Why Is Japan Whaling's Bogeyman When Norway Hunts Too?

James Owen
for National Geographic News
June 27, 2008
For the anti-whaling lobby, Japan appears to be its Moby Dick, a foe to be singled out and endlessly pursued.

For example, activists chased Japanese whalers across the Southern Ocean under a full media glare this past winter.

But are the attacks fair, when other nations also engage in substantial amounts of whaling—and unlike Japan, in open defiance of international conventions?

Hunting opponents seeking to influence the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the world regulatory body, at its annual meeting in Santiago, Chile, this week were unequivocal.

Japan is the "head of the zombie and needs to be cut off," said Willie Mackenzie, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace U.K. "It's very, very clear that, internationally, Japan is behind the drive towards commercial whaling."

Japan not only kills the most whales, Mackenzie said, but it is also trying to "undermine" the international moratorium on commercial whaling and challenge the endangered status of some species.

Yet Norway and Iceland also have substantial whaling programs—and do so not under the auspices of research but commercially, flouting IWC rules that have banned such activities since 1986.

"Japanese people feel that, yes, maybe there is a little bit of racism in the way in which we are considered in comparison with the way Norway or other whaling nations are treated," said Noriko Hama, a professor of economics at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

"If Japan continues whaling, we're 'barbarians.' But at the same time, I think Japan is giving its critics the excuse to level those accusations, because the government is simply not coming clean on its whaling policy," she said.

According to IWC figures, Japanese ships killed 866 whales in the 2006-2007 season, a haul that included minke, fin, sei, and sperm whales—the most of any nation. Norway placed second with a total catch of 545 whales.

Scientific Loophole

Whereas Norway and Iceland are both hunting commercially, Japan has at least kept to the letter, if not the spirit, of the IWC moratorium by killing whales under the aegis of scientific research.

Activists counter, however, that this is just a cynical ruse in Japan's efforts to lead a pro-whaling bloc to change IWC policy.

Environmentalists and some anti-whaling governments accuse Japan, for instance, of trying to reverse the commercial hunting ban by buying the voting support of poorer nations.

"Smaller countries in places like the Caribbean, West Africa, and the Pacific that have had no historic interest in the IWC or whaling, and for whom whaling certainly is not a priority, turn up at the behest of Japan with money that has come from Japanese taxpayers," Mackenzie said.

(Related: "Japan Courts Poorer Nations in Bid to End Whaling Ban" [April 1, 2008].)

Conservation groups also take issue with where Japan hunts for whales.

Whaling countries such as Norway and Iceland confine whaling to coastal regions inside their own waters, but Japan is the only nation that still exploits Antarctic seas, now an internationally recognized sanctuary for whales.

Greenpeace still supports subsistence whale hunts by native peoples in Arctic waters. In 2006, Greenland inhabitants alone accounted for almost 200 whale kills, including 11 fin whales, which are listed as an endangered species by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

"Greenpeace doesn't campaign against aboriginal subsistence whaling, because it's not the problem," Mackenzie said.

That view isn't shared by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), one of the few groups to campaign against subsistence whaling.

WSPA recently released findings suggesting that at least 25 percent of meat from the Greenland whale harvest is sold through commercial companies to supermarkets.

Taking Flak

Claire Bass, marine mammals program manager with the WSPA, says other whaling nations do appear to get off lightly compared with Japan.

"I think it's part of the strategy of countries like Norway to stand behind Japan and use them to take most of the flak," Bass said from Santiago.

The Japanese, Bass said, "are the most aggressively pro-whaling" nation. She noted, for example, that Japan has tried for many years to have discussions about animal welfare and small cetaceans removed from the IWC's agenda.

"They stand in the way of all the positive conservation work that the IWC could be doing," she added. "They believe the IWC should be focusing all of its efforts on resuming whaling."

Allowing the IWC to concentrate on threats such as climate change, ship strikes, marine noise, overfishing, and net entanglement would only undermine Japan's case for resuming commercial whaling, Bass said.

Food Security

Shigeko Misaki, a former spokeswoman for the Japan Whaling Association, said the anti-whaling campaign has gone too far.

"It has almost become a religion, that whales are the only symbol of the marine ecosystem," she said. "People who believe this religion think all Japanese people are evil, because we kill whales.

"Food security is a serious problem for Japan, particularly with rising fuel prices around the world. And the government and Japanese people should stand up and say that whale meat is a good food resource that should be used to provide protein," Misaki said.

Hama, the economics professor, said it is a "farce" for the Japanese government to call its annual whale haul "research whaling."

"We should be more like the Norwegians and be quite open about what we are doing. If Japan is going to hunt whales, then it should just come out and say that is what it is going to do."

Bass, of the WSPA, conceded that cultural differences do color the debate.

"Japan manages whales under their fisheries agency. They basically see them as big fish," she said. "We see them as intelligent, charismatic, captivating creatures. So I wouldn't deny there's a difference in the starting point at which we view whales."

Julian Ryall in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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