A sting in the whale tale?

April 7, 2008

whale.jpgAsk many Japanese about whaling and they explain it’s part of their culture. After all, Japan is surrounded by the ocean and whaling and fishing have been part of Japan for many centuries.

During a recent visit to Japan, several Japanese friends and colleagues were puzzled, indeed annoyed, by Western media coverage of Japan’s scientific whaling in Antarctic waters earlier this year and thought the stories were hostile and uninformed.

To them, stopping whaling would be akin to Australians being forced to stop summer barbecues, Inuits from hunting seals, or Germans from drinking beer during Oktoberfest.

 But to many Westerners, the images of whales being harpooned under the guise of science means the practice should be stopped, particularly since some of the meat ends up for sale in special whale meat shops and restaurants in Japan.

What do you think? Are anti-whaling nations such as Australia being hypocritical when thousands of iconic kangaroos are culled each year, as some in Japan point out?


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Yes they are being hypocritical.

Japan should just go out and resume whaling. This is a decision for Japan, not something that they need to ask Australia’s permission about. Japan should remain open to input about ensuring that catch limits are sustainable and that they are properly regulated for compliance, but I don’t know why they have wasted 20 years trying to convince a bunch of anti-whalers to not be anti-whaling. It’s a waste of their time, more fool them.

Posted by david | Report as abusive

There is a big difference between culling something in your own backyard that is out of control, and going into someone else’s backyard and culling something they don’t want culled.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

No, they’re not. Japan is currently exploiting a loophole in the regulations that were conceived for small amounts of whales to be killed for research purposes – not a 1000 at a time! There’s been a global moratorium on commercial whaling since 1986, but Japan makes no bones about trying to edge out this moratorium through it’s backdoor leverage of “scientific whaling” – they argue that by killing more whales, that they can prove that whaling is sustainable. The international whaling commission discounts Japan’s research as useless. It’s a classic fallacy of setting out with a “scientific” result in mind, and then creating an expirement to suit the desired outcome.

This isn’t an animal rights issue – comparing kangaroos to whales is just daft, as it’s not a matter of which animal is more cute. Kangaroos are not an endangered species – yes, careful management should be employed to ensure protection from exploitation, but whales have already been over exploited – the only reason that minke whales are underexploited is because they were too fast and too small to be bothered with during the heydey of whaling.

Two of the other speces that Japan’s been targetting are the fin and humpback whales, respectively listed as “endangered” and “vulnerable” by the World Conservation Union’s Red List.

That’s what the fuss is about!

Posted by David | Report as abusive

Oceans are common territory, and their health affects all of us. If it was scientifically prudent to hunt whales as the japanese say then the rest of the world would not have such a problem with it. Most of us are ok with natives in alaska hunting whales because it is small numbers and not an all out commercial harvest. Its also from their own coastline. The japanese embark every year on killing sprees in international waters as far south as antartica and kill enough whales to make a profit on. This clearly does not fit with the pretext of “scientific research.” If every endangered species was hunted in order to conduct “research” we’d be in an even graver ecological situation then we already are.

Posted by Edward | Report as abusive

I live in Japan. Let me inform you something about the “air” here these days regarding whaling. The reason why most Japanese people appear to support whaling is because the media has been brainwashing them to support the government’s position, much in the same way the Chinese government & media is misleading and disinforming their people about the Tibet situation. The reality of the whaling “culture” though, is that it is virtually non-existent in most parts of the country. It is surviving thinly as a regional culture, and most people don’t even know where those regions are. Whale meat is not sold regularly in supermarkets, and is rarely served in restaurants. The demand for whale meat is declining, and most people, especially women and young people, don’t even like the taste of it. It’s mostly the older generations who are clinging to whaling, claiming it as a “tradition”. The younger generations don’t care for it actually. At least they didn’t until recently. The clash incidents in the Antarctic this winter has been a great opportunity for the whalers to promote nationalism, by labeling the activists as “terrorists”, thus justifying their illegal whaling. The media coverage has been extremely one-sided, it’s been all over the place, so I wouldn’t be surprised if many people who didn’t even HAVE an opinion about whaling previously have been duped into supporting it. Keep this in mind when you visit Japan next time.

