University of Cambridge

Whaling In Japan


See also: History of whaling

Archeological evidence in the form of whale remains discovered in burial mounds suggests that whales have been consumed in Japan since the Jmon Period. Without the means to engage in active whaling, consumption primarily stemmed from stranded whales. Surviving Ainu folklore reveals a long history of whaling and a spiritual association with whales. The earliest records of hand thrown harpoons date only back to the 12th century.

Inshore Whaling in Taiji, Japan

Organized whaling

Organized open-boat shore whaling began in the 1570s; and continued into the early 20th century. Techniques were dramatically developed in the 17th century in Taiji, Wakayama. Wada Chubei Yorimoto established a fishery by organizing the group hunting system in 1606. Whalers would spot whales from stations along the shore and launch boats to catch them with harpoons and lances. His grandson, Wada Kakuemon Yoriharu, later known as Taiji Kakuemon Yoriharu, invented the whaling net technique called Amitori-shiki ().

Instead of trying to harpoon whales in open water, now twenty or more boats would encircle a whale and make a racket, driving it towards the shallows into nets wielded by a second group of six boats. There harpooners would approach in four boats of their own. The nets made escape more dificult and, in its struggle to escape, the whale tired sooner.

Right whales, humpback whales, fin, minke and gray whales were primarily hunted. Blue whales, sei, Bryde’s and sperm whales were however also taken when possible.

Once ashore, the whale was quickly flensed and divided into its separate parts for various warehouses and further processing. Although the primary use for whales was meat, the entire whale was utilized in a variety of products including lamp oil, soaps, fertilizer, folding fans (baleen), and more. This method of whaling required a significant financial investment from rich individuals to compensate for the sizable labor force. However, whaling remained entwined with ritual and unlike their contemporary European counterparts the early Japanese coastal whalers considered whales a valuable resource and did not over-exploit local stocks.


Norwegian-style modern whaling, based on the use of power-driven vessels, cannons and exploding harpoons, was introduced in the Meiji era largely through the efforts of Juro Oka who is now considered the father of modern Japanese whaling. Oka traveled the world gathering information about whaling practices including to Norway for harpoons, cannons and expertise. He also established the first modern whaling company in Japan in 1899, Nihon Enyo Gyogyo K.K. which took its first whale on February 4, 1900 with a Norwegian gunner, Morten Pedersen.

In the early 20th century, Juro Oka dominated the whale meat market in Japan with assistance and instruction from Norwegian whalers and their leased or purchased ships. Another boost was provided by the capture of a Russian whaling fleet and subsequent transfer to Toyo GyoGyo Co. Ltd. As Japan’s whaling industry expanded into new territory, including Korean waters, ship production and oil processing, Oka’s company (renamed Toyo Hogei K.K.) returned significant profits to its investors which led to increased Japanese competition. Oka later became the first president of the Japan Whaling and Fishing Association, established in 1908.

I am firmly convinced that we shall become one of the greatest whaling nations in the world. The whaling grounds round Korea and Japan offer unlimited possibilities, and should stocks of whales, contrary to expectations, fail in those areas, we have the Sea of Okhotsk and the Berring Sea to the north and we are aware of the great treasure houses to the south. The day will come when we shall hear one morning that whales have been caught in the Arctic and in the evening that whales are being hunted in the Antarctic.

Juro Oka – The father of modern Japanese whaling, 1910

However, at the start of the 20th century local traditions conflicted with modern whaling practices. In 1911 the conflict turned violent in Same Village, Aomori Prefecture. Ocean pollution from the whaling stations, including large quantities of oil and blood runoff, angered the local fishermen and threatened their own fishing grounds. In protest the fishermen burned a Toyo Hogei facility down. The people of the Same region also did not consume whales and considered them sacred.

The League of Nations raised concerns about the over-exploitation of whale stocks (perhaps due to the falling price of whale oil) and called for conservation measures in 1925. This eventually led to the Geneva Convention for the Regulation of Whaling which was presented in 1931 but did not enter into force until 1934 and was completely ignored by Japan and Germany.


Factory ships were not used by Japan until the 1930s. As whale catches diminished in coastal waters, Japan looked to Antarctica. Toyo Hogei K.K. purchased the Norwegian factory ship, Antarctic, renaming it the Tonan Maru in 1934. Refrigerator ships were sent along to freeze and transport the meat back to Japan. By capitalizing on both the meat and oil of whales Japanese industry continued to out-compete other whaling nations. Improvements in technology such as the world’s first diesel-powered catch boat, the Seki Maru, also increased the capacity to take whales. In the years building up to World War II, the Germans purchased whale oil from Japan and both nations used it in preparation for war.

