Whales are often characterized as the guardian of the sea, being one of the biggest animals underwater. Their colossal size and beautiful color even create a strong impression as “the king of the sea.” However, due to increased whale hunting in the 21st century, whales are classified as endangered animals with a high possibility of extinction. Following such warning, there have been many efforts to protect the whale species around the world. However, now it seems that the whales can no longer be free from the hands of fishermen. After Japan decided to leave the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 2018, commercial whaling has resumed, critically threatening the lives of whales.
▲ Minke whales caught at a Japanese port, Provided by KYODO NEWS, GETTY
On July 2, two Minke whales were caught on the Coast of Kushiro after a 31-year ban on commercial whaling. The Japanese whalers expressed great enthusiasm and passion for fueling the whaling industry again. The primary reason behind the Japanese commercial whaling derives from its indigenous culture. According to Cable News Network (CNN), the Japanese government stated that “Japan has used whales for a source of protein and other purposes in its long history.” Japan’s rationalization of commercial whaling for cultural reasons seems to be in stark contrast with the international stance for protecting whale species.
An Appetite for Whales – Culture or Taboo?
For more than two thousand years, Japan has enjoyed the culture of eating whale meat. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) stated that “From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s whale meat was the single biggest source of meat in Japan.” Likewise, by promoting whaling with the claim “There is nothing wasted in whales,” Japan has a history of killing a considerable number of whales, reaching its peak in 1964 by killing 24,000 whales in one year. Due to such a long history of whaling, Japan is currently asserting that whaling is a cultural norm, not to be interfered by the international community.
A similar case to Japanese whaling can be seen in one of its neighboring countries. In China, shark finning, in which fishermen cut off the fins of sharks and throw the rest of the body back into the waters, had been a popular practice. Since it was rare to find shark fins, shark fin soup was considered as a luxurious symbol among Chinese citizens. However, the demand for shark fins substantially decreased after continuous campaigns and a national ban on shark fin soup implemented in 2013. This may be what sets the difference between shark finning and whaling – the government and citizens’ actions. In contrast to China, the Japanese government has taken a different stance, promoting whale eating culture by increasing the budget for whaling and thereby aiding the industry.
The Power of International Agreements
According to National Geographic, Japanese withdrawal from IWC indicates that the country will be able to “resume whaling in its own backyard without oversight.” However, the Japanese fishermen have not gained complete freedom in whaling, as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) demands cooperation with international organizations for “marine mammal conservation.” This restricts Japan from whaling in high seas, but the country is allowed to whale within national waters, by not being influenced by the agreements of IWC.
Kim Gyu-serb, the Director of Regulation Reform and Legal Affairs at the Ministry of Ocean Fisheries (MOF) of South Korea, commented, “As possessive rights of common resources such as whales are unclear, it is vital to maintain and preserve the use of such resources. In this aspect, the international agreement on the restriction of commercial whaling has its purpose to restore whale resources that have been exhausted by competitive overfishing, and to pass on such resources to the future generation.”
However, Japan’s withdrawal from IWC received criticism not only for killing whales with commercial purposes. The criticisms came from Japan leaving the international discussion for protecting whales. This signifies that Japan was unsuccessful in working cooperatively with other countries on the international table. By eliminating the opportunity of working together in the global community, the common goal for countries in protecting marine animals and the entire environment has been lost.
The Road to a Sustainable International Society
Despite the Japanese government claim to carry out whaling within its waters in a sustainable manner, Japanese whaling will nonetheless influence the waters of other countries as well. On July 1, MOF expressed its concerns about whaling because of its influence on the Minke whale species which inhabits in both South Korean and Japanese waters. Director Kim stated, “Along with a comprehensive research and analysis of the whale resources, South Korea has requested a prior consultation in case of possible impact on Korea’s whale resources in accordance with the UN Convention on Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. The MOF will continue to cooperate with the international community for proper conservation of whale resources.”
At the current stage, a compromise between Japan and the international society is needed. In this process, an examination of the whaling sales will be essential. Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) stated that recently in the Japanese whale market, there have been reports of unsold meat. Likewise, killing excessive numbers of whales should not be approved, but only an appropriate number which accords with the demand seems ideal. Such examination is anticipated to help in finding a mutual agreement in setting a quota for the number of whales.
▲ Director of Regulation Reform and Legal Affairs, Kim Gyu-serb, provided by Kim Gyu-Serb
One cannot define any other culture different from one’s own as barbarian. This may be the primary reason behind the friction between the cultural values of Japan and the international perspective of protecting the whales. However, the international society cannot remain merely as a spectator to the whaling practice of Japan. In order to reach a sustainable international society and environment, the Japanese government should step forward to participate at the global negotiating table. Only after all-encompassing research and thorough discussions at an international level, an effective and understandable agreement will be attained.