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Asia Insight

Why Japan risked condemnation to restart commercial whaling

The industry is tiny, but for Tokyo, it is part of a much bigger picture

AKANE OKUTSU, Nikkei staff writer | Japan

TAIJI, Japan -- Fishermen in the village of Taiji are counting the days until July, when they will be able to hunt large, fatty minke whales commercially for the first time in decades.

The community, which faces the Pacific coast of central Japan, is still haunted by its moment in the international spotlight 10 years ago, when the documentary "The Cove" criticized its dolphin culls and attracted a flood of activists. Yet, a sense of optimism is spreading.

"The availability of more types of whales will make more people interested" in eating the meat, predicted Shinichi Shiozaki, who sells processed whale products. "It's a good thing."

Until now, Japan has been catching minkes only for "research purposes" under its scientific whaling program. But last December, the government announced its withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission, meaning whalers will no longer be subject to prohibitions on catching certain species. It will be open season in Japanese waters and the country's exclusive economic zone.

Abandoning a widely accepted international framework never looks good -- particularly not when it relates to an issue as sensitive as whale conservation. So why did Tokyo stick its neck out to defend an industry that barely registers economically?

Taiji, which has historically depended on whaling, is home to about 3,000 people. Cetaceans, including dolphins, accounted for roughly 20% of the village's fishing volume in 2015. The villagers currently catch species that are not protected under IWC rules, such as pilot whales, using one medium-size vessel and numerous small boats.

"The sea is where people find jobs," said Yoshifumi Kai, councilor of the local fisheries association, noting the village is nearly surrounded by water and is ill-suited to agriculture.

But there are only five medium-size whaling boats operating in all of Japan, along with one large vessel and three catcher boats that accompany it. The total whaling crew count is under 200, according to Japan's Fisheries Agency.

Even if those who cut up and process whales are included, very few Japanese livelihoods truly depend on whaling.

Not many Japanese eat whale these days, either.

Annual consumption stood at around 3,000 to 5,000 tons in the past few years, far below the 200,000 tons recorded in the 1960s. The meat may induce nostalgia among older generations -- it used to be a staple of school lunches, thanks to its high nutrition and relatively low cost -- but today demand is limited.

Stores, meanwhile, have faced international pressure to take whale off their shelves. Back in 2003, top retailer Aeon agreed with the Environmental Investigation Agency, a U.K. nongovernmental organization, to cap the number of locations that sell the meat.

At first glance, Japan is tarnishing its global reputation to sustain a minor business with questionable prospects.

"Japan will now join Norway and Iceland as rogue outlaw whaling nations in the North Pacific and the North Atlantic," Linda Gonzales, campaign coordinator of the anti-whaling organization Sea Shepherd, said after the IWC withdrawal announcement.

Still, from the government's perspective it was now or never, and whaling is part of a much bigger picture.

Whale meat is affordable and popular in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. (Photo by Akane Okutsu)

The industry was on the verge of collapsing last year, insiders and experts say.

Sheer cost was one problem. Japan's large whaling ship has been sailing into Antarctic waters, where whales are relatively abundant. But the voyages are expensive, and the vessel is over 30 years old.

The Japan Whaling Association says renewing the ship, which is large enough to dismantle and store whales on board, would cost about 10 billion yen ($91.3 million) -- a huge investment in a business with no clear future.

It is cheaper to hunt commercially in Japan's waters and the EEZ, compared with the Antarctic. Smaller vessels can be used for whaling close to home. It is also easier for Japan to claim it is entitled to hunt within its own maritime territory; the government has said whalers will stop hunting in the Southern Hemisphere.

On top of those considerations, Japan suffered two heavy blows at the IWC last September. At a meeting in Brazil, the commission adopted a declaration that it "reaffirms the importance in maintaining the moratorium on commercial whaling." This dashed Japan's hopes that the moratorium was only temporary.

The whole point of Japan's scientific whaling, according to the government, was to collect enough data so that whale stocks could be maintained without a complete ban.