In 1937 London, the International Conference on Whaling, which Japan did not attend, led to additional limits on pelagic whaling in order to prevent excessive exploitation (and specifically the extinction of the Blue whale) creating the International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling. Regarding voluntary acceptance of restrictions:

This is the more important in that Japan, who has not yet acceded to the 1931 Convention is largely increasing her whaling fleet in the Antarctic…

Regardless of efforts to establish limits, in part due to Japan ignoring an 89 day season limit and continuing for 125 days, a record 45,010 whales were taken in a single season. The Protocol to the International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling, signed in 1938, established additional restrictions on whaling. Despite the attendance of Japanese representatives, Japan did not sign the agreement and violated it by taking Humpback and undersized whales beginning five weeks prior to the defined start of the season. By 1939 Germany and Japan accounted for 30% of the world’s whale take.

World War II

The Tonan Maru No. 2 whaling factory ship, drafted into military use, damaged by a Dutch submarine while taking part in the landing at Kuching, Borneo.

During the second world war Japan’s whaling was significantly limited to more familiar hunting grounds, such as the Bonin Islands, to provide meat and oil for domestic and military use. Whaling there was halted in March, 1945 when the islands were taken by US forces. However, by November 1945 the whaling stations received permission to reopen. Most whaling ships were commandeered by the Japanese navy and by the end of the war the factory ships and most of the catch boats had been sunk.

General Douglas MacArthur encouraged the surrendered Japan to continue whaling in order to provide a cheap source of meat to starving people (and millions of dollars in oil for the USA and Europe). The Japanese whaling industry quickly recovered as MacArthur authorized two tankers, converted into factory ships (Hashidate Maru and Nisshin Maru), with catcher boats to once again, take blue whales, fins, humpbacks and sperm whales in the Antarctic and elsewhere.

The first post-war expedition was overseen by a US naval officer, Lieutenant David McCracken, and observed by Australian Kenneth Coonan. Coonan expressed disapproval of McCracken in his reports of violated regulations and waste dumped over the side when the fleet began killing whales faster than they could be processed. McCracken even briefly joined in whaling with the Japanese crew of a catch boat and detailed the trip in his 1948 book, Four Months on a Jap Whaler.

The post-war recovery established whale meat as a nation-wide food source for the first time. In 1947 whale meat made up over 50 percent of the meat consumed in Japan. The market significantly increased through commercial sale and public distribution. In 1954, the School Lunch Act also included whale meat in compulsory education (elementary and middle school) to improve the nutrition of Japanese children. However, as economic growth and average income improved, the demand for whale decreased. Other meats became more popular into the 1970s and whale meat was removed from school menus.


Signing the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, Washington, D.C. Dec 2nd, 1946

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was created in 1946 in Washington to “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”. Based on the previous 1937 International Agreement and subsequent Protocols to that agreement in 1938 and 1945, the ICRW led to the 1949 creation of the International Whaling Commission and consists of guidelines for the international regulation of coastal and pelagic whaling. Japan joined the IWC in 1951. (Critics charge that the IWC and ICRW have largely failed due to a lack of enforceable rules and regulatory loopholes)

Japan would later make heavy use of one particular article of the ICRW despite the condemnation of environmental organizations and anti-whaling nations.

Article VIII

1. Notwithstanding anything contained in this Convention any Contracting Government may grant to any of its nationals a special permit authorizing that national to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research subject to such restrictions as to number and subject to such other conditions as the Contracting Government thinks fit, and the killing, taking, and treating of whales in accordance with the provisions of this Article shall be exempt from the operation of this Convention. Each Contracting Government shall report at once to the Commission all such authorizations which it has granted. Each Contracting Government may at any time revoke any such special permit which it has granted.

2. Any whales taken under these special permits shall so far as practicable be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in accordance with directions issued by the Government by which the permit was granted.

Pirate Whaling

As the IWC enacted regulation regarding whaling a number of unregulated operations acting outside of the laws of member nations became notorious in the mid-late 20th century. For example, a large private whaling fleet was owned (through a variety of holding companies and flags of convenience) by shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and gained notoriety for ignoring all limits of size and species. When the Peruvian navy finally stopped and seized the Onassis fleet, just as sanctions were to be applied the entire fleet was sold to Japan for $8.5 million. Onassis’ factory ship, the Olympic Challenger, was renamed the Kyokuyo Maru II.

The Japanese trawler, Shunyo Maru, later became a combined catcher/factory whaling ship, MV Tonna, and was owned by Andrew M. Behr who also owned the infamous pirate whaling ship, Sierra. The Tonna is famous for its demise. In 1978 with full holds the Tonna landed another 50 ton Fin whale. As the whale was being winched aboard for processing the ship listed over, took on water and quickly sank. Behr and the Sierra were also linked to Japan’s Taiyo Fisheries Co. through a Canadian subsidiary (Taiyo Canada Ltd.) and with whale product for Japanese markets. The Sierra was severely damaged after being rammed by activist Paul Watson aboard his ship, the Sea Shepherd. The Sierra was later sunk in port by unknown saboteurs with limpet mines. Paul Watson continues to be a controversial figure at odds with whaling and particularly Japan. Taiyo and other Japanese fisheries have also been linked to pirate whaling through subsidiary companies in Taiwan, the Philippines, Spain, South Korea, Chile and Peru.