Posted by Japanese | Report as abusive

John, the Japanese hope to sustainably harvest the thousands of whales in the northwest Pacific, but they have been refused (by nations led by Australia) even the smallest and most insignificant quota under the most draconian and overblown of regulatory schemes one might imagine. Australia also opposes Norwegian and Icelandic whaling, conducted within the EEZ’s of those countries as well, from the other side of the planet.

Indeed whaling in international waters is a different kind of issue, but again we see that Australians have no problem with sustainable utilisation of other marine resources on the high seas, and indeed they profit from it considerably themselves through their export trade to Japan. Demanding exceptions be made in the case of non-endangered whale species is why they are hypocritical in this case as well.

David, the big loophole is that a whaling regulatory convention designed to facilitate cooperation amongst whaling nations so as to ensure conservation of whale resources and the development of whaling industry could later be subverted to the extent where whaling is effectively banned by a “moratorium”, despite unequivocal scientific advice that safe catch limits can be set, and various stocks of whales abundant enough to support conservative, sustainable harvests. The 8th article of the convention which explicitly permits Japan to do exactly what it is doing would probably not have come to be used the way it is today if it were still possible to obtain biological data from samples obtained via commercial hunts. It’s ironic that the IWC purports to regard the Japanese data as useless, when various foreign scientists have requested and obtained access to the Japanese data for studies recommended by the IWC’s own Scientific Committee as part of it’s work.

Indeed whales were over-exploited in the past, the IWC was a failure for at least it’s first 25 years, and there were lessons that must not be forgotten. But if we are seeking to live sustainably on this planet in the 21st century and beyond, we will further our efforts by permitting and encouraging sustainable utilisation, not by irrationally banning it.

Finally David, Australia too has referred to the IUCN’s 1994 (out of date) classification of Fin whales as “endangered” in it’s criticisms of Japan’s whaling programme, yet Australia continues to permit it’s own tuna fishing industry to catch 6,000 tons of “critically endangered” southern blue fin tuna each year. Is the hypocrisy clear now?

Posted by david | Report as abusive

Yes, they are being hypocritical.

The Australian minister of Environment, Peter Garrett recognized recently that he was agreeing with the principle of sustainable use for kangaroos and dugongs, yet he can’t accept sustainable whaling. He doesn’t have any ecological reason to make a difference between whales and others animals like dugongs.

Japan has been trying to find a solution inside the IWC to allow the resumption of sustainable and internationally controlled commercial whaling, but the anti-whaling camp has been refusing to compromise and is even trying to change the goals of the IWC. The behaviour of these anti-whaling nations is mainly directed by the anti-whaling NGOs like Greenpeace or IFAW who use the whaling issue to gather press coverage and donations.

The whole issue is about the application of the principle of sustainable use of natural ressources. That’s where the anti-whaling nations are being hypocritical.

Posted by isanatori | Report as abusive

Commercial whaling which what Japan is doing is not cultural, it stated after WW2 by general macarthur. So unless Japanese culture is only 60 years old and started by a yank then its not cultural. Hardly anyone in Japan today eat whale, thats why its forced into schools as they have a mountain of the meat. The Japanese only whale for one reason and that is to cover up for their illegal fishing of tuna. The whale industry is $37mill in debt, the tuna idustry is a billion dollar one. Japan dont care about the whales, they just kill them so no-one will pay attention to their illegal fishing of tuna. Over the past 20years Japan have killed 3 times the legal quota of tuna each year and have hidden it. As long as all the media attention goes to the whales, Japan doesnt care, as theres more money in tuna. This is the business reason behind Japanese whaling anyway. So dont listen to all the cultural crap, they did whale thousands of years ago, but only villages not as a nation and they didnt whale in Antarctic waters killed thousands of whales. Also with the kangaroos, its not hypocritical as one aus needs to kill kangaroos coz they are pests and are now destructive to the environment, and two the govt is spending more money on darting them and putting them to sleep, that is a humane death, a 15 min whale death is not humane.

