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International relations

Japan's IWC exit no magic bullet for foundering whalers

Efforts by leading politicians to satisfy constituencies risk tarnishing country's image

Two minke whales seen on a scientific whaling ship off the coast of Hokkaido in northern Japan. Japan plans to resume commercial hunting of minke and other whales next year.

TOKYO -- Japan's decision to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission and pursue commercial whaling aims to revive an industry with political significance for top leaders but whose long-term prospects remain unclear even with this shot in the arm.

Speaking with reporters Wednesday after the move was announced, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga cited Japan's goal of revitalizing the country's languishing rural areas.

"We hope that these regions will prosper more and that our rich whaling culture will be carried on," he said.

Japan will leave the IWC in June, and commercial whaling will resume within the country's exclusive economic zone in July.

The decision was strongly influenced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, who both represent areas with whaling communities.

Nikai's electoral district in Wakayama Prefecture includes the town of Taiji -- the birthplace of traditional whaling and still a hub for the industry -- and Nikai has long pushed for a return to commercial whale hunting. Wakayama Gov. Yoshinobu Nisaka said Wednesday that he supports the government's decision.

Abe's constituency -- and the area his family hails from -- includes the Yamaguchi Prefecture city of Shimonoseki, known as the place where modern whaling originated.

Yasukazu Hamada, who leads an LDP commission on whaling and owns a whale hunting facility in Chiba Prefecture outside Tokyo, praised Japan's withdrawal from the IWC as "a decision aimed at achieving the goal of making sure traditional whaling is passed down to future generations."

Yet the future of Japanese whaling as an industry still looks bleak. Japan has only six companies and five vessels that engage in small-scale whaling, which does not fall under the IWC's oversight. The country's annual consumption of whale meat has fallen to between 3,000 and 5,000 tons, down from more than 200,000 tons in the past.

The government's draft budget for fiscal 2019 earmarks 5.1 billion yen ($46.2 million) for whaling support. In light of Tokyo's pending departure from the IWC, the Fisheries Agency envisions resuming offshore whale hunting in Shimonoseki -- now Japan's main port for research whaling -- and coastal hunting of minke and other whales in six locations including Taiji.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, shakes hands with Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, at the Diet in November. Both politicians have whaling ports in their constituencies. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

The government plans to continue providing generous support to the industry, but whether whaling can stand on its own two feet remains far from clear.

"I personally consider it unfortunate that Japan is withdrawing from the IWC," Fisheries Minister Takamori Yoshikawa told reporters Wednesday. The Fisheries Agency plans to continue participating in the IWC's Scientific Committee and pushing for reform of the commission.

Yasuhiro Sanada, a researcher at Waseda University in Tokyo, called the decision to leave the commission a "diplomatic failure" and warned that it will "strengthen skeptical views of Japan's resource management."

Surveys indicate that about 515,000 Antarctic minke whales live in the Southern Hemisphere as well as 22,000 minke whales in the northwest Pacific Ocean, with each population growing by a few percent a year.

As Suga noted Wednesday, Japan has pulled out of multiple international organizations in recent years, mainly to reduce the financial burden on the country. It left the International Coffee Organization in 2009 -- before rejoining in 2015 -- and withdrew from the Common Fund for Commodities in 2012.

The turning point for Tokyo on the IWC came at a commission meeting in September, where a Japanese proposal for a partial resumption of commercial whaling was voted down 41-27 amid opposition from countries such as Australia.

Some in Japan's Foreign Ministry warned at the time that leaving the organization would risk drawing Tokyo into a clash with anti-whaling countries, harming its overall diplomatic standing. The ministry told some IWC member nations that Japan was considering options such as exiting the commission, so that its withdrawal did not come as a complete surprise.

Japan waited until the end of the year to announce the move, concerned that it could affect a new economic partnership agreement with the European Union, many of whose members oppose whaling. The domestic ratification processes for both sides were completed Dec. 20.

But Japan's international image remains at risk. Abe could face protests during his planned visit to the U.K. next month.

Anti-whaling countries registered their displeasure at the decision to leave the IWC. Australia is "extremely disappointed" and "urges Japan to return to the ... Commission as a matter of priority," Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Environment Minister Melissa Price wrote in a statement Wednesday.

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters struck a similar tone, calling whaling an "outdated and unnecessary practice."

"We continue to hope Japan eventually reconsiders its position and will cease all whaling in order to advance the protection of the ocean's ecosystems," he said.

Western media also reported extensively on the move and the controversy surrounding it. The Washington Post said the "damage to Japan's international reputation could be significant," while a columnist at The Guardian, a British newspaper, called the idea of a Japanese resumption of commercial whaling "horrifying."

U.S. outlet CNN quoted a member of a Japanese anti-whaling group as stating that "many [regular] people don't have any interest in whales or whaling now in Japan," citing the drop in whale consumption.

Greenpeace Japan issued a statement Wednesday condemning the country's departure from the IWC.

"As the chair of the [Group of 20] in 2019, the Japanese government needs to recommit to the IWC and prioritize new measures for marine conservation," the group said.

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