As quotas and resources were reduced and restrictions increased, the commercial viability of large competing whaling fleets was also diminished. In order to preserve the industry, six Japanese whaling companies negotiated an agreement through the Japan Fisheries Agency and talks in July 1975. The six companies (Nihon Suisan, Taiyo Gyogyo, Kyokuyo, Nitto Hogei, Nihon Hogei and Hokuyo Hogei) merged to create a new company, Nihon Kyodo Hogei Co., Ltd. on February 15, 1976. Former president of the Japan Fisheries Association and former Director-General of the Japan Fisheries Agency, Iwao Fujita, became the first Managing Director by appointment.

In April, 1976, Shintaro Abe, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, declared government support for the newly formed company.

We ask that the flame of the whaling industry will not be put out and that you do your best to secure Japan’s food supplies. The government will be doing all it can to actively support your efforts.

Minister Shintaro Abe, 1976

Nihon Kyodo Hogei Co. Ltd was later renamed Kyodo Senpaku Co. Ltd and merged with the Japan Whaling Association and Institute of Cetacean Research to create the modern Institute of Cetacean Research in 1987.


In 1972, the United Nations Environmental Conference produced a 52-0 vote in favor of a 10 year global moratorium on commercial whaling. However, the UN resolution was not adopted by the IWC by a vote of 6-no, 4-yes and 4-abstain. Japan, Russia, Iceland, Norway, South Africa and Panama voted no.

In 1973, a moratorium was once again proposed and voted down in the IWC lacking the required 3/4 majority. (8-yes, 5-no, 1-abstain). Japan, Russia, Iceland, Norway and South Africa voted no.

Between 1973 and 1982 the IWC would see its membership increase from 14 member nations to 37 perhaps stacking the vote in favor of anti-whaling nations.

In 1980 and 1981 two more votes failed to establish a moratorium by a 3/4 majority.(13-9-2 and 16-8-3)

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) finally voted in favor of a moratorium on commercial whaling to go into force in 1986 (25-7-5). Japan objected to the moratorium and continued whaling (Under the ICRW an objecting nation is exempted from the disputed regulations. Japan also continued to hunt sperm whales despite a 1981 IWC zero catch quota.). The United States would play a significant role in Japan’s acceptance of a global moratorium on commercial whaling due to its domestic laws. In particular the 1971 Pelly Amendment to the US Fishermen’s Protection Act gives the US President legal authority to prohibit importation of fish products from any nation that is diminishing the effectiveness of fisheries conservation programs. It was later strengthened by the 1979 Packwood-Magnuson Amendment to the Fishery Conservation and Management Act giving the same sanctioning power with regard to the ICRW.

Potential US sanctions jeopardized Japanese fisheries access to Alaskan waters and a million tonnes of fish (est $425 million annually). A negotiated settlement was reached allowing Japan to continue commercial whaling without the threat of US sanctions until 1988 with an agreement to drop Japan’s objection to the moratorium in 1985. However, conservation groups sued the United States Secretary of Commerce claiming that the law did not allow any deals only to be finally defeated by the US Supreme Court in 1986. As agreed Japan withdrew its objection to the moratorium and ceased commercial whaling by 1988. (Japan’s access to Alaskan waters was later phased out anyway, partly due to pressure from US fishermen and conservationists)

Research Whaling

In 1976, the quota for Southern Hemisphere Bryde’s whales was set to zero by the IWC. However, Japan proceeded to take 225 of them during the 76-77 season by issuing itself a permit to take whales for scientific research under Article VIII of the ICRW. Following this event, the IWC recommended all future applications of Article VIII be reviewed by the IWC scientific committee.

In 1986, Japan introduced a similar proposal and later issued itself a scientific permit to take 825 minke whales and 50 sperm whales every year for ten years. Despite the fact that the IWC scientific committee rejected its research proposals Japan continued whaling.

The IWC adopted a resolution in 1987 recommending Japan not proceed until disagreements over its research proposals were resolved. A second resolution was also adopted on February 14, 1988 recommending Japan not proceed. On February 9, 1988 Japanese whalers killed the first minke whale in Antarctic waters under the new self issued research whaling permit. U.S. President Ronald Reagan responded by cutting off Japanese fishing privileges in U.S. waters on April 6, 1988 under the Packwood-Magnuson Amendment.