A Japanese proposal to allow commercial whaling of relatively abundant species was also struck down, nudging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe closer to a grave decision.

Even before the IWC rejection, representatives from the Fisheries Agency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been scurrying around the Nagatacho political district in Tokyo, visiting members of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party. "The proposal is likely to be rejected, so we will proceed with a withdrawal plan," one government official told party members.

The government's insistence on whaling, though, is also its way of pushing back against a growing movement to restrict the use of marine resources in general.

Japan's position on whaling "is intended to be a sea wall" to prevent other bans on fishing, said Hideki Moronuki, director for fisheries negotiations at the Fisheries Agency. The world's No. 3 economy still relies on fish for protein.

The agency was especially concerned that bowing to the IWC on whaling would undermine Japan's similar position on tuna, one of the country's most popular fish. Japan is often criticized for being the biggest consumer of bluefin tuna, identified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Tokyo made a proposal to increase its fishing quota for bluefin last year but was rejected by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.

"Sustainable fishing based on scientific evidence" is Japan's official stance on ocean resource management, Moronuki said. But this does not resonate much with the international community.

Domestic politics were also a factor.

Small as the whaling business may be, both Abe and powerful LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai have the industry in their constituencies. "Nikai was constantly pressing the Foreign Ministry and the Fisheries Agency [to enable commercial whaling]," said a source in Nagatacho.

Abe appears to have full confidence in Nikai, having appointed him secetary-general for an unusual third term. And with an upper house election scheduled for July -- with the possibility of a simultaneous lower house election -- this might be the last time two leaders capable of making the decision are in power at the same time.

A minke whale caught on a research voyage is brought into port in Kushiro, on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido.   © Kyodo

Even after they are freed from IWC constraints, Japanese whalers will still have to abide by certain rules. The Fisheries Agency on Feb. 1 presented draft guidelines to an LDP special committee, identifying the locations and types of whales they will be allowed to catch from July.

A quota will be calculated each year, in line with a standard set by the IWC to conserve whales for a century, the draft said.

Kai, of the fisheries association in Taiji, welcomed the policy shift. "Now we can provide more delicious fresh whale," he said, since fishermen will be able to chase better whales in different areas. The hope is that this will make the meat more appealing to consumers.

Japan's position on whaling "is intended to be a sea wall" to prevent other bans on fishing

Hideki Moronuki, director for fisheries negotiations at the Fisheries Agency

While scientific whaling is state funded, Kai added, fishermen hope to eventually turn a profit without subsidies.

It is not clear whether the agency's commercial plan will lead to an increase or decrease in the actual number of whales caught, compared with the research hunts. Another question is what diplomatic price -- if any -- Japan will pay over the long term.

The outcry from activists aside, international criticism of the IWC withdrawal has been relatively mild so far.

The U.K. is a fierce opponent of whaling, and Environment Secretary Michael Gove tweeted in December that he was "extremely disappointed" with Japan's decision. But in January, when Abe visited London, Prime Minister Theresa May did not raise the issue.

When Abe misunderstood a reporter's question, thinking it pertained to Sea Shepherd, May cut in to rescue him. "No," she said, "no need to respond."

Tokyo seems to have correctly calculated that the backlash would not cause significant harm. But the tide could change, experts warn.

Japan's decision could take a toll on international negotiations "in unexpected ways," said Kobe University political science professor Tosh Minohara. "Japan will be in a weaker position to urge other countries to comply with international frameworks."

It could even have a negative impact on the fishing industry -- the Fisheries Agency's priority. Japan has been calling for international regulations on catching Pacific saury, to prevent overfishing by other countries such as China. "Not complying with the international framework for whaling could weaken Japan's standing," said Waseda University researcher Yasuhiro Sanada.

The owner of a Taiji food processing company that handles whale and tuna said he is unsure what the future holds. "All we can say is we will follow whatever the government decides."

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