Whaling: A High Seas Culture Clash


by Amber Murakami-Fester

Whaling in Japan, which has charged the international community with high tensions for many a decade, is set to face legal contention on June 26th, when the UN International Court of Justice is slated to begin public hearings on Australia’s challenge of Japanese whaling practices. Japan, Australia alleges, is breaking a temporary international ban, or moratorium, on whaling by hunting whales for commercial purposes under the guise of scientific research. Japan contends that it still operates within the legal boundaries of the moratorium, which allows for whaling with scientific permits.

The hearing will be a crucial event for the whaling issue, which has proven to be controversial since the implementation of the moratorium by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986. The ban has since been wrapped in emotionally charged conflict and gotten sidetracked from its initial intent to conserve whale species that were in need of protection. 

The moratorium was implemented by the IWC due to rising concerns in the 60s and 70s on shrinking whale populations, which had been vastly reduced by industrialized nations in the 18th and 19th centuries in a mad scramble for whale oil. Whales were in fact being killed at incredible numbers into the 1980s; the Soviet Union killed close to 340,000 whales from 1946 to 1986 according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The total number of whales killed since 1986 was less than 32,000 in 2008, indicating the success of the ban in protecting the marine mammal. 

The moratorium, however, came with its own baggage of controversy that continues to roil the international community to this day. The whaling ban, some nations claimed, ignored long-standing traditions and cultures of whale hunting that dated back to prehistoric times. 

Japan is perhaps the most controversial of these nations for its alleged defiance of the ban. Evidence of whale hunting activity in Japan dates back to at least 10,000 B.C., and whale meat played an important role for the country in the 1940s, when it accounted for half the source of animal protein during World War II, according to DiscoveryUK.com. Although most people in Japan do not regularly eat whale today, several small communities like Ayukawahama, a whaling town in northern Japan, still do, and it is not rare to find whale meat in large supermarkets and specialty restaurants sold as a delicacy. Japan maintains that whaling is an essential part of its culture and tradition; this tension between culture and animal rights is an essential element at the heart of the whaling controversy today.

Japan is not alone in its defense of whaling traditions. The yearly summer whale hunt in the Faroe Islands of Denmark, where hundreds of pilot whales are driven into the shore and killed, has also received intense international criticism for what many consider unnecessarily cruel deaths and an unsustainable practice. The Faroe Islands, like Japan, have a long-standing history of hunting whales dating back to the first Norse settlements on the islands. The hunt is not regulated by international whaling laws because pilot whales are considered “small cetaceans” by the IWC and are therefore not included in the moratorium. 

These whaling practices have come under intense international pressure because many consider culture a flimsy excuse for illegality, irresponsible hunting and unnecessary cruelty. This tension has at times manifested in violent confrontations on the open ocean. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (a marine activist organization based in the U.S. and Australia) controversially carries out aggressive tactics on Japanese whaling ships at sea, ramming ships and hurling containers of acid and smoke bombs to prevent the whalers from catching their quarry. Sea Shepherd claims that they “operate outside the petty cultural chauvinism of the human species” in an Equality Statement on their website, and points to the alleged illegality of Japanese whaling as a basis for their attacks. 

In February of this year, Sea Shepherd faced Japanese whalers in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled in favor of the Japanese, saying that Sea Shepherd has “engaged in…clear instances of violent acts for private ends,” and is “the very embodiment of piracy.” If Sea Shepherd is breaking international rules as well, their claim to be acting solely for the purpose of protecting international whaling laws becomes less credible. So if the upkeep of the law is not at the heart of Sea Shepherd’s actions, what really is the issue here? 

Whaling has evidently become a highly emotional issue. Take, for example, the pilot whale hunt in the Faroe Islands. Any Google search on the subject yields a series of photographs that display large amounts of blood spilled into the ocean and onto the shores during the hunt. The images aim to point out the unnecessary violence of the practice, regardless of whether it is a part of a long-standing cultural tradition or a population-sustainable practice. Violence and cruelty against animals understandably draw strong emotional responses, and these elements contribute to the violent attacks carried out by Sea Shepherd. 