Given the lack of any evidence that Japan is bringing its whaling activities into conformance with the recommendations of the IWC, I am directing the Secretary of State under the Packwood-Magnuson Amendment to withhold 100 percent of the fishing privileges that would otherwise be available to Japan in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. Japan has requested the opportunity to fish for 3,000 metric tons of sea snails and 5,000 metric tons of Pacific whiting. These requests will be denied. In addition, Japan will be barred from any future allocations of fishing privileges for any other species, including Pacific cod, until the Secretary of Commerce determines that the situation has been corrected.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan, 1988

Japan has since conducted research whaling programs in the North Pacific (JARPN 1994-1999, JARPN II 2000resent) and in Antarctica (JARPA 1988-2005, JARPA II 2005resent). Each program has met considerable disagreement in the IWC which adopted several resolutions urging Japan not to continue. Both the value of the research was questioned as well as the necessity of lethal methods.

After over 50 years of control, Japan’s center-right conservative party, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), lost in 2009 elections to the opposing left, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Environmental organizations had hoped the change in government would bring about an end to Japanese whaling. However, in 2009 the Foreign Minister of Japan, Katsuya Okada, explained that whaling would continue to receive support as a matter of policy.

International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulations may impact Japan’s whaling programs in the future. In Antarctica, the use of heavy fuel-oil will be banned, new ice-resistant standards for hull design will be imposed and the dumping of whaling related waste may be forbidden.


Japanese whaling is conducted in both pelagic (open-ocean) areas in the North Pacific Ocean and the Southern Ocean near Antarctica. Coastal waters are also utilized for small-type coastal whaling of dolphins and other small cetaceans. Large and small whales are sometimes taken as bycatch in the nets of Japanese fishing vessels as well.

Pelagic Whaling

Japan’s pelagic whaling fleet, which annually hunts large whales in the Southern Ocean, consists of a number of ships for hunting and processing whale catch as well as securing the hunt against protests. During the 2009-10 season, the Japanese fleet included a factory ship, four harpoon ships and two security patrol vessels. The Japanese quota includes 935 minke, 50 fin and 50 humpback whales per season.

When whales are spotted the harpoon ships will engage in pursuit. A harpoon cannon with a grenade tipped harpoon is fired at the target whale. A rope is trailed from the harpoon in order to prevent the whale from being lost. If the whale is struck and not killed instantly by the explosive tipped harpoon, a second harpoon may be used or the whale may be shot with a rifle until dead. A past method of using a second harpoon to electrocute whales is now forbidden by the IWC. Environmental groups have reported whales being dragged backward and drowned.

Each caught whale is secured to the side of a harpoon ship with rope. Lines are later used to transfer the whales from the harpoon ship to the factory ship. Whales are next winched onto the factory ship through a slipway at the aft of the vessel. On the flensing deck several workers use specialized tools to butcher the whale. Usable product is delivered to the lower decks of the ship for further processing and refrigerated storage. Excess or byproduct material is dumped back into the ocean.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a direct action group opposed to this whaling, attempts to annually disrupt the Japanese whaling operations with the aim of preventing as many whales as possible from being killed.

New regulations from the United Nations International Maritime Organization due to take effect in July 2011 will make it illegal for the Nisshin Maru to operate below 60 degrees south but all of the Japanese pelagic whaling is done inside the area. The new rules prohibit ships using heavy oil in the Antarctic Treaty System area because of the harm a spill would cause. Furthermore, the IMO’s Guidelines For Ships Operating In Ice-Covered Waters put requirements on safety and hull-strength which the Nisshin Maru does not fulfill.

Small Type Coastal Whaling

See also: Dolphin drive hunting

Coastal fishing fleets that hunt dolphins use many small boats in a coordinated effort. The fishermen bang metal poles in the water in order to frighten and therefore guide noise-sensitive dolphins toward the shore. A series of nets are then used to corral the dolphins in. Divers and fishermen in boats next lance or cut the throats of the dolphins and haul them away to a nearby shore station for processing. A few dolphins are selected for sale to aquariums and spared for the marine park entertainment industry.

The practice of dolphin drive hunting in Taiji, Japan was recently the subject of a documentary film entitled The Cove.

Japanese whalers have hunted Baird’s beaked whales on the Boso Peninsula, Wada, since the 1600s. Once landed just off the coast of Japan, the beaked whales are pulled onto a landing station with ropes and then butchered for sale. The meat is sold as food and the rest is used for fertilizer.

In May 2007 the IWC rejected a proposal to expand coastal catches. The quota was limited to a total of 66 whales between four whaling towns. The whalers of Wada encourage local children to attend the first butchering of each season followed by a community event where whale meat is served.

According to the Japan Fisheries Agency up to 20,000 dolphins of several species will be taken, in many locations along the coast of Japan, over the course of a six-month season.


