Expert views: Why is Japan so persistent about whaling?

On July 1, a fleet of five vessels will set off from Kushiro, Hokkaido, on what will be Japan's first commercial whaling expedition since 1988.

In December, Japan attracted widespread criticism — including from New Zealand — after it announced its decision to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission. The decision meant Japan would stop "scientific whaling" in the Antarctic Ocean, and would be free to resume purely commercial whaling within its exclusive economic zone. 

Whaling has long been a bone of contention between New Zealand and Japan. New Zealand supported Australia in taking Japan to the International Court of Justice over the issue of whaling in the Antarctic. In 2014, the court ruled the annual hunts were not, as Japan had argued, conducted for scientific research, and were therefore illegal. As a result, Japan temporarily halted its whaling program, but replaced it with a new one the following year.

Why is Japan so persistent on such an unpopular issue? The Asia Media Centre put the question to three Japan experts.

Alexander Bukh, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington:

"There are a number of reasons for this. One is that Japan is critical of the transformation that took place in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) position on whaling and the departure from the rationale that led to its creation. IWC was established in 1946 as an organisation whose main rationale was to conserve whale stock for future whaling. But IWC’s stance has transformed from conservation into the protection of whales as 'special animals'.

"There’s also this idea that whale meat consumption is part of Japan’s culture. While whaling in certain areas of Japan dates back to the 12th century, the consumption of whale meat on a national level was introduced by the American occupation authorities in the aftermath of WWII as a measure to feed the starving population. So a lot of people who grew up in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were receiving whale meat in their school lunches. Although the consumption of whale meat has gone down dramatically in recent years, many Japanese still see it as part of the nation's culinary culture. 

"So far however the government’s rationale for its whaling operations has been rather inconsistent.  On the one hand, the government was making the 'traditional culture' argument. At the same time, whaling was justified as conducted for scientific purposes under the IWC. It didn’t make much sense. Now they’re saying, 'ok, we’ll stop whaling for scientific purposes, but we are going to engage in commercial whaling because whale meat consumption is part of our culture'. In many ways, they’re bringing about some consistency with the argument they’ve been making."

Rumi Sakamoto, Senior Lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of Auckland:

"The official line is that whaling is part of Japanese culinary culture, and it is true that whale meat was an important source of protein in the early post war period, when it appeared often in school lunches. But since 1988, when Japan stopped commercial whaling, the consumption of whale meat has been negligible. In other words, consuming whale meat has not been a major part of Japanese 'national culture' for over 30 years.

"Culture is not static – it’s not the case that if the Japanese people stop eating whale (or sushi for that matter) they cease to be Japanese. In fact, even after resuming commercial whaling, it is unlikely that people will start eating whale like they do beef or pork. There won’t be demand.

"But more importantly, there has been a feeling that Japan has been unfairly treated over whaling. That the Western nations regard eating whale as a primitive, barbaric act, rather than seeing whaling purely in terms of sustainability or unsustainability, affects national pride and stimulates responses such as, 'how can people eating cows tell us not to eat whale?' Behind the discourse of 'traditional culture' is this linkage between whale consumption and national pride, which makes Japanese engagement with whaling complex."

Penny Shino, Lecturer in Japanese at Massey University:

"The Japanese have quite a stubborn streak in their national psyche. Generally, Japan seems very ready to accommodate lots of other ideas – it’s very tolerant – but there are a few flashpoints where the stubborn streak crops up and prevents the Japanese from seeing themselves from the perspective of the rest of the world. I think whaling is one of these issues where, for some reason, they’ve decided to dig themselves in and not step back from a certain position. The other area where we’ve witnessed this recently is over the issue of the imperial succession, and how strongly some Japanese oppose the idea of a female on the throne.

"In some respects, Japan seems to be in a bubble at times. There is a sakoku (closed country) mentality, where the rest of the world can do what it likes, but we’ll do what we want to do – this is a domestic issue.

"Japan makes the argument that it’s their cultural right to continue whaling. But from a cultural point of view, the Japanese people themselves are not particularly keen on eating whale meat. It’s a very small market. The fact that whale meat was included in school lunches (kyūshoku) in the post war period is possibly one reason why many Japanese don’t like to eat whale meat – it reminds them of those rather awful lunches. If it disappeared from the Japanese diet, I think there would be very few people who would be upset. It would mostly affect a few very old people in fishing communities, where it has been a much more important item in the diet for a long time."

Views expressed in this article are personal to the authors.

- Asia Media Centre