Posted by Will | Report as abusive

You’re knowledge of Japan’s whaling history seems to be superficial. Japan started modern whaling at the end of the 19th century, especially with the setting of Nippon En.yo Gyogyou kabushiki-gaisha by Juro Oka in Senzaki (Nagato, Yamaguchi prefecture) in 1899. Japanese pellagic whaling (using factory-ships) started in 1934, far before General MacArthur authorized Japan to REstart whaling in 1946.

Besides, whaling has been done by organizations called “kujiragumi” at the Edo period. These organizations were utilizing everything in the whale carcass, but the demand for oil, then used as a combustible and insecticide, was probably the main economical factor for these “kujiragumi” to operate. We can thus say that “commercial whaling” has existed for more than 400 years in Japan.

Nevertheless, as I said before, what imports the most here is the principle of sustainable utilization of natural resources. The cultural aspect of Japanese whaling and consumption of whale meat in Japan are secondary.

Posted by isanatori | Report as abusive

Will, I suggest that the reason why “hardly anyone in Japan eats whale today” is because the commercial whaling moratorium prevents any semblance of normal supply.

Currently supply from research programmes is about 5,000 or 6,000 tons a year. Total supply (including imports) just prior to moratorium was between 40,000 and 50,000 tons. And even that was low given the historical background – supply peaked at 233,000 tons to the Japanese market in 1962.

The meat is provided in schools as a way of passing on whale cuisine culture to future generations (kind of like how in Australia the kids are taught to sketch out whale shapes in the sand when they go to the beach). It is sold to schools at a discount price, because they wouldn’t be able to afford normal market rates, which have been distorted by the abnormal situation.

Posted by david | Report as abusive

The Japanese are right about the inhumane population control of Kangaroos and the Western world is right that harpooning highly intelligent and sentient beings is primitive and cruel.

But two wrongs don’t make a right. Regardless of rhetoric, these supposed leaders need to step up to the plate and take responsibility for their country’s ethics.

However, the Japanese argument does strike me to imply the theory; “I don’t have to prove that I’m right, I just have to prove you’re flawed somewhere/somehow.” And if we look hard enough, every country has flaws. That does not then imply that none of us should change for the better till someone else has.

Posted by Neda | Report as abusive

Maybe you should interview the school kids the next time you vistit Japan. As far as my classroom experience was, nobody was looking forward to whale meat, I’ll tell you. Most kids were like “ewwwww it’s whale meat!” on the days they were served. We were being force-fed them through school lunches. If kids had a choice, I don’t think they would be jumping up-and-down to line up for whale meat. Maybe they’ve changed the way they cooked it over the years to make it more eatable, but I don’t see it reflourishing as a nation-wide culture again. Japan is a country that is overflowing with various food options, that are more tasty and enjoyable. Whale meat is not necessary for our survival. Most of us will not miss it if it’s banned forever. And IMO, it’s certainly not a “culture” that is worth retaining at the cost of straining our relations with other countries.

Posted by Taka (Japanese) | Report as abusive

There is a massive whale meat mountain in Japan at the moment because no one likes the stuff, they just say there continuing the cultur to the kids, however they are just trying to get rid of it. Thats why it is also put in pet food.

Posted by Will | Report as abusive

Yes there have been commercial whaling links made 150 years ago, however Japans first national fleet was 60 years ago, either way commercial whaling is not cultural. Whaling is small villages without a fleet in traditional waters is, but commercial whaling in Antarctica with a fleet of 8 odd ships is not. Antarctic waters is the main issue, unless you can prove theyve been whaling in these waters for 400 years, it is not cultural.

