16 June 2014
The delicious parts of the whale explained

Japan's whaling obsession

"Japan's whaling vessels are not welcome", said Australia's Environment Minister Tony Burke, after a vessel from Japan's whaling fleet entered Australia's exclusive economic zone in the Southern Ocean

"Japan's whaling vessels are not welcome", said Australia's Environment Minister Tony Burke, after a vessel from Japan's whaling fleet entered Australia's exclusive economic zone in the Southern Ocean.

Despite a 25 year international ban on commercial whaling, Japan hunts whales as part of what it says is a scientific research program, although critics say it is commercial whaling in another guise. Australia is taking legal action against the whaling in an international court.

What's it all about? In my three years living in Japan, I regularly quizzed Japanese people about whaling. Not one of my interlocutors eats whale meat.

Indeed, they all have vivid memories of the horrible taste of the whale meat they ate at school. And yet, according to opinion polls, the Japanese public strongly support whale hunting.

Is there an explanation for Japan's indecent obsession with whaling? In a 2009 article, Midori Kagawa-Fox unlocks the political mystery of Japan's whale hunting.

First of all, we must acknowledge that the Japanese people have a long tradition of eating whale. In prehistoric times, whale meat was eaten when dead whales were washed ashore. Way back in the 12th century, Japanese historical records show that whales were then caught by hand harpoon. A whale industry even appeared to develop in the 17th century -- Japan's first lighthouse was built at Tomyo Misaki in 1636. And by the 19th century, it had become a mature industry as harpoon guns were mounted on on steam-powered whaling ships.

After the second World War, the American occupiers encouraged the food-short Japanese to go back to whale hunting. And by the 1960s, Japan was eating more whale meat than any other type of meat. In the 1970s, however, whale numbers started declining. And then opposition to commercial whaling became strong as the environmental movement was concerned about the effects on the marine eco-system of over-harvesting of whales.

In 1987, Japan accepted the International Whaling Commission's moratorium on commercial whaling, but retained the right to conduct whaling for scientific research purposes. Japan usually aims to catch 1000 whales each year in the Antarctic waters. Everyone knows that this research whaling is a cover for commercial whaling.

Japan's whale research has not produced any worthwhile results. It could be undertaken with a much lower whale catch. According to some scientists, the research could even be undertaken without catching whales at all. Protestors have thus been aggressive in their attacks on the Japanese whalers. The environmental movement in Australia and other countries is determined to stop this whaling.

To understand why Japan persists with whaling, Midori Kagawa-Fox argues that you need to analyse the behaviour of Japan's "whaling triangle", a triad of Japan's ruling elite. These vested interests receive direct financial benefits from Japan's whaling policy.

This is just one variant of the Japanese "Iron Triangle" that has governed Japan since the World War 2. Bureaucrats, politicians and industry get together behind closed doors to put together deals and policies to run the country. The Japanese people accepted this system for a long time, as it delivered economic growth and jobs for several decades. But, this model ran out of steam two decades ago when Japan's bubble burst.

But Japan's "Whaling Triangle" may survive much longer. It is able to present itself as a defender of Japan's unique traditions against a hostile outside world of Japan bashers.

So, who are the members of this "Whaling Triangle"?

First, there is the Whaling Section of the Fisheries Agency within the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. It runs Japan's whaling policy, administering the big subsidies that keep the policy running. It also promotes whale consumption through marketing campaigns, and school and hospital meals -- consumption of whale meat has not however been increasing. It provides Official Development Assistance to pro-whaling Caribbean countries, and supports their membership of the International Whaling Commission. Its ambition is to restore commercial whaling. JFA is a powerful government body, as the sea supplies about 40 per cent of the Japanese diet.

Second, there is the Institute of Cetacean Research which is responsible for Japan's whaling research. It runs the whaling expeditions, and sells the whale meat. Thanks to the proceeds from whale meat sales and also government subsidies, it makes massive profits.

Third, there is the Japan Fisheries Association which is a lobby group for the whole fishing industry which again benefits greatly from subsidies to undertake whaling. It plays a very important role in determining whaling policy through its close connections with the Fisheries Agency. It also receives massive payments (16 billion yen in 2007-08) from the Fisheries Agency for projects like the promotion, preservation and support of the fishing industry.

This triangle is held together in typical Japanese fashion. Upon retirement, senior bureaucrats from the Fisheries Agency land jobs (parachuting or "amakudari") in the Japan Fisheries Association, exploiting the benefits from their cosy relationship. From this position, they are able to negotiate a continuation of subsidies from their former subordinates, who have now been promoted into their previous positions.

It is held together by a discourse which justifies "whale cheating" on the basis of Japan's unique cultural traditions. The Japanese media is complicit in this, as it doesn't present all sides of the issue. Also, the fact that the international debate is led by NGOs does not help its credibility in Japanese eyes. Japan's democracy does not yet have a rich and diverse civil society. And ordinary citizens have a naturally suspicious attitude towards NGOs.

At this very moment, Japan has a lot more important things to do than whaling. With a chronically weak economy, and a massive public debt, Japan's whaling subsidies could be better used on many other things.

In recent times, Japan has also been subject to harassment and bullying by China regarding the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese are claiming as their own. Perhaps Japan's best line of defense has been that China has not been observing civilized international behaviour, and that China does not play by the diplomatic "rules of the game". But Japan's own international credibility suffers greatly when it does not play by the rules of the game for whaling and many other issues.

Significant portions of the Japanese government reportedly are keen to stop the annual whale hunt. But Japanese decision-making is based on consensus, rather than leadership for the overall national interest. This means that the interests of the "Whaling Triangle" will be immensely difficult to overcome because they will always block a sensible consensus.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: japan, whaling, International Whaling Commission, Australia, Japan's iron triangle
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