Almost nobody in Japan eats whale. Why is whaling so important to Japan?

The economics of whale hunting simply don't make sense, suggesting a Japanese cultural need to defy international regulations. 

Families of crew members wave as Japanese whaling vessel Yushin Maru leaves for the Antarctic Ocean at a port in Shimonoseki, southwestern Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo December 1, 2015.

Flouting international regulations, a Japanese whaling fleet of four vessels with 160 crew members left for the Antarctic Tuesday morning to hunt 333 minke whales. 

Japan says that the whale hunt is necessary for scientific research, a claim rejected by the International Court of Justice, which found that the Japanese organization charged with regulating whaling, the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), has only published two papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals since 2005. Critics of whaling point to the wealth of scientific data that can be gleaned from DNA sampling  of live whales.

So to build further support for whaling, Japanese whaling advocates have turned to an economic argument.

"It is a tricky issue for Japanese authorities," Patrick Ramage, whale program director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Tuesday. "They claim they are whaling for non-commercial reasons, but the practice certainly makes no sense economically. $400 million over the past 20 years has been used to prop up a dying industry."

And further scrutiny shows that even those economic incentives are weak. Few fishermen are paid by the government to whale hunt and fish distributors hardly view whale meat as the cash cow of the sea. 

As the Monitor reported in 2014, 95 percent of Japanese never or rarely eat whale meat and 88.8 percent of Japanese had not bought whale meat in the last 12 months. While Japanese may have welcomed whale meat on their plates after World War II, almost 10 million pounds of unsold whale meat now sits in freezers at ports.

The revenue of whale meat sales to markets and restaurants is so low, that it can no longer fund the activity. Whaling now continues because of significant government subsidies, The Japan Times reports.

And according to the IFAW, whaling subsidies are paid for by taxpayer dollars and reallocation of emergency relief funds. Taxpayer subsidies average around 795 million yen (US $9.94 million) annually through Japan’s ICR. Even with government subsidies, the ICR has been operating at a loss over the last five years, the IFAW reports.

If the economic explanations don’t add up, then international opponents are left to look for a larger cultural incentive. Namely, the Japanese don’t want to be told what to do. 

“When you go out and ask ordinary Japanese about the whaling issue, they’re going to say ‘I don’t eat whale meat, however I don’t like the idea of beef-eating people or pork-eating people saying to Japanese, stop eating whales,’” Joji Morishita, Japan’s commissioner to the International Whaling Commission, explained in a news conference in 2014.

Right-wing activists said at a 2012 pro-whaling rally “Killing the practice of whale hunting is the same as killing the Japanese people.”

Mr. Ramage tells The Monitor that eventually Japan will make the same migration as the US and other countries to a non-whaling culture, but the decision has to be decided in Tokyo not Washington. "They don't appreciate foreigners coming and telling them what to do," he says. 

Because the Japanese consume more fish per capita than any other industrialized nation, safeguarding their whale trade could be a preemptive measure to secure larger fishing rights. Further understanding of this domino theory suggests the Japanese whale trade is less about whales and more about the general Japanese diet. 

Morishita said in an interview in 2000 that ending the Japanese whale trade, even though there are no longer economic benefits to meat sales, would “set a precedent” and “once the principle of treating wildlife as a sustainable resource is compromised, our right to exploit other fish and animal products would be infringed upon.”

And the magazine Shukan Toyo Keizai quoted a government source in 2008 as saying “If we give an inch on the whaling issue, we will also have to back down on tuna.”

"The domino theory applied to the whaling debate may deliver short term support domestically," explains Ramage, "but it doesn't stand up internationally as a reason to go on with whaling on the high seas."

In an earlier version of this story Patrick Ramage's name was misspelled.

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