Why Whale Hunting is Still Done in Japan, A Deep Rooted Tradition

by Jacob Harris
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Recently whale hunting has been big news, with Japan in the spotlight. Commercial whaling is set to resume here in Japan, and many people are up in arms in protest against the decision. Whale meat isn’t that popular in Japan anymore, so why is Japan still hunting whales?

The reasoning behind Japan’s whale hunting is wrapped in both tradition, and the desire to revive the old post-war market of selling and exporting whale meat. Japan has been hunting and eating whales since the Jomon Era. In modern times, the consumption of whale meat was popularized after food shortages prior to the end of World War II.

Although the market that revolves around whale hunting has been proven unsustainable, whale hunters insist that it will make a comeback. Let’s sit down and dissect the history and motives behind whale hunting to get a better understanding of the true reasoning.

Japan’s Whaling History

Whaling is not done across Japan. It is a long-held tradition only of several coastal towns like Kagoshima in Kyushu and Wada in Chiba.

In the past, families killed only the whales they found stranded near the shores. Organized whale hunting near the shores began in the 1570s. This type of hunting was further developed in the 17th century. Villages built lookout stations along the shore. If the lookout spots a whale, men would race to their boats and try to catch the whale in open water. Whalers hurled harpoons and lances at the whales to slow them down and kill them.

A better method was soon devised: the amitori-shiki method. The new method went like this: about twenty boats would try to catch up to a whale. But this time, the job of the first group would be to make a lot of noise and drive the whale toward the shore. Another group of men would be ready with big nets to trap the whale. The third group of whalers armed with harpoons, long swords, and wooden plugs would make the kill.

People hunted whales primarily for their meat. But their carcasses were also used for many products like oil for lamps and wax for soaps and candles.

A Turn To Modern Practices

The father of modern Japanese whaling, Jūrō Oka, introduced a new whaling method at the start of the 20th century. Oka traveled the world in search of other whaling cultures. He decided to adopt the Norwegian method of using steamships, cannons, and harpoon guns with grenade tips.

But, this modern whaling process angered other fishermen. The by-products of whaling stations polluted the waters and killed other fish. Fishermen burned a whale station in Sa-me, Aomori to protest against the pollution. Many people from the area also believed that whales were creatures and shouldn’t be hunted in such a way.

International whaling led to the killing of about 3 million whales in the 20 th century. This put a lot of whales in the list of endangered species like fin whales, right whales, and sperm whales.

Whale population also diminished in Japanese territories. So whalers started hunting in Antarctica in 1934. Although whale hunting was expanding, whale meat was not popular across Japan. Whaling and whale meat became popular across Japan only after World War II. The war shattered the country’s economy. Food became scarce, so the Japanese turned to whales as a source of food.

In 1946, two military tanks were used on whaling ships to hunt whales. Whales became the main source of protein and cheap meat for the Japanese. Whale meat was used for school lunches, so a whole generation of Japanese grew up on whale meat.

Until the middle of the 1960s, whales continued to be the biggest source of meat for the Japanese. But when Japan’s economy stabilized, its whaling industry went back to being a small-scale industry. Demand for whale meat declined since.

In 1986, Japan caved into the pressure and criticism it received, and agreed to follow the IWC ruling, but the country used the moratorium’s limitations to its advantage. The moratorium allowed two types of whaling to continue:

  1. Whaling done by indigenous people for their survival.
  2. Whaling done for scientific purposes.

So, Japan continued whaling under the guise of research. The Institute of Cetacean Research is the primary center for this research in Japan.

Pseudo Research

According to their website, icrwhale.org, the Institute was established with the purpose of contributing the proper management and utilization of marine fisheries through survey research centering on whales and the international situation surrounding cetaceans and other marine mammals.

Basically, whales would be hunted and sent for research. In reality, the majority of the whale meat the Institute studies ends up as frozen products sold in Japanese markets.

In 2018, Japan lobbied to the IWC to allow whaling so long as sustainable quotas are met, but the IWC denied the petition. The Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) requested Japan to respond to a report that accused the country of violating international laws by selling endangered Sei whale meat.

In 2019, Japan withdrew its membership from the IWC. It resumed commercial whaling in July and brought back 2 minke whales the same day.

According to the BBC, the country signifies that it will limit commercial whaling to its territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. So its ships will no longer hunt in Antarctica. The country will also impose the following caps on the number of whales it will hunt per year: 52 minke whales, 150 Bryde’s whales, and 25 sei whales. The total is lower than what they hunted when they were “researching” whales.

Issues Over Whaling

So what’s up with all the hullabaloo over killing whales? Let’s look at some of the issues people have been debating about.

1. Decreasing Whale Population

In the past, Japan hunted many types of whales. Some of these are Baird Beaked Whales, Blue Whales, Bryde Whales, Fin Whales, Gray Whales, Humpback Whales, Minke Whales, Right Whales, Sei Whales, and Sperm Whales. Many of these have become an endangered species.