This emotion, however, can dilute and distract from what originally lay at the core of international whaling laws—protection of endangered whales and their repopulation into sustainable numbers. Japan has in fact hunted a number of endangered species in the 2006-2007 season, including 101 sei whales and 3 fin whales. However, 82% of whales caught by Japan in that season were minke whales, which is a species listed with “least concern” of endangerment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The Japanese additionally collected 508 Southern Hermisphere minke whales out of an estimated population of 720,000, which they uphold is sustainable.  Figures for pilot whales are undetermined, but they are also not considered an endangered species according to the American Cetacean Society, although the ACS notes that there has been an “obvious decrease in whale numbers.” While sustainability is still an issue for some whales collected in Japan, it does not seem a pressing concern for most whales hunted in Japan and indeterminate at best for pilot whales.

The whaling issue has essentially grown into a violent and emotional international debate, and lost sight of the original purpose to protect endangered whale species. If pilot whale hunts are considered too cruel, new methods to make the hunt less painful should be investigated. Research should be conducted to determine the exact status of pilot whales, and in the case that results demonstrate the centuries-old practice to be unsustainable, quotas should be placed accordingly. If Japan’s whaling is in fact sustainable, international law should be revised to consider this, with appropriate quotas and restrictions on species that are still endangered. Pushing for a complete ban that does not reflect the realities of whale populations not only ignores and disrespects the old cultures of these communities, but creates unnecessary political tension, and buries the most pressing issue of conservation under a mire of political distractions.

International law should reflect fact and not charged emotion. Whaling will most likely continue to be a controversial issue, but if it is approached openly and logically, the international realm will be able to move forward towards a resolution.

All facts and figures taken from the International Whaling Commission, the American Cetacean Society, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Word Wildlife Fund, SeaShepherd.org, DiscoveryUK.com, BBC, and the New York Times.

Amber is a third-year Comparative Literature student with minors in Global Studies and Japanese. In addition to being an Editor for TheGeneration, she is an education director for Project Literacy and sits on the leadership board for iVolunteer China. In her spare time, she listens to Amy Winehouse and roots for the San Francisco Giants.




  • The use of culture as propaganda has been a long term strategy of the Japanese whaling complex. Whilst Amber has addressed a wide series of arguments as to why Japan should be allowed to resume commercial whaling, I would like to address just one issue, the link between history and culture.

    Despite what the Japanese Government would have the Japanese people believe, before 1900, whale meat was originally eaten in only a few isolated, coastal areas of this island nation. The technique used to catch the whales was a traditional one, not the huge factory ships and explosive harpoons used by the USA, Norway and others in the past. The coastal communities would preserve their hard-caught whale meat in wooden barrels with salt or soy sauce for later consumption. They caught around 200 whales per year, enough to eat and survive in their isolated villages.

    With the introduction of the Norwegian style of hunting and its advanced equipment, the catch quickly rose to commercial proportions, at around 1500 whales per year. However records show that consumption did not keep pace with supply. So where did all this excess meat and whale products go, and why did the so called ‘lovers of whale meat’ not soak up this extra supply?

    The basic answer is that whale meat was not popular with its potential consumers, and the meat simply went to waste. But let us look at the history of the development of the whaling industry to see what really happened.

    Two historical incidents helped to encourage the growth in Japanese whaling. In the late 19th century, Japan was coming out of its long term self-imposed exile and set about ‘catching up with the Western nations’, in what is known as the ‘Meiji Restoration’, following governmental ‘fact-finding’ missions to the west. One technological breakthrough the Japanese seized upon was the ability to preserve the meat, that was introduced by the French in 1910. Mr Oku, a Japanese business man, on returning from Norway formed the ‘Japan Deep Sea Fishing Company’ with another entrepreneur, one Mr Yamada. It was this company that built the first purpose-built whaling vessel soon after, the Nagaoku Maru, a 122 ton steamer. Suddenly Japan was lifted into commercial whaling in a big way. In 1903 the company changed its name to Toyo Fishing and began its initial whaling activities off the Korean coast seeking gray whales. With the success of these far sea whaling activities the company introduced whaling into Kochi and Wakayama Prefectures around 1906.

    At this time whaling was being encouraged by the politicians of the Meiji era, to help counter Russian whaling along the Korean coast. After the Russo-Japanese war started, the Japanese arrested all the available Russian whaling ships, and began using them for themselves. The military dominated government encouraged further expansion of the industry and started canning in Korea for food for the army. Canned foods such as salmon, crab and herring were introduced but the whale meat was still not popular with the Japanese people. The government began to export the more expensive canned fish to Europe for hard currency, while the cheaper whale meat was consumed at home. A considerable amount was given to Japanese soldiers in the Russo-Japan war.

