In January and July of this year, several news outlets ran reports of Japan dropping out of the whale conservationist organization IWC (International Whaling Commission) and resuming its commercial whaling industry. This change in stance sparked a tirade of criticism from environmental conservation groups abroad. But rather than helping the cause, it may have made things worse as some have dismissed these claims as a form of cultural imperialism.
The issue of whaling in Japan has been fraught with controversy for years, even when Japan was a member of the IWC. Much of the friction arose due to Japan’s whaling for questionably “scientific” purposes—which is allowed under the IWC—in the Antarctic Ocean and Southern Hemisphere, and as a result, often getting called out by animal protection groups.
However, under Japan’s new commercial whaling policy, the country will concentrate on whaling minke and other whales off its own coast and leave their previous hunting grounds in international waters alone.
Feeble curiosity in Japan
Local reactions were largely unaffected at first, with the general sentiment being mild support and mostly curiosity about what whale even tastes like.
Despite what the whaling interests would have you believe, whale meat is actually quite rare in Japan. During the U.S. occupation following World War II, American authorities encouraged Japan to introduce whale meat into food markets and school lunches as a cheap source of protein. Still, the majority of the younger generation has never tried it.
While 233,000 tons of whale meat were consumed in Japan in 1962, that number plummeted to just 3,000 tons by 2016, according to government data reported by The New York Times.
In response to the new commercial whaling initiative, many Japanese Twitter users took to the platform to voice their curiosity, including user @rQI9ot583PtNqE0:
— トワインブルーム (@rQI9ot583PtNqE0) July 4, 2019
“Is whale meat even tasty?” they wondered.
Another Twitter user, @sgkshasaikodaze, wrote, “If it’s cheap and tastes good, I want to try it.”
— さかじょー (@sgkshasaikodaze) July 4, 2019
Despite the vague interest surrounding the matter, others are interested in the topic for sociopolitical reasons.
One Twitter user, @torigoyahime, posted several pictures from the local news along with the comment, “These pictures are from the local news report on commercial whaling. The interviewee working at the fish marketplace looks so happy! The newscaster is always smiling, but he even made a comment that he is happy this piece of Japan’s food culture is back.”
— 鳥籠姫（魂失踪済み） (@torigoyahime) July 4, 2019
Just before five ships set sail from Kushiro, Hokkaido on Japan’s first commercial whaling expedition in over 30 years, head of the Japan Small Whaling Association Yoshifumi Kai told AFP, “We are very excited at the resumption of commercial whaling.” He continued, “My heart is full of hope.”
Widespread disapproval abroad
Framing this controversy over whaling practices is the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which has brought Japan’s animal rights issues under more scrutiny than ever. Several athletes have already publicly stated their disapproval for the lax rules around animal protection that are currently in place.
Global marine conservation NPO Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has repeatedly called Japan out for its whaling practices. They released an official statement on June 1 denouncing Japan’s return to commercial whaling, claiming that Japan is “among these last remaining pirate whaling nations” and that their return to commercial whaling is “an arrogant disregard to International Conservation Law.”
They also posted the following tweet imploring Japan to conform to international law.
First whales caught as Japan resumes commercial hunt after 30 years https://t.co/vPaOF4DJ0n
— Sea Shepherd SSCS (@SeaShepherdSSCS) July 1, 2019
This sentiment is echoed across the international community, with comments responding to the news including respectful indignation:
Hi Japan: With respectfulness, the capture and killing of whales is no longer acceptable given the knowledge we have about our Earth 🌏 , its oceans, and the life in it – and the urgent needs to preserve, conserve, and protect our shared ecosystems. Thank you 🙏
— Greg Cook 2020 😃😇 (@GregCook2011) July 4, 2019
No Japan, have a lot of respect for your culture. But this one thing sets you outside acceptable practices of a decent country.
— Derrick Gray (@derrickg745) September 7, 2018
Along with straight-up righteous anger using the hashtag #BoycottTokyo2020:
I love sports & #rugby as a fan and former player, but I will be boycotting the @rugbyworldcup & #Olympics @Tokyo2020 since I am an even bigger fan of not brutally slaughtering whales, as Japan is now doing. #japan #whaling #whales @Seasaver #BoycottTokyo2020
— Annkathrin Sharp (@BlueSpaceSeeker) December 29, 2018
Japan begins commercial whaling after 30-year ban, receives backlash from environmental groups – New York Daily News#Japan #STOP #Illegal #WhaleHunts & Barbaric #DolphinHunts #BoycottTokyo2020
— Friends4AnimalJustice (@MaryJoe38642126) July 2, 2019
— nancy vaddi (@nancyvaddi) July 2, 2019
Criticism, imperialism, racism?
Many people didn’t take well to these criticisms. Regarding the backlash of international environmental conservationists, Matayuki Komatsu of Japan’s Fisheries Agency said, “No one has the right to criticize the food culture of another people,” according to an article by Animal Planet.
There is a history of the Agency taking a hard line on this subject, with another member of the JFA Joji Morishita quoted in a BBC article from 2001 as saying, “Singling out [Japan’s] whaling is cultural imperialism – some people would say it’s racism. Norway and Iceland are also whalers, but the criticism of Japan is stronger.”
According to the IWC, it’s true that Norway and Iceland are still proponents of commercial whaling and actively hunt whales today. It’s Japan’s recent flip-flop on the issue that has made its stance newsworthy on the international stage. The country, therefore, suffers harsher criticisms.
Has this narrative of Japan being singled out on the international stage taken root in the public consciousness? While very few Japanese people were pro-whaling to begin with, the outpouring of criticisms regarding Japan’s new whaling policies could frustrate the general public, as reported by an article in the South China Morning Post.
So now it seems that Japan has a mix of vague interest and defensiveness regarding the new whaling policy, whereas international environmental groups have adopted a hard line against it.
Perhaps rather than resorting to cancel culture and boycotts, we should have a conversation about the issue and seek a positive conclusion. For now, it looks like things will continue in this current state of mutual animosity.