Shouting at Japan won’t stop Antarctic whaling

Shouting at Japan won’t stop Antarctic whaling

Protests against Japanese whaling in the Antarctic Ocean are counterproductive and strengthen Japan’s resolve to continue its operations, argues Ishii Atsushi

On 31 March 2017 Japanese whaling ships returned home after a four-and-a-half month whaling operation in the Antarctic during the Austral summer, catching 333 minke whales based on Japan’s newly implemented scientific whale research program in the Antarctic Ocean, known as NEWREP-A.

So what happened to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) judgement of 2014 that found Japan’s Antarctic whaling in breach of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) and ordered the program to stop?’

Japan’s ‘political take’ is that, rather than ruling that the program stop, the ICJ simply ‘ordered’ a reform of Antarctic whaling. This would give the program a more scientifically and legally justified appearance and makes it easier for the Japanese government to continue Antarctic whaling. Not even the authoritative ICJ, it seems, could save whales.

An expert panel subsequently assessed that none of the ICJ’s requirements under the ICRW’s Article 8, which permits countries to kill whales for scientific research purposes, were met by NEWREP-A.

However, the panel’s assessment was not reported in the Japanese media. Instead, the media reported on an IWC Scientific Committee report, following the ICJ judgment, that argued the pros and cons of the eligibility of Article 8 in NEWREP-A. The ICJ judgement had changed almost nothing in the Japanese media reporting, making it impossible for the expert panel to have any impact on policymaking relating to Antarctic whaling.

Shame and blame

The ICJ judgment made it clear that the anti-whaling countries were not sincere in their efforts to minimalise whale catches, but just wanted to play ‘shame-and-blame games’ with pro-whaling countries, especially Japan.

I believe that Australia and New Zealand, who brought the case before the ICJ, already knew that if they could not win outright it would be a major victory for Japan. And even if they did win, it would not make Japan stop Antarctic whaling because—whatever the ICJ ruled—the court’s judgment could not amend the ICRW to stop member states undertaking scientific whaling. This proved to be the case when, after its almost-complete defeat before the ICJ, Japan came up with NEWREP-A and implemented it despite numerous protests.


The irony of this can only be understood when the so-called anti-whaling norm that many scholars have analysed is recognised as being constitutive rather than prescriptive or regulatory. In other words, the behavior of the anti-whaling countries is not intended to be a prescription to save whales, but to be seen as arguing the anti-whaling cause.

By lumping prescriptive, regulatory and constitutive norms together, existing scholarship obscures the reality that anti-whaling countries are not trying to save whales.

The more Japan is the target of shaming and blaming, the more that support grows for the Fisheries Agency and its whaling operation

The shaming-and-blaming strategy of the anti-whaling countries only strengthens support for the Japanese Fisheries Agency, which is in charge of whaling. The Japanese people are basically anti-anti-whaling; they are not pro-whaling but don’t want to give into the anti-whaling movement and sentiments.

Japanese fishing village by Katsushika Hokusai. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Therefore the more Japan is the target of shaming and blaming, the more that support grows for the Fisheries Agency and its whaling operation. In other words, such a strategy makes the whaling operation a kind of imaginary fortress against anti-whaling voices.

As a result, NEWREP-A has become an operation that is fully financed by the Fisheries Agency, thanks to Sea Shepherd and the anti-whaling movement. The money provided to the Antarctic whaling program is now about 10 times greater than when Japan began it and the Japanese House of Councillors just passed a law officially securing Japan’s Article 8 whaling operation.

It is clear that any country wanting to really save whales must engage with Japan and other pro-whaling countries and negotiate a compromise through the IWC. This would involve using scientific management procedures to strictly monitor and enforce whale catch through the Revised Management Procedure already adopted by the IWC; no international trade in whale products; and no catching outside the exclusive economic zone.

The Japanese people are basically anti-anti-whaling; they are not pro-whaling but don’t want to give into the anti-whaling movement and sentiments

If you consciously want to support Japan so that it continues its whaling operation, then shout in the cause of anti-whaling and I will fully respect your right to do so. But if you really want to save whales, think again and use your right of freedom of speech to engage with the Japanese people, most of whom do not support whaling.

Featured image Japan factory ship Nisshin Maru whaling mother and calf. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ishii Atsushi is an associate professor of international relations, sociology of science and technology at the Centre for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University.

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