On Wednesday, Japan launched a new 12-year whaling program in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. For 2017, the program will target 43 minke whales and 134 endangered sei whales, enough for a total catch of at least six million pounds.
The total target numbers are lower than in years past: the take has gradually fallen from a peak harvest of 375 whales in 2005, in line with falling demand for whale meat among the Japanese public. Although numbers are down, animal rights groups are concerned that Japan plans to target sei whales, which are on the CITES 1 list of species that cannot be commercially traded.
Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research harvests several hundred whales a year for what it describes as scientific purposes, then sells them to distributors for food, a revenue-generating program that underwrites a portion of its research. While Japan maintains that the program is conducted for legitimate scientific purposes, most foreign observers contend that the research is a form of diplomatic cover for commercial whaling, which is banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The IWC and the International Court of Justice in the Hague have both concluded that the program does not contribute to scientific knowledge. (Norway and Iceland continue whaling for commercial purposes in spite of the ban, without describing it as research.)
While Japan's whaling continues, underwritten by the government, Japanese consumers are eating much less whale meat than in years past. Growing awareness of the high levels of mercury, cadmium, PCBs, dioxins and pesticides found in cetaceans may play a contributing role in declining demand.
Chris Burgess, a lecturer in Japanese Studies at Tsuda Juku University, suggests that Japan's insistence on whaling has much more to do with identity than with market demand. “The growing polarisation of the debate, with ‘Western’ moral and green arguments being matched in emotional intensity by the Japanese emphasis on national pride and racial identity, make prospects for a compromise more distant than they have ever been,” he wrote for The Asia-Pacific Journal last year. "The issue of whaling has been portrayed by its Japanese supporters as one of racial prejudice, discrimination, and persecution by white people against the Japanese race."
In past statements, Japanese officials have confirmed these sentiments. "Singling out [Japan's] whaling is cultural imperialism – some people would say it's racism. Norway and Iceland are also whalers, but the criticism of Japan is stronger," said Fisheries Agency official Joji Morishita in an interview with the BBC in 2001.
The “cultural identity” argument also includes a question of fairness: why is Japanese consumption of marine mammals any different from foreigners' consumption of land mammals? "To the Japanese, it is hypocritical that Westerners consider it morally wrong to kill certain mammals such as whales but consider it acceptable to kill others, such as kangaroos (in Australia) and cattle (in the United States)," writes Prof. Keiko Hirata of California State University-Northridge.
In a 2006 essay, Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson pushed back against these cultural defenses of whaling, including the charge that Westerners are biased. "The opposition of the killing of anything cannot be dismissed as racist. There is no racial or cultural justification for slaughter. None. Especially for a practise that is not, and has never been, a tradition," he argued.