Japan was still economically poor, so a single whale could provide a huge amount of inexpensive meat, in fact over 50% of the meat eaten in Japan at that time.  Japanese in their late 40s or older ate whale as “school lunch.”  Need for whale meat decreased as other types of meat got more popular in the 1970s – when whale meat was taken off school menus.”

It has made a recent comeback though – Japan has started to serve whale meat in school lunches as part of a government initiative to reduce the amount of some 5,000 tons of stockpiled whale meat.  For Ruth Nakamura of Tokyo, “I am not thrilled about whale meat being fed to school children, but focusing on that issue seems to be missing the broader scope of things – that the IWC is just a front for the Japan Whalers Association, not really interested in the science of declining whale populations or any ethical perspectives.  So Japan is allowed by the IWC to whale “for research purposes?”  How absurd!  If there was an international body dedicated to actually monitoring the threatened species and making policy, and if that body said to Japan, OK, you can carry on your centuries-old tradition in this manner, e.g., for this period, taking only this number of this type of animal, then I would have no problem with whaling.  But calling it ‘research’ is just a crock of bull!”

Miyuki continued, “I imagine that it would be a great experience to see whales swim beautifully in the oceans, but I do not think whales should be protected unconditionally.  There is too much heated politics and emotion factoring into this debate just because Japan and some Western countries have different attitudes toward whaling – this is probably because they have made different uses of whales:  Japan as ‘food’ and Western countries as ‘oil’ or ‘fashion’ (women’s corsets).”

Australian mother of 3 and correctional officer, 47-year old Sandhra Sullivan says, “I feel angry when whalers go into prohibited areas near Australia and Antarctica to catch whales.  It is also not humane how they kill them.  They are wiping out the whale population and why do they still hunt whales when nearly every other country is against this practice to help save the whales?”

Policy analyst Bel Braithwaite in Tasmania echoes similar sentiment, “I am personally totally against whaling.  I find the whole whaling-fishing abhorrent and support the anti-whaling protests.  You would find that a lot of people in Australia are against whaling.  A few weeks ago, a whale and its calf were seen in the Derwent River and it drew a huge crowd of people to see them. It was beautiful to watch.”

But many non-Japanese support Japan’s whaling position.  Max Cartwright, a London-born 31-year old systems analyst says, “I feel that it’s hypocritical to say that eating pork or beef is fine but whale meat is not fine.  How can some people think that whales are far more intelligent/emotional animals compared to cows or pigs?  Why is there no such vocal opposition to other people (countries) eating dogs or horses?  Why is the supposed intelligence of whales a determinative factor in the first place?  Is that to say it would be more ‘ethically acceptable’ to kill ‘dumb’ animals?  It is possible that over-protection of whales could cause harm to the food chain, if whale numbers increase too much and so become detrimental to other marine animals in terms of their feeding needs.”

Miyuki added, “But probably in 20 years or so, the younger generations in Japan will be less interested in whale meat – it really isn’t that important these days as a food source considering what is actually far more popularly eaten in Japan, such as fish, pork, beef and chicken.” 

Yoko Morioka, 40-year old mum of 3 children in Saitama Prefecture together with her Canadian husband Jack feel that, “Other countries have no right imposing their different ethical, moral or cultural values on Japanese as long as whales are used according to international law and science.  We must respect each other’s different views, and Japan should not be forced to change its position.  The world is not against Japan, it’s mainly Western rich countries pumped up by the media and exploited by anti-whaling fundraising NGOs.”   Kubo adds, “I believe that those groups are collecting a lot of donations by spreading misinformation.”

Mariko Sasaki, medical researcher at a medical university in Tokyo, strongly opposes whaling, “Many Japanese are against whaling, and whaling is a very serious issue for me.  My major at university was zoology and so I’ve been always interested in conservation of wildlife.  I’ve talked about this issue often with Japanese friends and know most ordinary Japanese citizens are against whaling.

“It’s more than obvious that objective research shows some whale species are getting to be in danger of extinction.  But I’ve heard that sometimes even scientific research data has been manipulated by some politicians who received benefits from whaling groups.  Japanese whaling is protected for only those whaling groups and people who gain from whaling.  I strongly disagree with even so-called “research whaling” because Japan’s research whaling is just a cover for commercial hunting.”

For  Quirk as regards future whale populations, “Whaling is no longer the only threat to whales. The oceans, or rather, human impacts on the oceans, have changed dramatically over the half-century since whales have been protected.  Known environmental threats to whales include global warming, pollution, overfishing, ozone depletion, noise such as sonar weaponry, and ship strikes.  Industrial fishing threatens the food supply of whales and also puts whales at risk of entanglement in fishing gear.”

J. Smith added, “IWC has noted that the research results could potentially allow for an increase in the number of minke whales annually taken, though blue whale populations have declined sharply thus putting them at risk of extinction.  Other whale species, in particular the minke whale have never been considered endangered.”

At the June 2010 IWC meeting the 88 member nations decided to postpone a decision on a 10-year compromise proposal to lift the 1986 moratorium banning commercial whaling, and to have a one-year cooling off period before recommencing discussions.  Kubo would like people to understand that, “Japan is a highly responsible country in the international society.  We do not mean to overexploit whale resources, but we want to utilize only a part of abundant whale resources and maintain our whale diet culture into the
future.  Different groups of people have their own food cultures all over the world, and we all should recognize each other’s — otherwise, wars will not disappear in the world.”



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