In 2009, published DNA analysis of whale meat from Japanese markets suggested as many as 150 large whales, from vulnerable coastal stocks were taken annually as bycatch. Japan legally allows the commercial sale of whales caught, incidentally, entangled in fishing nets designed to catch coastal fish. Market surveys also detected migratory whales such as Humpbacks, Fin whales, Bryde’s whales and Gray whales some of which are endangered species.

The impact on J-stock whales, which have protected status under the IWC, seemingly increased with changes in Japanese regulations that legalized the sale of bycatch in 2001. Between 1997 and 2000 only 19-29 whales were annually reported caught as bycatch. The number increased to 89 – 137 annually between 2001 and 2004. However, the study concluded from genetic information that the actual amount of bycatch was similarly high prior to the 2001 regulations but was under-reported. Up to 46% of the samples tested proved to be J-stock.

Prior to the 2001 change in regulations, fishermen could not legally sell Minke whales to commercial firms and were supposed to sell them locally or destroy them and report the incident. The high percentage of J-stock bycatch presents a significant threat including the possibility of extinction within a few decades according to IWC population estimates.


In 2009 Japan accepted imports of whale meat from Norway and Iceland for the first time in over a decade. The Norwegian shipment arrived in mid 2008 but was held by Japanese customs until January, 2009 when the Japan Fisheries Agency finally approved the import.

The international trade of whale meat is prohibited by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). However, Japan, Norway and Iceland registered reservations with the treaty in order to remain exempt. The Norwegian company, Myklebust Trading, exports common Minke whale and Iceland’s Hvalur hf exports Fin whale, which is an endangered species. Environmental organizations criticized the trade and expressed doubts that Japanese markets could absorb the increase in supply as thousands of tonnes of whale meat remained in cold storage in Japan.

Scientific Research

See also: Institute of Cetacean Research

After halting its commercial whaling, Japan began scientific research hunts to provide a basis for the resumption of sustainable whaling. According to environmental groups and the Australian Environment Minister, the ostensible research serves to disguise commercial whaling in circumvention of the IWC moratorium. The IWC Scientific Committee collects up-to-date data on catch limits and catches taken since 1985. Numbers have ranged from less than 200 in 1985 to close to 1,000 in 2007.

The research is conducted by the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), a privately-owned, non-profit institution. The institute receives its funding from government subsidies and Kyodo Senpaku, which handles processing and marketing of byproducts such as whale meat. Japan carries out its whaling in two areas: the North-West Pacific Ocean (JARPN II) and the Antarctic Ocean (JARPA) Southern Hemisphere catch. The 2007/08 JARPA mission had a quota of 900 minke whales and 50 fin whales.


Japanese whale catches from 1985-2006

IWC – Japan Catches Under Objection (19851988)






N Pacific





S Hemisphere





IWC – Japan Special Permit Catches (19882009)








N Pacific







S Hemisphere








The research program took place near Antarctica from 1988 to 2005. Its stated objectives were to determine mortality rates, whale stock numbers and structure, the role of whales in the Antarctic ecosystem and how environmental changes affect whales. The whaling operation alternated between several pre-established areas intending to take 400 or more minke whales per season.

In 1997 the IWC scientific committee officially reviewed the JARPA program. The committee expected reasonable precision and usefulness of the data collected but disagreed on whether lethal methods were necessary. It was also noted that the results could potentially allow for an increase in the number of minke whales annually taken.

In the final 2007 review the committee agreed with the initial 1997 mid assessment. It recognized that progress had been made in identifying stock structure and at least two stocks were found in the research area. Agreed estimates of abundance could not be developed and preliminary estimates may only reflect major changes in abundance over a long time line. Problems were identified with age and mortality rate data. Krill-related work was welcomed but relatively little progress was made toward understanding the role of whales in the Antarctic ecosystem. Data on pollution was also welcomed but disagreement continued over the analysis of the results. Levels of toxic pollutants were lower in Antarctic whales than those sampled in the Northern hemisphere.

The commission made note of the fact that the catches took place in the IWC established Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and that improving management of whaling in a sanctuary is unnecessary. The 2007-1 resolution on JARPA is one of several calling on Japan by majority vote to suspend its lethal research.


Like its predecessor, the research whaling program takes place near Antarctica. Starting in 2005 and continuing to the present day, objectives include monitoring the Antarctic ecosystem, modeling competition between whale species, recording changes in stock structure and improving future management of Antarctic whales. The program calls for 850 or more Antarctic minke whales, 50 fin whales and 50 humpback whales per season. (a quota for humpback whales has not yet been implemented due to intense international opposition)

Disagreement over the value of the research, the use of lethal methods and the sample sizes continued in both the scientific committee and the commission. In 2005 and 2007 the commission passed resolutions by majority urging Japan to stop all lethal research in JARPA II.


