Why Does Japan Continue to Hunt Whales?

Amid international protest, Japan continues to hunt and kill hundreds of whales every year. Why do they do it?

Despite a ruling from the International Court of Justice insisting that Japan stop hunting whales, they continue to hunt and kill hundreds of whales every year. Their excuse is that it's for scientific research, but the real reasons are much more complex than that.

Whaling has a long history in Japan and was once deeply rooted in their culture. Around the turn of the 20th century, a Japanese researcher named Juro Oka went to Europe to learn the trade of whaling. Upon his return, he vowed that Japan would become "one of the greatest whaling nations in the world."

Oka turned out to be right. Throughout the early 1900's Japan was among the top whaling nations in the world, along with Norway, Germany and the U.K. However, in the 1930's, overfishing started to become a problem. The U.K. and U.S. started to regulate whaling, but Japan chose to ignore these rules.

It wasn't until post-WWII, after Japan suffered such devastation, that they somewhat changed their tune. In 1951 they joined the International Whaling Commission, which sought to regulate whaling globally.

But that doesn't mean Japan stopped whaling. Even though commercial whaling gradually lost support during the second half of the 20th Century, and in 1986 the International Whaling Commission put an indefinite prohibition on commercial whaling altogether, Japan continues to do it.

The reason they're able to get away with this is because of a somewhat ambiguous loophole in the whaling regulations. International law states that governments can allow whaling for scientific purposes. Since the 1980's, Japan has maintained this as the reason for their whaling practices.

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But that doesn't sit well with many people worldwide. Especially because much of that whale meat still ends up on dinner plates across Japan. One Japanese official went on record in 2012 saying that whale meat is "said to have a very good flavor and aroma when eaten as sashimi and the like."

Japan also insist that not only does whale meat taste good, but they are legally obligated to use the meat, somehow, from the hunted whales.

"The fact that the whale meat - which we call by-product - is sold is because the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling specifically requires that the by-product of research be processed. It is a legally binding obligation," Dan Goodman, councilor to Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research told told BBC News in a 2008 article.

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Yet one of the most peculiar things in all of this is that Japan primarily hunts Minke whales, and in fairly low numbers, usually less than 1,000 annually. Not only are Minke whales not at all endangered, but other countries like Norway and Iceland also hunt them. They don't even use scientific research as a scapegoat, they just continue to do it in open defiance of international law.

So why is Japan the main country being criticized for their whaling practices? Well one reason is that eating whale meat is a big deal to some people, and even though it is consumed in fairly low numbers, it's still being eaten in Japan. But the argument that whales shouldn't be eaten is culturally subjective.

In a 2001 article, Setsuo Izumi, who at the time had been whaling for 37 years, told the Guardian, "What we eat is different from country to country. It's a cultural thing. In Australia they eat kangaroo but I don't want to eat kangaroo."

In India, most people don't eat beef as cows are considered holy to Hindus, but in 2012, Americans consumed nearly 60 pounds of beef per person.

A lot of of the judgement around Japan's whaling also has to do with how vague they seem to be about the whole operation. They continue to insist that they're hunting whales for scientific research, but in 2015 the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan's whaling could not reasonably be considered scientific and ordered them to stop.

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Japan didn't stop though, and during their 2015 - 2016 whaling season, they killed 333 Minke whales in the Antarctic.

So if whaling for scientific research isn't really a thing, and the number of people who actually eat whale meat is significantly declining, why then does Japan continue to hunt and kill whales?

Earlier this year, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes of BBC News spoke with a high-ranking member of the Japanese government about why Japan continues its whaling practices. His answer was vague but gives somewhat of an explanation.

"Antarctic whaling is not part of Japanese culture," he told BBC News. "It is terrible for our international image and there is no commercial demand for the meat. I think in another 10 years there will be no deep sea whaling in Japan [but] there are some important political reasons why it is difficult to stop now."

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Junko Sakuma, who worked for Greenpeace in Japan and has studied Japanese whaling extensively, believes the government official was referring to the fact that if whaling in Japan ceases, it will mean job layoffs under bureaucrats currently in office, which would reflect badly on them.

"If the number of staff in a bureaucrat's office decreases while they are in charge, they feel tremendous shame," she told BBC News. "Which means most of the bureaucrats will fight to keep the whaling section in their ministry at all costs. And that is true with the politicians as well. If the issue is closely related to their constituency, they will promise to bring back commercial whaling. It is a way of keeping their seats."

Essentially, Japan's refusal to give up whaling entirely might be due to certain government officials wanting to preserve their image.