The international court ruling against Japanese whaling two weeks ago may have given the Japanese government a convenient political out.
The Antarctic program was nearly bankrupt, but if the government had overhauled it on its own, it would have incurred the wrath of a strong anti-whaling lobby, and could have been criticized for caving in to foreign anti-whaling activists. Now officials can say the court forced their hand.
“It seemed to me they were anxious to lose,” said Masayuki Komatsu, a former Japanese fisheries official known for his battles at the International Whaling Commission to defend Japanese hunts.
He accused Japanese officials of losing “passion and love” for whaling and not fighting hard enough in court.
In a March 31 ruling, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered Japan to stop granting permits for its Antarctic whaling program, which allowed an annual cull of about 1,000 whales. The court, upholding arguments made by Australia, rejected Japan’s contention that the program was scientific.
Though top Japanese officials called the ruling regrettable, they announced within hours that Japan would abide by it. A day later, the Japanese Fisheries Agency said the country would skip the next Antarctic hunt.
“We didn’t go to court in order to lose,” a government official close to the case said on condition of anonymity, because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the issue. “But it was obvious that the whaling program had to be changed.”
In a way, the ruling was an example of gaiatsu, the external pressure that Japan has traditionally relied on to bring about change when vested interests are strong. It was the arrival of US Commodore Matthew Perry and his warships that forced Japan to end a long period of isolation. More recently, gaiatsu has pushed market opening and deregulation of the Japanese economy.
Many officials, even some in the fisheries circle, were long aware of the problems with the research program. However, few, if any, had incentive to fight the pro-whaling lobby: whalers, the whaling division of the Fisheries Agency, whaling-related businesses and powerful lawmakers. For them the ruling virtually takes care of what was long overdue, without anyone losing face.
“Unfortunately Japan cannot change its policies without gaiatsu, and [the ruling] definitely serves that role to finally bring about a change,” said Atsushi Ishii, an international relations expert in science and technology at Tohoku University.
Officially, Japan still defends whaling as a cultural tradition, and says the research hunts were collecting data to prove commercial hunting could be resumed sustainably. Japan’s coastal whaling dates back to the 12th century, though its Antarctic expeditions began only in the 1930s. The research hunts started in 1987 following an international moratorium on commercial whaling. The whale meat is sold at home to finance the program, but sales have fallen as whale meat became less popular, forcing sharp increases in government subsidies to keep the program afloat.
An initial subsidy of about ￥500 million (US$5 million) a year, or about 10 percent of its costs, grew to about ￥900 million in 2007, and is projected to exceed ￥5 billion for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. That includes costs related to Sea Shepherd, the activist group that tries to impede the hunt, such as the dispatch of a patrol ship with the fleet and repairing damage from high-seas collisions. The Sea Shepherd protests have also curtailed the catch and put Japan in a negative light internationally by focusing attention on the hunt.