From 1994 to 1999 Japan carried out its research program JARPN in the western North Pacific. Its stated goals were to improve knowledge of stock identity, improve Implementation Simulation Trials for North Pacific Common Minke whales and act as a feasibility study for a program on feeding ecology. The program called for 100 minke whales annually. The results were reviewed by committee in February, 2000. The committee agreed that the information was useful for management but no consensus was reached on whether lethal methods of research were necessary.

As with JARPA, the IWC issued resolutions calling for Japan to cease issuing permits for the take of Minke whales citing concerns over the need for lethal methods such as the 1999-3 Resolution on whaling under Special Permit.


JARPN II began with a feasibility study from 2000 to 2001 to continue taking whales in the western North Pacific Ocean including 100 common minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales and 10 sperm whales. The objectives of the program included study of feeding ecology (such as prey consumption), stock structure and the environmental impacts of cetaceans. In 2002 after the completion of the initial study Japan proposed and began a long-term program to study how feeding ecology relates to sustainable use in the Pacific and within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. In 2008 the program included a proposal for an annual take of 340 minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales, 100 sei and 10 sperm whales.

Disagreement over the objectives, methodology, effect on stocks and overall success of the program continued in the scientific committee review of the feasibility study and full program. The full program introduced a change from previous use of the ICRW Article VIII research provision by not specifying an end date. The objectives were deemed unnecessary for stock management by some members and would not contribute significantly to previously identified research needs. The sample size and methods proposed were unlikely to satisfy program objectives and the ecosystem modeling was considered to be poorly developed.

Some contended the program placed undue emphasis on assumed negative effects of cetacean predation on fishery resources while failing to address the effects of fisheries on cetaceans. However, others believed determining the effects of cetaceans on fish stocks and more information on minke stock structure to be critically important. Some stated the feasibility study would provide valuable information on methodology and other aspects of the program would improve over time and contribute to fundamental questions. The committee identified that the pollution objective did not contribute to the goals of the IWC Pollution 2000+ project but remained relevant to the IWC for long term study.

Disagreement over the value of data obtained through lethal methods continued as well. Some argued that a wide range of questions could be answered through non-lethal means such as “for pollutant monitoring (biopsy sampling for fatty acid and stable isotope analysis), for stock structure (photo identification, biopsy sampling and faecal sampling), and for feeding ecology (faecal sampling).” Others argued that prey data was required for modeling purposes that could not be acquired through non-lethal means. However, feeding ecology was not necessarily relevant to stock management according to some who argued biopsy sampling would allow for a greater amount of statistical data.

Argument continued over the potential negative effects of catches, such as stock depletion of O-stock and J-stock whales, when the only data on many of the populations came from selective extrapolations of JSV (survey) data. Proponents contended that the JSV data was reliable and the research area extended from coastal areas to offshore areas thus limiting pressure on coastal stocks.

In 2000, 2001 and 2003 more resolutions were passed by the IWC urging Japan to cease issuing special permits for whaling and limit research to non-lethal methods. The most recent Scientific Committee review was conducted in January, 2009.


In 2008, a study based on data gathered by Japanese lethal research was published in a peer reviewed Western academic journal, Polar Biology, after being rejected by several other publications. The study, in which 6779 whales were sampled and more than 4500 killed, implied that Antarctic Minke whales lost 9% of their blubber over 18 years due to a lack of ocean resources such as krill. Lars Walloe, a Norwegian of the University of Oslo, assisted with analyzing the data and claimed the study was first rejected for political reasons. Dr. Nick Gales, of the Australian Antarctic Division, stated the study failed to address criticisms of its methodology when initially presented. The study also contradicted previously presented JARPA data used to indicate Antarctic Minke whale populations were healthy.


See also: Whaling controversy

Anti-whaling governments and groups have strongly opposed Japan’s whaling program. Greenpeace argues that whales are endangered and must be protected. The Japanese government strongly supports the protection of endangered species but claims that scientific whaling is essential to gather information about the status of the various populations. It furthermore maintains that the scale of the research is such that it does not affect the stock of the species. The 1985 IWC estimate put the Southern Hemisphere Minke whale population at 761,000 (510,000 – 1,140,000 in the 95% confidence estimate). A paper submitted to the IWC on population estimates in Antarctic waters using CNB gives a population of 665,074 based on Southern Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research Programme (SOWER) data. In recent years Japan has caught up to 1100 minke whales 0.2% of the lower-bound on the 1985 95% confidence estimate.

Research methodology has come under scrutiny as it has been argued that non-lethal methods of research are available and that Japan’s research whaling is commercial whaling in disguise. The Japanese claim that the accuracy of tissue and feces samples is insufficient and lethal sampling is necessary.