    The four main coastal whaling companies that had emerged at the turn of the century were merged in 1909 to form a government-influenced monopoly company, TOYO HOGEI. The new company exploited the seized Russian factory ships working the Korean coast. Meanwhile the traditional whaling methods were squeezed out by competition, or simply suspended in favour of the more commercially favourable new technologies.

    As Japan drifted politically in the 1930s elements of the Kwantung Army attacked the Chinese garrison in Mukden and so initiated the army’s expansionist phase of the Twentieth Century. They invaded Northern China/Manchuria and established the area as a colony (Manchuko). The people of the area were fed the cheapest food that the Japanese could supply – whale meat. Toyo Hogei continued to exploit its privileged position in the market and steadily grew as it absorbed all the small companies that stood in its way. In 1934, the company acquired the Antarctic whaler the To Nam Maru, and so started the exploitation of the Antarctic populations of great whales. By 1936, political pressure and a possible world war, led to the two top whaling companies merging to become the new company that still bears the same name today NIPPON SUISAN (officially formed in 1937).

    At a similar time that Toyo Hogei was formed, TOSA HOGEI (Tosa Whaling) acquired a Norwegian ship (1907). Tosa similarly grew under the auspices of pro-whaling military influence, merging as it grew, swallowing smaller more traditional whaling operations. It operates today under the name of Taiyo Gyogyo.

    Between the years of 1935 and 1939 the Japanese Government, desperate for foreign currency, continued to export all its whale oil from the Antarctic-caught whales to Europe. Revenues from these sales grew by a factor of 40 times, whilst the earnings from canned whale meat increased by only 7 times during the same period. The Japanese had now to face up to the squeeze they had placed on their few remaining traditional whalers, and to maintain the small whale meat market that still existed they prevented the Antarctic whalers from importing their own meat by-products. The meat was treated as waste and simply dumped into the sea.

    During the war this practice came under increasing criticism and so, in 1938, whaling practices were modified and the dumping ceased. The production of canned whale meat then increased at a tremendous rate to cater for the change in the law. However, the import of the meat into Japan was still banned and so the canned whale meat was shipped to the growing Japanese colonies and the ever expanding overseas military operations. It begins to be obvious here that the growth in modern Japanese commercial whaling closely shadows Japanese military expansion and not demand by the Japanese people. As the military grew in strength, so the commercial whaling companies grew in political influence and financial size. The war did begin to stretch resources and we now see the formation of the research centre (1941) by Kenkichi Nakabe, The Nakabe Science Research Centre. (Nakabe later became president of Taiyo Gyogyo). In 1942, it was rebuilt by the government and was later moved out of Tokyo after American bombers began their successful bombing of the capital.

    The end of the war brought a sudden change of circumstances for the whaling companies with the removal of their former political/military allies. What at first looked like the end of whaling was quickly reversed however, with the encouragement of the American Military Government to resume Antarctic whaling. 1946 saw the formation of a new research centre GERUI KENKYUJO (Gerui = cetacean), in Tokyo. It was tasked with developing synthetic whale meat products and also basic whaling technology.

    The austerity that the end of the war brought to Japan meant that the relatively cheap whale meat was eaten in greater quantities. It was, however, still unpopular as it looked dark, and following freezing it was invariably full of blood and never fresh. Whilst its nutritional value was the same as pork or beef, the mass consumption of whale meat lasted only a few years after the war due to its unpopularity. In the early 1950s there was even an excess of whale meat with a lack of consumers. Canned whale meat did become popular in the north of Japan amongst the rice farmers of the Tohoku region who regarded it as a cheap, convenience food. The only true commercial demand was for the raw meat, from the wealthy Kanto and Kansai regions (Tokyo and Osaka).

    The year of 1953, with the growing problems of lack of customers, saw Taiyo Gygyo take over the development of synthetic whale meat products. New research was desperately commissioned to find new commercial uses for the whale meat. This resulted in a huge campaign to the Japanese public. Pamphlets were distributed to housewives. Recipes with butter, miso or oil were introduced by the whaling companies; even school lunches were targeted. A traditional fishpaste sausage, kamaboko, was substituted for by a whale meat sausage (50% whale meat). Recipes with onions, spices, lard were all tried. Special wrappings were made to preserve the whale meat without freezing to avoid the problems of the dark, bloody meat on unfreezing. This campaign actually succeeded in increasing sales. The boom of the post war years acted as a ready market to absorb the cheap source of needed food. It was interesting to see a very similar campaign now being launched in Japan in 1993. This time, however, it was not about feeding a country
    back from the brink of poverty and hunger.

