Japanese Whaling

Sei whales - Photo by Christin Khan NOAA

Japan has a centuries-long history of small-scale coastal whaling, possibly even as far back as the Jomon period (10,000–300 BC). Large-scale whaling likely started around the late 17th century; by the middle of the 20th century, Japan—along with its European and American counterparts—was a leading industrial whaling nation. Japan was not an original member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), but joined in 1951 after it returned to whaling at the end of World War II. When the IWC agreed in 1982 to impose a commercial whaling moratorium from 1986/1987, Japan, like Norway, registered a legal objection that exempted it from the decision. Under pressure from the United States, Japan withdrew this objection in 1985 but from 1987 to 2019 it conducted “special permit whaling” which is permitted by the IWC’s founding treaty to allow scientific research but was not intended to be used to facilitate commercial whaling.

Japan’s Scientific Whaling

In defiance of the moratorium, from 1987 until 2019, when Japan left the IWC, the government operated two large-scale “special permit” programs. The largest, in the Antarctic, killed 333 minke and 50 fin whales a year at its peak (despite the Southern Ocean being declared a whale sanctuary by the IWC in 1994; Japan formally objected to this designation). The program in the North Pacific originally targeted minke whales in Japan’s coastal waters, using small whaling boats that operate up to 50 miles from shore and return to port daily. This expanded to an offshore hunt of sei whales (the second largest species, and endangered), Bryde’s whales and, for a few years, sperm whales, using the same factory fleet deployed in Antarctica—a mother ship which processed and froze the meat onboard and up to five catcher boats that harpooned the whales and delivered them to the mother ship’s slipway.

The whaling fleet delivered biological samples (such as eyeballs, ovaries and stomach contents) from both programs to the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), a quasi-governmental institution that devised the research program, oversaw and funded the hunt, and conducted perfunctory research. The ICR then sold the rest of each whale, amounting to tens of thousands of tons of meat and blubber a year, to wholesalers for sale to shops, restaurants and fish markets, or distributed it for promotional purposes, including through school lunch programs and other government-funded marketing schemes. The sales proceeds contributed to the following year’s hunt but were never sufficient to pay all the costs, and the hunts had to be underwritten by government subsidies of up to US$50 million a year.

It was no secret that the research programs were a scientific sham. Finally, in 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in a case brought by Australia and New Zealand that Japan’s Antarctic whaling program was “not for the purposes of scientific research” and therefore violated the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. The court ordered Japan to immediately cease its whaling program in the Antarctic. Japan complied with the order to stop hunting in 2014 but then adjusted and relaunched both research programs in 2015. It ended its hunts of fin, Bryde’s, and sperm whales but increased its minke and sei whale takes.

Despite cosmetic changes to the research, the commercial objectives of both programs were still clearly predominant and the increase of sei whales taken beyond Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from 90 to 134 a year prompted a legal challenge under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES prohibits international trade in the parts and products of large whales for primarily commercial purposes and defines international trade to include the landing of specimens caught on the high seas. In 2018, the CITES Standing Committee ruled that Japan’s “introduction from the sea” of thousands of tons of edible sei whale products each year was for primarily commercial purposes and violated the convention. Japan responded by limiting its sei whale hunt to within its EEZ but still has not inventoried and confiscated the possibly thousands of tons of sei whale meat that was illegally landed since 2002 and remain in freezers.

Japan Leaves the IWC

On June 30, 2019, after repeatedly failing to convince the IWC to lift the commercial whaling moratorium, Japan left the IWC to conduct whaling outside international control. The government now authorizes commercial whaling exclusively in its coastal waters and EEZ, setting quotas for 2019/2020 of 171 minke whales (although only 44 were taken), 187 Bryde’s whales, and 25 sei whales. Quotas for 2020/2021 are lower: 100 minke whales to be taken by coastal whalers and 20 by the factory ship, with 12 more held in reserve; 150 Bryde’s whales to be taken by the factory ship, with a reserve of 37; and 25 sei whales to be taken by the factory ship.

The commercial hunts yield approximately 40 percent less meat than Japan’s research whaling but consumption of whale meat in Japan has declined by almost 99 percent since 1962, and even this reduced quantity is proving hard to sell. Kyodo Senpaku, the company that conducts the whaling and sells the meat, remains dependent on annual government subsidies that have remained at the same high levels despite the reduced whaling effort, but the government has indicated that these will be withdrawn in a few years. In July 2020, even before 124 Bryde’s whales were landed, Kyodo Senpaku announced deeply discounted prices for schools and medical institutions in an effort to boost sales of their meat.

Governments and nongovernmental organizations strongly protested Japan’s departure from the IWC, especially the abdication of its responsibility to comply with the rule of law under international agreements. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Article 65) requires states to cooperate for the conservation and management of whales though the appropriate international organizations—in this case the IWC—and if Japan does not cooperate in good faith with the IWC’s management and conservation efforts, it could face a legal challenge.

Imports of Whale Meat

On top of the tens of thousands of tons of meat provided by its own hunts, Japan has also imported thousands of tons of products from fin whales caught in Iceland and smaller quantities from Norway. However, Iceland did not hunt any whales in 2019 and 2020, and—given the uncertainty about the Japanese market—it remains to be seen if Iceland’s whaling or exports will resume. Norway is actively looking at the Japanese market as its own domestic market declines. One Norwegian company has even established a branch in Japan to which it has exported hundreds of tons of whale meat and blubber that is sold alongside Japanese meat bought from Kyodo Senpaku and the ICR.

Last Updated: August 2020