In 2002, the World Wildlife Fund published an open letter to the Japanese (in both Japanese and English text) in the New York Times signed by a group of international scientists, stating their assertion that “Japan’s whale ‘research’ program fails to meet minimum standards for credible science”. They accused Japan of “using the pretense of scientific research to evade its commitments to the world community”. Signatories to the letter included Sylvia Earle (former Chief Scientist of the NOAA), Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara (former President of the European Cetacean Society) and Roger Payne (founder of the Ocean Alliance).

In Volume 53, No. 3 of the journal Bio Science, twenty members of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission confirmed “that the signers of the open letter correctly summarized criticisms made by researchers very familiar with Japanese scientific whaling”, and that “so little of any significance to IWC management can be obtained only from whaling catches that it is impossible to justify killing animals on this basis”.

A 2006 episode of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s popular science show Catalyst, which strongly argued against whaling, reported that of the 18 year JARPA I program, which lethally obtained samples from 6800 whales, less than 55 peer-reviewed papers were produced, of which only 14 were claimed on the program to be relevant to the goals of the JARPA program, and that only four would require lethal sampling. Some of the research includes a paper named Fertilizability of ovine, bovine, and minke whales spermatazoa intracytoplasmically injected into bovine oocytes. Joji Morishita of JARPA has said the number of samples was required in order to obtain statistically significant data. More detailed list of Scientific papers presented to IWC up to 2005.

Sea Shepherd contests that Japan, as well as Iceland and Norway, is in violation of the IWC moratorium on all commercial whaling.

Anti-whaling campaigners claim that the Japanese public does not support the government for its whaling policy. However, all the major political parties from the right wing LDP to the Japanese Communist Party do support whaling. The meat ends up at Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market and other high-end restaurants.

Japanese fisheries companies have expanded abroad and endured pressure from partners and environmental groups. Five large fishing companies transferred their whaling fleet shares to public interest corporations in 2006. In 2007, Kyokuyo and Maruha, two of Japan’s four largest fishing companies, decided to end their sales of whale meat due to pressure from partners and environmental groups in the US.

Cultural aspects

Proponents of Japanese whaling (including the Government of Japan) often argue that it is a cultural practice which foreigners should not oppose on the basis of cultural differences. Joji Morishita of Japanese Fisheries Agency in 2001 noted that the Japanese public also feels that anti-whaling groups are covertly racist. With Norway and Iceland hunting whales on a commercial basis, according to Morishita, “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.”

However, critics have forcibly attacked the “cultural” defense, with for example Sea Shepherd Conservation Society representatives comparing it to forced female genital cutting in Sudan, another practice that may have cultural roots but still needs to be opposed.

Debate in the IWC

For more details on the debate, see International Whaling Commission#Politics.

The most vocal opponents of the Japanese push for a resumption of commercial whaling are Australia, New Zealand,and the United Kingdom. The Australian government’s stated purpose for opposing whaling is the need for conservation of endangered species. The New Zealand government is opposed to hunting whales for food or research and the UK government believes that “that whaling does not serve any genuine need and involves unacceptable cruelty.”

In July 2004 it was reported that a working group of the Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic had drawn up plans to leave the IWC in order to join a new pro-whaling organization, NAMMCO, because of the IWC’s refusal to back the principle of sustainable commercial whaling. Japan is particularly opposed to the IWC Conservation Committee, introduced in 2003, which it says exists solely to prevent any whaling. Any directives from the IWC are undertaken on a purely voluntary basis as state sovereignty means that there are few avenues by which international law can be enforced.

At an IWC meeting in 2006, a resolution calling for the eventual return of commercial whaling was passed by a majority of just one vote. There has been a failure to lift the ban on commercial whale hunting and Japan has since threatened to pull out of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

In 2007 the IWC passed a resolution asking Japan to refrain from issuing a permit for lethal research in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary – the main Japanese whaling area.

After a visit to Tokyo by the chairman of the IWC, asking the Japanese for their co-operation in sorting out the differences between pro- and anti-whaling nations on the Commission, the Japanese whaling fleet agreed that no humpback whales would be caught for the two years it would take for the IWC to reach a formal agreement.

Australian opposition

Due to the proximity to Australia the government of Australia has been particularly vocal in its opposition to Japan’s whaling activity in the Southern Pacific. In 1994, Australia claimed a 200-nautical-mile (370 km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Australian Antarctic Territory, which also includes a southerly portion of the IWC Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. In December 2007, the Rudd government announced plans to monitor Japanese whalers about to enter Australian waters in order to gather evidence for a possible international legal challenge and on January 8, 2008 the Australian government sent the Australian customs vessel Oceanic Viking to track and monitor the fleet. Although this vessel was later redeployed on customs-related business to waters north of Australia, as of January 2010, it is not in pursuit of the Japanese whaling fleet.

In late 2009, the Prime Minister of Australia restated official objections to Japan’s whaling programs and threatened to take legal action through international courts.

