Japanese Whaling: Truly for Sustainability Science, or Only for Cultural Consistency?

Candice Gaukel Andrews July 1, 2014 15

Japan called off its 2014-15 Antarctic whale-hunting season and said it would redesign the mission to make it more scientific. ©Ted Martens

In May 2014 at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Scientific Committee annual meeting in Bled, Slovenia, the government of Japan officially announced its intentions to resume what it calls the “scientific whaling” of minkes in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary near Antarctica in the 2015-2016 season.

According to World Wildlife Fund, although scientific whaling is allowed under the convention that established the IWC, the regulations were written almost 70 years ago when lethal take was one of the only means of obtaining research data. Today, many cetacean experts believe that all of the information we need about whales can be acquired by nonlethal research and that there is no need to kill whales in order to provide the IWC with necessary data.

So, what is truly driving Japan’s whaling passion: science or culture?

A matter of history and cultural pride

The Japanese have been hunting whales for thousands of years. ©WWF-US/Michael Case

Japan has a long history with whaling; in fact, handheld harpoons dating back to 10,000 B.C. have been found. At the turn of the 20th century, the introduction of steamships and grenade-tipped harpoon guns gave the Japanese an even bigger advantage for securing whale meat. By 1934, Japan had expanded its whaling operations into Antarctica. During World War II, the hunting of whales helped keep Japanese citizens fed; so much so that by 1947, whale meat made up almost half of all animal protein consumed in the nation. By the 1960s, whales continued to make up nearly one-quarter of the Japanese diet.

Although whale meat is no longer a Japanese food staple, attempts from the outside to stop the nation’s whaling operations are perceived by many Japanese as a threat to their culture. Eating whale meat, they say, is an old and entrenched Japanese tradition, and the words and actions of foreigners who oppose Japanese whaling are culturally arrogant. According to a June 11, 2014, CNN story, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that in contrast to the foreign perception that the country’s whalers mercilessly exploit the marine mammals, the Japanese show respect by holding religious services at the end of every hunting season. “It is regrettable,” CNN reports Abe as saying, “that this part of Japanese culture is not understood.”

A circumstance of scientific sustainability

The IWC recognizes three classifications of whaling: scientific, commercial and indigenous (which allows a limited take of whales from nonendangered species to satisfy a cultural need). Japan has never had a recognized need for indigenous whaling because unlike other indigenous groups, the Japanese have always had a commercial link to whaling.

Should any whaling be permitted in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary? ©Astrid Frisch

Japan claims that there are about 761,000 minke whales in the Southern Ocean, although other estimates are in the range of 268,000. Either way, Japan believes that the animals exist in enough numbers that a return to commercial whaling of this particular species can be sustainably supported, assuming strict management of stocks and reasonable annual catch limits. The Japanese government maintains that its whaling research over the last two decades has paved the way for long-term, sustainable use of this renewable marine food resource. On June 9, 2014, The Guardian reported that Prime Minister Abe stated this is exactly the reason Japan wants to conduct its whale research: in order to obtain scientific data indispensable for the management of whale resources so that commercial whaling can be responsibly resumed.

However, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in March 2014 that special permits granted by Japan in connection with its Antarctic whale hunt are “not for purposes of scientific research pursuant to Article VIII, paragraph 1” of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. 

Japan did call off its 2014-15 Antarctic whale-hunting season and said it would redesign the mission in an effort to make it more scientific. However, a separate Japanese whale hunt does continue in the Pacific Northwest, as do hunts in coastal waters.The country is expected to submit its new proposal for hunting in Antarctica to the IWC Scientific Committee by November, six months before the next annual meeting in 2015.

Do you think Japan’s annual whale hunt in Antarctic waters is a commercial venture masquerading as research? Should the IWC and ICJ reject all bids for whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary; or given the world’s imminent food shortage, should hunting based on scientific measures of sustainability be allowed?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Venkatasamy Ramakrishna July 15, 2014 at 8:18 am - Reply

    Japan appears to be extremely stubborn in pursuing an exercise that has raised doubts in the minds of the world’s scientific community. And why should it be Japan alone carrying out these so-called scientific exercises? Culture is probably the objective.

  2. Linda Heslegrave July 12, 2014 at 9:51 am - Reply

    The annual slaughter of the whales is no longer an economic enterprise. The taste for whale meat is waning and much of the meat is never sold. During the last hunting season, many of the whaling ships returned to Japan without any whales or with a catch far below what had been planned. Greenpeace had a major campaign that deterred some of the ships from their hunt. The Japanese Government is fully aware that the hunt is not sustainable and, like other whaling nations (Norway, for example) continues to perpetuate the myth of scientific research as the reason for supporting the killing.