Currently, Minke Whales are not on the endangered species list although its population is said to have declined significantly in the past couple of years. Bryde Whales are also not considered endangered. Meanwhile, the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers Sei Whales endangered. But Japan believes that the population of Sei Whales has increased in recent years.

Based on Japan’s promised annual cap on the number of whales it will kill each year, its commercial whaling might have only minimal impact on whales. After all, the whaling industry in Japan is considered small with only 300 fishermen and five vessels used for whaling. Actually, Bluefin Tunas might actually be in more danger of overhunting.

Conservationists are worried that since the country will have limited areas to hunt, then its impact might become big for local whale populations.

Some conservationists are especially concerned about the J-Stock Minke Whales. Scientists believe they are behaviorally and genetically distinct from other Minke Whales in the world. Since this will be one of the whales that will be hunted, the J-Stock might be hunted to extinction.

Further, other countries like Russia, China, and South Korea might follow Japan’s decision to withdraw from the ICW and start commercial whaling as well.

2. Hunting Whales is Cruel

Some conservationists say that whale hunting is cruel. Harpooning leads to a very slow and painful death for the whales.

Japanese whalers argue that modern equipment no longer leads to a drawn-out death for the whales. Some whalers further point out that chickens, cows, and pigs raised in farms are killed using more cruel methods.

3. Animal Preservation is a Western Concept

To conservationists, there is a strong suggestion that whaling is becoming a dying industry. There is no longer a need to kill whales because there are other sources of meat. The other uses of whales such as oil and wax are also no longer being used in modern society. Besides, whales are considered highly intelligent creatures that should be studied properly instead of killed.

Japanese whalers agree that the demand for whale meat has been declining since the 1960s. Per data from its government, about 233,000 tons of whale meat was eaten in 1962 versus 3,000 tons in 2016. A survey in 2014 showed that only 4% of the respondents occasionally ate whale meat while 10% had some only on rare occasions.

About 3,500 tons of frozen whale meat is stockpiled in markets. Japan also imports whale meat from other whaling countries, which adds to uneaten products.

But, to Japanese whalers, saving the whales is too much of a Western concept. Imposing this concept is akin to harassment of or a threat to the Japanese culture of whaling and its national pride in its traditions. Also, preserving some animals and allowing other animals to be killed for food can be considered a double standard or inconsistent logic.

The Future of Whaling in Japan

Since Japan just resumed commercial whaling, the changes this decision will bring are uncertain. Japan might receive renewed international pressure not just from international organizations but from other countries as well. These organizations might take Japan to an international court because of the decision to go back to commercial whaling.

The whaling industry is considered high-cost but low-demand so its economic sustainability is being questioned.

Japanese whaling is being subsidized by the government and, indirectly, by the taxpayers. Every year, the Japanese government releases almost $50 million in subsidies. Even the cold storage fees of unsold whale meat are subsidized by the government. For 2019, the government allotted about $47.31 million budget for whaling.

Since Japan now has a lot of options for meat, even people from the Japan Whaling Association accept that the demand for whale meat might not rise even with commercial whaling back in business. The whalers for now just want children to remember that whale meat can be considered food like tuna and salmon.

Since 2010, certain schools restarted serving whale meat in their lunches. Other schools from towns with whaling traditions have followed suit in celebration of the restart of commercial whaling.

But whale meat will certainly not get the same popularity as it did during World War II because other local businesses could oppose it. Some restaurants do not want to sell meals with whale meat since they know that many foreign visitors will not eat it.

Meanwhile, the whale-watching industry of Japan brings in many visitors each year. According to a Reuters article, one whale-watching company in Okinawa had 18,000 customers between January and March in 2019 alone. In Rausu, Hokkaido, 33,451 visitors joined whale and bird watching trips for 2018. These visitors mean revenue not just for whale-watching companies but for hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and other local businesses.

These businesses might be affected by the renewed commercial whale-hunting or they might be the reason why whale hunters will be forbidden from entering certain areas.

Wrapping Up

With every issue in the world, there are always two sides to it. From my experience on the subject here in Japan, most Japanese people show little interest in the issue. The younger generation of people that I spend most of my time with will side with the notion of it being nonsensical and cruel to continue whale hunting. On the other hand, older Japanese folks will tell you that whale hunting is tradition, and that foreigners should be less involved.

I for one agree with my counterparts on this issue, but only because whale hunting isn’t economically beneficial or sound. The traditions of old have been traded for more cruel and harmful practices, and unless that changes, it just stands to be something unethical that should be kept in the past.

Are you in favor of Japan’s decision to restart commercial whaling? Or do you believe that whale hunting does not have a part in today’s society? Tell me your thoughts in the comments section.

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