We, if we cannot resolve this matter diplomatically, will take international legal action. I’m serious about it, I would prefer to deal with it diplomatically, but if we cannot get there, that’s the alternative course of action.

Australian PM Kevin Rudd, 2009

Opposition by environmental groups

The Japanese whaling fleet had several clashes with anti-whaling protesters and activists from various groups, including the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, attempting to follow, document and disrupt the whaling fleet since the 2005-2006 season. On January 15, 2008 two crew members traveling on the MV Steve Irwin boarded the whaling ship Yushin Maru 2 without permission and were subsequently detained onboard the ship for a number of days. Japan claimed that four crew members on board a Japanese whaling ship in Antarctic waters were injured March 3, 2008 when the anti-whaling group threw butyric acid on board.

Japan confirmed the later throwing of “Flashbang” grenades onto the Sea Shepherd ship, MV Steve Irwin by their whaling ship, Nisshin Maru. Japan also confirmed firing a “warning shot” into the air. The captain of the Steve Irwin, Paul Watson, claimed to have been hit in the chest by a bullet from a Japanese whaling ship crewmember, and a piece of metal was found lodged into his bullet-proof vest he was wearing at the time. On February 7, 2009 the MV Steve Irwin collided with one of the two Japanese vessels as it was attempting to transfer a whale. Both sides claimed the other had been at fault.

In January 2010, it was revealed that the Japanese whaling fleet was chartering flights in Australian planes from Hobart and Albany to track the Sea Shepherd ships’ movements and provide information on their location to the whaling fleet so the fleet could evade them. The flights were heavily criticised by the Australian Greens who explained that they will introduce a bill to attempt to ban activities associated with whaling in Australia when the Senate resumes in early February.[citation needed]

On January 6, 2010, the anti-whaling ship Ady Gil suffered severe damage to its bow after a collision with the Japanese whaling ship Shnan Maru No. 2, and later sank in the Southern Ocean despite attempts by the Sea Shepherd to save it. Video footage of the incident was taken by both a crew member of the Shonan Maru No. 2 and Sea Shepherd members on board the Bob Barker and posted on YouTube.

International opposition

On March 6, 2008 members of the International Whaling Commission met in London to discuss reaching an agreement on whale conservation rules. Japanese whalers and anti-whaling activists clashed in the waters near Antarctica on March 7, 2008, with each side offering conflicting accounts of the confrontation. The IWC called upon the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to refrain from dangerous actions and reiterated its condemnation of any actions that are a risk to human life and property in relation to the activities of vessels at sea.

On March 8, 2008, Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Derek Sikua said that Japan had offered to pay for the country’s delegates to attend the March 6, 2008 IWC meeting in London. Hideki Moronuki, the whaling chief at Japan’s Fisheries Agency, denied the allegation saying, “There is no truth to it.” He further stated that “Sikua may have confused the London meet with a seminar last week in Tokyo to which Japan invited delegates from 12 developing nations that have recently joined or are considering joining the IWC. Japan sometimes holds small seminars on whaling and invites delegates from countries. I wonder if Mr Sikua mixed up such seminars and IWC meetings,”

Commercial Viability

Due to its low food self-sufficiency rate, around 40%, Japan relies on stockpiling to secure a stable food supply. As of 2009, Japan’s 1.2 million ton seafood stockpile included nearly 5000 tons of whale meat. Japan has started to serve whale meat in school lunches as part of a government initiative to reduce the amounts. However, there has been criticism of serving whale meat to school children due to allegations of toxic methyl mercury levels. The World Wildlife Fund has also estimated that the Japanese government has had to invest $12 million into the 2008-09 Antarctic whale hunt alone just to break even, and that subsidies in total have amounted to approximately $150 million since 1988.

Media Attention

Western media attention to Japan’s whaling industry has increased.

Animal Planet’s television series, “Whale Wars”, places a camera crew on board the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling activist ship to document the annual interference with Japan’s Antarctic whaling program. Japan has denounced the program as deceptive and supportive of eco-terrorists to increase ratings. Animal Planet has made requests to also film from the perspective of Japan’s whaling fleet but the requests were denied.

The animated series “South Park” on Comedy Central recently lampooned both Japan’s whaling traditions and the anti-whaling activists featured on “Whale Wars”.

A 2009 award winning documentary, “The Cove”, focused entirely on Japan’s dolphin drive fisheries, mercury content of dolphin meat and the whaling town, Taiji. The film also concentrated on the difficulty in observing Taiji fishermen at work due to obstruction from the local community, police and inaccessible locations. The documentary was shown at the 2009 Tokyo International Film Festival. Representatives from Taiji have denounced the film as factually incorrect and biased and have threatened to sue the director.

See also


History of Whaling

Aboriginal whaling


Dolphin drive hunting

Convention of Kanagawa

International Whaling Commission

Nisshin Maru

Oriental Bluebird


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