    All the whale meat caught by Japan at this time was consumed by the domestic market, and as demand grew there was a reciprocal growth in production. The foreign companies who had whaled for mainly oil products gradually lost business under the Japanese expansion. By 1961 Japan was importing whale meat and even re-exporting to the UK to supply the pet food industry. As domestic demand grew even further this export was ceased to supply home grown markets. In 1963, Nippon Suisan bought the British whaler ‘Southern Harvester’, to ensure enough whale meat for sausage production. The period 1960-1964 saw Japan purchase four whaling vessels from overseas and also the first concern that the number of whales were decreasing. We must point out that this was no conservation-minded ethic raising its head, but a purely commercial worry about supply and demand.

    Japanese demand for sausages peaked in 1962 but only three years later, with other preferred products more easily obtainable, the demand had fallen by 20%. The richer members of Japanese society turned to real ham and pork sausages whilst the poorer farmers could only afford the whale meat sausages that they had been encouraged to eat. Here we begin to see a problem for the Japanese whaling interests. The companies had heavily invested in the early 1960s, in mass production and automation both in the factories and the whaling ships. However, the whale meat product had a very low retail price and so production had to be maintained at maximum to cover rising costs. As demand fell off, the smaller companies turned to mackerel and shark fishing to supplement their whaling, but the larger companies were determined to continue the industry at any cost.

    Whaling had cut into the minke stocks and all but destroyed the sperm whale stocks (both lay outside the then IWC regulations and controls). The problem now lay in the fact that sources were becoming even more scarce for a consumption that was decreasing as rapidly as the whales themselves.

    In 1975, the Japanese Government once again intervened to recreate a new larger whaling company from the smaller struggling operations. Through retirement, resignation and transfers the industry emerged in 1976 as the Nihon Kyodo Hogei Co Ltd. to continue whaling in the Antarctic for minke and sperm whales. The company underwent a further name change to Kyodo Senpaku and it is this organization that continued to whale in the name of ‘science’ after the adoption of the 1985 IWC moratorium.

    Thus we see that Japan may have had, at one time, a right to claim that it had within it’s borders a few subsistence whalers, but those communities long ago fell under the control of commercial enterprise and pursuit of profit. What we have today bears no resemblance to the whalers of two centuries ago. Japan is no longer a traditional whaling country but a nation that has a small number of whaling interests that seek to maintain the industry for whatever interests they hold. Whaling in Japan has nothing to do tradition, it is about the internal maintenance of political power and associated commercial profit.

    The relationship between the whaling companies and the fishing communities is well worth further consideration. Today, whalers are not the most popular people in Japan, with fishing scoops regularly avoiding the whaling vessels. In Abashiri in Hokkaido, the locals protested the positioning of a whale meat processing plant close to the town and main port. The case of Abashiri is well documented (Abashiri, Japan’s Small-Scale Whaling Fujiwara Eiji, 1991).

    The cultural argument for eating whale meat begins to fall apart if we consider that it is not ‘necessary to eat whale meat to be Japanese’. There is no loss of cultural identity with the loss of whale meat. It is no longer a ‘staple’ in Japan, and really it never was. In fact, the eating of whale meat is really associated with a isolated traditional type of whaling long subsumed under commercial enterprise.

    This ‘industry’ should not be confused with ‘cultural identity’. The whole debate about culture is a smoke-screen behind which to defend a profitable industry and power-broking positions. Whaling was very regional and had only been in existence for about 100 years when the whaling moratorium came into place. This ancient whaling with net and harpoons was destroyed by Japanese industry when it adopted Norwegian-style industrial whaling techniques and made the whole thing into a business. According to Shigeki Komori of WWF-Japan the conservation of whales is a culture in its own right. “In some parts of Japan, whales were worshipped as Gods that brought fish. No one hunted whales in such places”.

    Amber, I would be happy to address some of the other issues you raise, such as the legality of Japanese whaling, but please let me know.

    best wishes


  • …apologies, I should have said ‘unprofitable’ industry in that last paragraph, as the industry is now heavily subsidised.

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