Japan's Antarctic whale hunt set to resume. Why now?

After a two-year hiatus, Japanese whalers prepare to return to Antarctic waters. But the International Whaling Commission is asking whether Japan's hunts are truly scientific – or just a veiled commercial expedition?

Issei Kato/ Reuters/ File
Staff at the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry prepare for a whale tasting event during a promotional event in Tokyo in this November 2014 photo. Japan is preparing to launch a whale hunting expedition after a two-year hiatus, despite low levels of whale meat consumption.

Before the end of the year, Japanese whalers are scheduled to set out for Antarctic waters despite protests from the United Nations, International Whaling Commission member countries, and animal advocates. It's the continuation of a saga that Japan's chief whaling negotiator calls "a never-ending story."

For nearly two years, Japan's Fishing Agency has avoided killing whales in the Southern Ocean, after the UN's International Court of Justice ordered a halt in March 2014, concerned that the Agency's supposedly scientific mission could not justify killing vulnerable species. 

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission instated a moratorium on commercial whaling out of concern that whale populations were not sustainable. But Japan is not the only member country that uses loopholes to keep hunting: Norway and Iceland have also defended their right to whale, drawing the ire of many conservationists and even hacking group Anonymous, which brought down five Icelandic websites this weekend to protest the practice. 

Since the moratorium went into effect, Japan has switched its whaling focus to scientific research, saying its data would help inform decisions about the feasibility of future commercial hunts.

But whale meat from the missions is sold back at home, and Japan's hunts, which have killed about 13,000 whales since the ban, tend to draw special scrutiny, even though whale meat remains a relatively rare food in Japan. The IWC maintains that Japan has not proven it needs to kill Antarctic whales, but Tokyo argues that it does not need IWC permission.

The upcoming hunting season would net about 330 whales, according to Japanese business daily The Nikkei. 

Whaling official Joji Morishita told reporters that the debate was losing its scientific basis, becoming an emotional fight over "charismatic" animals and culture, calling the bans "environmental imperialism" that impose powerful countries' values on others.

"For example, if India becomes the world's number one power and starts to say 'Don't eat beef', what shall we do?'" he asked.

"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,'" Mr. Morishita explained at a news conference in 2014. 

Typically, "environmental imperialism" refers to the argument that wealthy nations are more concerned with preserving nature than helping undeveloped countries improve their standard of living, since development is so often powered by nonrenewable rsources. Conservationists counter that their goal is long-term sustainability worldwide, instead of short-term gains, and that eco-friendly solutions can offer a boost to poorer countries, too.

Differing attitudes toward whaling are on display each time an advocacy group such as Sea Shepherd disrupts a whaling mission, often tracking and harassing ships. As naturalist and writer C. W. Nicol notes in the Japan Times, Sea Shepherd has been classified as "pirates" by one US Court, and despised in Japan, but the group is lauded as animal heroes by many in the United States and Australia. 

But amid a steep decrease in whale-eating, many Japanese are questioning the idea that it is a "national" dish at all. 

Although traditional in some coastal regions, whaling only took off across the country as Japan rebuilt after World War II. During the 1960s, annual consumption reached more than 200,000 tons, whereas today, companies struggle to sell just 4,000 to 5,000 tons per year, relying on government subsidies to prop up the industry.

As the Monitor reported in 2014, nearly 90 percent of Japanese citizens surveyed in 2012 said they had not bought whale meat in the past year, creating an expensive stockpile of unsold meat.

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