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The resumption of Japan’s commercial whaling program and international environmental cooperation

The world appeared shocked when Japan resumed commercial whaling on July 1st, despite announcing their intentions to do exactly that well over 6 months ago. This move is a big red flag for international environmental governance. Condemnation wasn’t sufficient to stifle Japan’s 'scientific' exploits, so why isn’t the international community responding with harsher sanctions?

Sayonara International Whaling Commission (IWC)

In late December 2018, Japan confirmed their decision to leave the IWC and resume commercial whaling. The IWC, established in 1946, is the global body responsible for the conservation of whales and management of whaling. In 1986, the IWC introduced a moratorium on commercial whaling, a temporary arrangement with the aim of replenishing endangered whale stocks. 33 years later, the moratorium remains and the IWC’s conservation role has expanded, with a permanent commercial whaling ban added to the agenda. Cue exit from a frustrated Japan.

As a non-member, Japan is no longer bound by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) under which the ICW operates. Although they will lose their licences to conduct “scientific research” outside of their Exclusive Economic Zone, within: it’s open season. This poses a risk not only to the resident whale populations, but to global environmental cooperation.

Ignoring Japan

Japan doesn’t hate whales like the Western ‘pro-whale’ sentiment implies. Western reports claim Japan’s return to commercial whaling has no economic or cultural case. However , Australian Journalist Peter Bridgewater has borne personal witness to the cultural significance of whales and whaling to Japan. He describes the compilation of volumes of detailed studies which were subsequently dismissed by the wider community.

In 2018, Japan made a proposal to recommence a restricted commercial whaling program, demonstrating their desire to remain affiliated with the IWC. Not only was this proposal rejected, but the responding proposal was a total ban, leaving Japan with no other option than to leave. There is obviously a 'cultural gulf' between whaling and non-whaling countries such as Japan and Australia.

Japan-Australia Relations

Japan and Australia have fought long and hard over the whaling issue, the culmination of which was lengthy proceedings before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). This specific conflict aside, Australia professes strong relations with Japan. At a recent talk, Ministers 'reiterated their determination to work proactively together … to maintain and promote a free, open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific founded on the rules-based international order'.

In 2017, Japan was Australia's second-largest trading partner. Australia is reliant on Japan, and doesn’t have the economic strength to impose harsh sanctions. The strong action demanded by commentators such as recalling our ambassador and laying trade and political sanctions, would not be conducive to the bilateral relationship. Nor, would it solve the primary problem at hand, which is the necessity for states to work collaboratively to respond to environmental issues. One of the most responsible courses of action would be for Australia to 'lead a charge to reform the text of the ICRW' to better reflect the interests and cultural nuance of Japan.

The complexities of Japan’s relationship with whaling and its unresponsiveness to international condemnation demonstrates the desperate need for deeper cross-cultural understanding in order to find global solutions to environmental issues.


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