  3. Wayne Bernhardson July 7, 2014 at 5:16 pm - Reply

    So-called “scientific whaling” is a very thinly disguised commercial enterprise. Empirically, there is no need for it; economically, though, there remains a demand for whale meat in Japan.

  4. Jessie July 6, 2014 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    I am not sure how you can even attempt to legitimize Japan’s propaganda about whaling for “scientific research”. Asking that question as if it’s a real argument is akin to the media giving creedance and facetime to climate change deniers, especially those working in the industries that have created the majority of this change. We already KNOW it’s a glaring, dangerous lie so why perpetrate it as a legit option for discussion? I think you bring up a lot of good information and ideas, but the framing of it worries me. It’s clear that no one, not even the author, believe Japan’s claims of scientific research so what is the point of even asking?

    And I agree with other commentors. You’re missing the huge economic factors involved in this, as well as the ignorance of the general public in Japan and the hubris of the Japanese whaling industry. Look at Mitsubishi’s approach to blue fin tuna in the Mediterranean or the dolphin drive hunt in Taiji. This is neither about science nor culture. It’s about money and pride.

  5. Michael White July 6, 2014 at 5:20 pm - Reply

    The Japanese whaling industry isn’t scientific. Any claim to be interested in sustainability is voided by killing the studied species. Furthermore, any meat from the carcasses should not enter the luxury food market; there’s no doubt where the interest lies … money.

  6. Sagarika Basak July 6, 2014 at 5:19 pm - Reply

    Interesting article though the title can evoke strong reactions at first glance. I think any activity is good if the intent is good. This is selective hunting is permitted by IUCN and funds are appropriated for conservation purpose (which I am sure is audited). I support painless shooting like photography. If a human does decide to hunt, I propose one without weapons so that the competition is fair and the animal has a choice of fight or flight. You will agree, this is being really brave.

  7. Douglas Fink July 6, 2014 at 5:15 pm - Reply

    Japanese whaling is truly only for the market value of the processed whales.

  8. Sune Holt July 3, 2014 at 8:15 am - Reply

    You are doing great with your always well-illustrated coverage of so many important issues, Candice. Keep up the good work!

  9. Mike O'Brien July 3, 2014 at 5:52 am - Reply

    In my humble opinion you omitted a third option which probably most closely reflects reality: economics. In Japanese culture economics for specific groups is always a top motivator. “Fishermen” and the consequent employment chain would be paramount in this case. This activity “traditionally” financially supports some highly influential people in Japan and they are going to defend their economic reality by whatever public image statements work. When dealing with Japan we always have to remember Japan’s insular foreign relations policy and attitude: “we are Japan and no one is going to tell us what or what not to do.” This is pervasive, and is always a primary motivating factor in policy decisions, including both the “tribe” at large and small special interests.

  10. John Fitzgerald July 2, 2014 at 2:44 pm - Reply

    It may be that neither science nor culture is driving Japan’s decision but rather the entrenched power of the Fisheries Ministry and its clients and the lack of knowledge about the considerable bio-accumulation of various heavy metals and other things that make many whales not so good for you to eat. Japan is very familiar with mercury poisoning, given the history of the people near Minimata Bay, but most consumers may not understand the parallel perils of whale meat let alone the ecological impact of commercial whaling. Japan was responsive in the past to potential trade sanctions under the expanded array added to the Pelly Amendment as part of the successful effort to limit the size of high seas drift-nets in the early 1990’s. It may be time to consider a Pelly Amendment petition now as this action by Japan is likely to diminish the effectiveness of the IWC, CITES and possibly other international agreements for the conservation of endangered species.

  11. Rob West July 2, 2014 at 8:22 am - Reply

    As above, they really don’t need any more ‘scientific’ whale meat as they have stores full of it that they can’t sell.

  12. Ian Langford July 2, 2014 at 8:21 am - Reply

    There can be no doubt Why !!!! I just hope the” big” press pick up on the story.

  13. Sune Holt July 2, 2014 at 8:18 am - Reply

    Thanks for your great post, Candice.

    The real threat to harvesting the protein resources from our oceans is a combination of several factors, such as unsustainable harvesting, pollution, climate change, habitat destruction, and acidification.

    To be able to repair the damage we’ve done, we need to apply a pretty aggressive management, and in this process many cultural and social issues will obviously occur.

    Constantly, we are going deeper in the oceans and father down the food chain to satisfy our needs. As the whales are in the very top of the food chain they are very vulnerable indeed to the delicate balance of the sea’s biologic system.

    If we do not very soon allocate the needed resources to a concerted ocean and biological research and show that we are able to implement a strict and well-coordinated resource management, then our “cultural rights” will soon be a myth and our plans on how we can feed a population of 8 billion will be in serious trouble.

  14. Art Hardy July 2, 2014 at 7:02 am - Reply

    Those whale numbers are probably high-side estimates by the Japanese and given half a chance they’ll continue to push another species out the door.

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