Posted by Will | Report as abusive

the difference is whales are well on their way to becoming extinct, kangaroos are considered a pest in many parts of australia and are (legally) “our animals”. the japanese have been caught red handed in our antarctic waters killing “our whales”. besides there is no humane way to kill a beast as large as a whale that is submerged in water! the roo killers in australia are trained professional gunmen that aim for a head-shot every time to make the death of the kangaroos as quick and as painless as possible. killing whales is a despicable act of human nature and something that has to come to an end! when i finish school i’ll be following in the footsteps of Ben Potts and Briton Giles Lane.

Posted by thomas | Report as abusive

The Japanese aren’t saying the Australians are bad for eating animals, they are saying the Australians are bad for their hypocrisy (i.e., whales and kangaroos are both animals, and eating animals is acceptable).

The “mountain” of whale meat is less than 3,000 tons (as of now) which is roughly 1% of the amount of beef that Australia exports to Japan each year. Also, obviously some people in Japan do like the stuff.

You are right that whaling in the Antarctic is not so traditional, but Japan’s basic guiding principle is that sustainable exploitation should be permitted. This principle is persued where other types of animals (including those exploited by Australia) are concerned, and Japan wants consistency. Do you have any reasons why whales should be exempt from it?

Posted by david | Report as abusive

Whaling is not an issue that could seriously strain relations between Japan and other nations. Australia is the only nation really upset about whaling, and even they have been at pains to stress that. Japan shouldn’t give up whaling because some people in other places don’t like it. What kind of nation would?

The whales that Japan is hunting are either fairly abundant or on the path to recovery, sustainable exploitation is possible. The whales in the antarctic aren’t “your” whales. They are free ranging animals. 70% of the world’s surface is ocean, much of which belongs to no-one. The IWC was set up so that nations could cooperate together to ensure that these free resources be conserved and exploitation carefully managed.

The new Australian code of practice for killing roos also recommends killing pouch joeys by “forcefully swinging” the head against a vehicle tow bar. Sound nice?

The fact is that no animal killing is pleasant, not when Australians do it, or when Japanese do it. Death is an unfortunate requirement for life. So long as there is continuous effort being made to improve the efficiency of the killing (whatever the animal), then it’s “humane” to my mind.

Posted by david | Report as abusive

Although I have been very pleased with Japanese made cars in the past I shall not buy another one until scientific whaling and dolphin culls are a thing of the past. This also applies to Japanese electronic equipment, mobile phones and so on. Where is the scientific information that has been discovered from these poor dead creatures and who needs it if this is the way of obtaining it?

Posted by Penny | Report as abusive

david, I appreciate your respect for the old Japan, but we have moved on. We no longer walk around in kimonos daily and we don’t carry samurai swords anymore. It’s quite unnecessary to defend the whalers and suggest that all Japanese should walk backwards and start force-feeding ourselves with whale meat again. As I said, that “culture”, which wasn’t even a true culture to begin with, is virtually gone already. The only Japanese who are clinging to whaling are the few politicians and the few companies who are profitting from it. Why should the Japanese people sacrifice themselves and be labelled as villains in the international community, just to protect the profit of these few old men? IMO, it’s not worth it. If Japanese people were correctly informed of the truth that is available outside of the Japanese media, I think they would find that the insistence on killing whales is unnecessary, and to overblow the slightest argument to justify whaling (the kangaroo issue, sustainable numbers, etc.) is unnecessary as well, and the priority should be on international cooperation to protect the seas. That’s what happened in Korea, where most whaling is now banned by national law, and its people are beginning to prioritize on the protection of whales. Japan has led the world with the Kyoto Protocol. We’d rather be a shining example rather than a troublemaker.

Posted by Taka | Report as abusive

Taka, an Asahi newspaper poll recently showed that the majority of Japanese are still in favour of whaling and eating whale meat.

That doesn’t mean that you must eat it, if you do not wish to.

I for one would respect Japan far far less if it were to abandon the basic principle of sustainable use, just because a bunch of noisy foreigners kick up a fuss about whales. Would such gutless behaviour really make you a prouder Japanese? (Are you really Japanese?!)

