Why Japan’s prime minister wants to hunt whales


Japanese Agriculture Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi eats whale meat as a promotional act at his ministry in Tokyo on June 9, 2014. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signaled his intent to resume commercial whaling, contradicting a U.N. court ruling thwarting Tokyo-sanctioned whaling fleets from carrying out their annual expeditions to the Southern Ocean.

For decades now, Japan has used a loophole in international law, claiming its whaling missions were scientific endeavors. But an Australian suit lodged at the U.N.'s International Court of Justice led to the court ruling earlier this year that the specific whaling permits granted Japan were not truly for "purposes of scientific research." According to the Guardian, Japan slaughters up to 850 mink whales and 50 endangered fin whales each year. The ICJ ruling led the Japanese to government to call off its planned 2014-2015 Antarctic whaling expedition.

But Abe, speaking to a parliamentary commission, suggested Japan intends to push back against the ruling. "I want to aim for the resumption of commercial whaling by conducting whaling research in order to obtain scientific data indispensable for the management of whale resources," he said. "To that end, I will step up efforts further to get understanding from the international community."

Separate hunts continue in the Pacific and northwest Arctic, which don't fall under the same moratoriums. In the past, Japanese whaling fleets sent to the Antarctic have engaged in skirmishes with vessels commissioned and manned by activist groups.

For the Japanese -- or at least for nationalist politicians like Abe -- there's a lot of meat to the whales, real and metaphoric. There exists a centuries-old whaling tradition, one which went into overdrive after World War II, when the plentiful whale populations supplemented post-war Japan's diet. It was, for a time, a staple.

On Monday, Abe's fisheries minister Yoshimasa Hayashi (pictured above), inaugurated "whale week," aimed at promoting whale meat as inherent to Japanese culture. Abe stressed that the international community didn't understand the importance of whaling to Japanese society, as well as the religious rites that accompany it. "It is regrettable that this part of Japanese culture is not understood," he said.

Others contend that whaling in its current practice has little to do with the traditions of Japan's coastal towns -- and that its centrality to Japanese culture is overstated by a small, nationalist minority happy to have a banner to fly in defiance of the West. The overzealousness of anti-whaling activists has helped to harden some of those nationalist sentiments.

Ultimately, the issue is not simply about whales, but the larger crisis facing the conservation of fisheries in the ocean. That's a challenge that puts seafood-mad Japan very much on the front lines.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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Ishaan Tharoor | June 9