Japan v. Whales: 1-0

16 June 2006

Japan v. Whales: 1-0

By Gwynne Dyer

“The moratorium [on whaling], which was clearly intended as a temporary measure, is no longer necessary,” says the St. Kitt’s Declaration, which passed by just one vote at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission on Sunday. It doesn’t mean that the world will go back to full-scale commercial whaling this year after a twenty-year moratorium, but the door is certainly now open. As New Zealand’s Conservation Minister Chris Carter admitted afterwards, “It has been a significant diplomatic victory for Japan.”

For years, Tokyo has been bribing small, poor countries with generous offers of foreign aid if they will join the IWC and vote to resume whaling. The strategy came within a hair’s breadth of success last year, and with three new pro-Japanese members this year (Guatemala, Cambodia and the Marshall Islands) this year versus only one new anti-whaling member (Israel), it looked like Japan would have its majority at last.

Then, a reprieve. Guatemala didn’t show up in St. Kitts and Nevis, the site of this year’s meeting, and several other small countries were late paying their dues and renewing their credentials. On Friday, Japan and its pro-whaling allies lost two key votes, though the anti-whaling coalition’s margin of victory was only two or three countries. But the dues eventually got paid (by somebody), the arms of a couple of waverers got twisted, and on Sunday Japan got the resolution it has been seeking for years. The IWC has declared that the moratorium on whaling is not permanent — indeed, is no longer necessary.

It doesn’t mean that commercial whaling will resume tomorrow. It would take the votes of three-quarters of the IWC’s members to end the moratorium, and Japan is nowhere near that number of supporters. Moreover, the anti-whalers are promising to go out and recruit new members to the IWC who will back their position and perhaps restore their majority. But the Japanese have worked at this issue with amazing determination over many years — and the question is: why?

Japan is at least as “green” in its attitudes as other developed countries. Its determination to resume commercial whaling is not typical of the positions it takes on other conservation issues, nor has whaling occupied the same prominent place in traditional Japanese society as it has (both economically and symbolically) in Norway and Iceland, its only two allies by conviction. There is something else going on here.

“Many of the Japanese citizens thinks that westerners, (the) outside world, is imposing their own value code on Japan on an emotional basis, and naturally they think they’re bullies or… arrogant,” Joji Morishita, the head of the Japanese delegation to the IWC, told the BBC on 15 June. Japan’s policy is really driven not by a national hunger for whale-meat (most Japanese under fifty have never even eaten whale), but by perceived racism and historic resentment against the West. The whales just got caught in the middle.

When the International Whaling Commission was created in 1946, it was about conserving the whaling industry, not the whales. It did a rotten job even of protecting the industry, however, because the numbers of large whales of most species continued to plunge, so in 1975 it set catch limits for individual whale stocks. The goal was simply to bring whale stocks back up to the numbers that would permit large harvests over the long term.

It was the same sort of thing that should have been done to save Grand Banks cod, North Sea herring or Argentine hake, and nobody was talking yet about shutting down the whole whaling industry. But time passed, attitudes changed, and whale numbers kept falling.

Since most large whale species were clearly dwindling fast by the 1980s (and some were nearing extinction), the IWC agreed in 1982 on a moratorium on all commercial whaling until the stocks had recovered. It went into effect in 1986, and at the time it just seemed to be a sensible temporary measure to preserve a valuable resource. So Japan and the few other countries that still hunted whales went along with it — but by the 1990s a large majority of the then-members of the IWC had decided that the moratorium should be turned into a permanent ban on whale-hunting.

Popular attitudes towards killing animals that seemed rare, intelligent or even cute had changed in most of the West, and whales scored two out of three. As time passed and whale stocks began to recover, the few pro-whaling countries proposed the resumption of whaling — and realised that they had been had. They were all unhappy about it, but none of the others was as big or as angry as the Japanese.

A lot of Japanese nationalism in the 20th century was driven by the fact that Japan was the only non-white great power, and felt despised and patronised by the others. The love of whales had not caught on in popular Japanese culture to the same extent as elsewhere, and being treated as unfeeling brutes by the (mostly white) anti-whaling countries ignited a profound resentment in Japan. So the “normalisation” of the IWC — i.e., returning it to its original purpose of preserving whale stocks FOR THE WHALERS — became a high priority of Japanese foreign policy, and it started buying up small-country allies.

The small countries, of course, are mostly in it for the aid money that Japan provides, but some of them are also resentful that the fat, rich West seems to care more about the poor whales than about poor people. This ugly little struggle will go on for years yet.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“Japan..here”; and