The Japanese and the Whale

Photo by Greenpeace Japan (

As some of you may be aware, for the last two days, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has been meeting in Morocco to try to reach a compromise between pro- and anti-whaling countries. Commercial whaling has been banned since 1986, but Iceland and Norway have lodged official objections to the ban and continue to hunt commercially, while Japan justifies its continued hunting by citing a regulation permitting hunting for scientific research.

With regard to Japanese politics, this is a fascinating issue–particularly when you think about the fact that Japan has worked so hard to portray itself as a pro-environment country (remember the Kyoto Protocol?) But with regard to whaling, Japan simply refuses to budge. I’m by no means an expert on the subject, but I’ve read a few analyses of the issue in various books and journal articles. Some people credit Japan’s position on the strength of the Japanese whaling industry. Others cite Japanese culture. But it’s not as if public opinion is forcing the government to take this stance–most Japanese people aren’t really aware of the extent of Japanese whaling, though public opinion polls seem to be all over the place when it comes to how many people actually support or oppose the policy. But I do believe that more than 95 percent of the Japanese public has never or only very rarely eats whale meat.

The internal bureaucratic politics behind this are pretty interesting. Basically, two bureaucracies are in charge of Japan’s whaling policy: the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the former being far more influential than the latter. Tokyo’s harsh criticism of the IWC, anti-whaling states, and transnational NGOs stems from the views of MAFF and its Fisheries Agency; at the IWC, the Fisheries Agency has repeatedly and aggressively argued that commercial whaling should be resumed because there is no ecological reason to abandon whaling entirely. At least part of MAFF’s incentive to advocate whaling is due to the fact that the end of whaling would mean a decline in its budget and political power, and that the whaling ban might have spillover effects on the capture of other types of sea creatures under its domain.  Moreover, the ministry has close ties to the Japanese whaling and fishing industries. Opposition to the whaling issue exists most strongly within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. MOFA officials regard the whaling issue as an irritation and have had to deal with the adverse impacts of Japan’s pro-whaling position on U.S.-Japan relations. MOFA’s North American Bureau in particular is highly sensitive to this issue and fiercely opposed Japan’s decision to file an objection to the IWC’s 1982 moratorium on whaling.

Anyway, these private talks in Morocco aren’t going very well. The compromise package being proposed would cut Japan’s Antarctic hunt and put existing whaling programs under international oversight. The proposal cuts Japan’s current intake of 935 minke whales per year initially to 400, then to 200 in five years. At this point, they’ve been negotiating the compromise for about two years, and it seems likely that there is a third year of turmoil ahead.

The other big news of the meetings has been Japanese vote buying at the IWC. Basically, people have long suspected that Japan has used its Official Development Assistance (ODA) to buy the support of developing (sometimes landlocked) nations to maintain support for the pro-whaling position in the IWC. Recently, a sting operation by the Sunday Times of London secretly filmed officials from six developing countries negotiating for bribes at the IWC. The undercover reporters portrayed themselves as emissaries of a Swiss billionaire wanting anti-whaling votes at the IWC’s meeting in Morocco, and the (real) officials basically indicated that any offer from the Swiss would have to top what Japan already gives them.

Whether you think this is real or a hoax, or that whaling is evil or perhaps justifiable, one thing’s for sure: this whole debacle doesn’t make Japan look particularly good in the eyes of the international community. I have to wonder if it’s really worth all of the effort and reputational costs to maintain this increasingly unpopular position. It seems really unlikely that worldwide public sentiment is going to embrace whaling anytime in the foreseeable future, so Japan has to know that it’s fighting a losing battle. How long does it really plan to hold out?