Posted by david | Report as abusive

your friends are correct.
We are in a weak position because the kangaroo cull is clearly cruel. The cull is needed because of overpopulation but the method leaves young kangaroos to starve to death. We need to address this.
However, this doesn’t excuse whaling. There is no humane way to kill a whale. they die hard.
On the ethical side, whaling should stop because it doesn’t fulfill any human need not met from other sources. We don’t need the meat.
What happens with Japan’s scientific whaling is that the protein goes to feed the more wealthy. we won’t see an end to poverty or hunger.

Posted by chris pash | Report as abusive

i have to disagree with the person just before me i think. In my opinion, Japan shouldn’t resume whaling like they want. Even thought it’s part of their culture, there are getting less and less whales because of them, i don’t blame them but it’s not right. we should be fair to them, as they have done nothing to hurt you and we’re hurting their environment, by many different ways, firstly killing them for products like food, disturbing their environment-like pollution of water, radio waves or sound waves, etc. so many to name, and i can’t think of anymore at the moment, but there are many reasons. australia is just helping the whole world to realise with the anti-whaling. they are trying to wake us up about this. imagine your children’s children, probably in a decade or so there wouldn’t be many or no whales at all and your children’s children wouldnt be able to see them! australia is starting out small, the message was spread through one person, to a group, to a community, to a town, region, state, national, and then international and make everyone aware of this situation! it’s not fair to them

Posted by Sarah | Report as abusive

There is no such thing as sustainable whaling, as of the harsh environment that the whales live in the numbers are reasonably rough estimates. If Japan whales sustainably please tell me why they kill endangered fin whales just to eat. And please tell me why they kill humpbacks (not this season) and why they were going to kill Migaloo if they saw him. Sustainable whaling is not real, whos the research done by about the numbers of whales left in Antarctica, IWC probably get it from Japan, which if they do is very un-credible.

Posted by Will | Report as abusive

david, as I said in the beginning, the Japanese media is overwhelmingly conservative on the whaling issue for some reason, so I’m not surprised that the majority of people were led to believe they should support whaling. If the media fixes itself to take an unbiased position, and creates a healthy environment that allows people to speak up without fear of being labelled as unpatriotic or whatever, so at least both sides can debate, I think those poll numbers will gradually change. I actually found it surprising that 20+% in that poll opposed whaling, no matter what the media said. That’s a high number of people who have their own minds, in an environment where you have FOX-TV mentality on all channels, brainwashing you for weeks and weeks, with the kind of arguments that you’ve posted here.
(Yes, I am a Japanese, who has also lived abroad. I can read Japanese newspapers and English ones, that is why I find something unhealthy with the state of the Japanese media. My opinion here may be a minority in Japan at the moment, but I hope more people will speak out, if they feel differently than what the media wants them to think. Thank you for giving people the opportunity to post their voices.)

Posted by Taka | Report as abusive

Australia’s kangaroo killing doesn’t occur only in the form of culls, but in outright commercial hunting as well, evidenced by the quota numbers on the page to which David Fogarty linked.

I can’t agree that whaling should stop because it “doesn’t fulfil any human need not met from other sources”. Yes, it could probably stop – the Japanese could import more kangaroo meat or beef from Australia to fill the void if whaling were to end entirely (with the added benefit of extra profits for Australians). But does the fact that it could stop really mean that it should stop? Is the decision about what to eat not best left to those doing the eating? Are your ethical views more right than those of those Japanese who would prefer to eat meat gratefully received from the single life of a large whale, rather than the meat from multiple lives of smaller animals such as kangaroos and cows?

The huge ethical diversity that exists within nations such as Australia and the inconsistency in policy that results from this precludes those nations credibly taking the moral high ground as a member of the international community. The problem with this situation is that the people who suffer because of such hypocrisy are not those who have a direct say in electing Australia’s policy makers, but people in other countries.

Posted by david | Report as abusive

Taka, I originally hail from down under, but today live in Japan. In my view, your criticisms of Japan’s mass media can be turned around and pointed straight back at the Australian and New Zealand media. I would actually argue that it’s worse there.

In Japan the newspapers tend to report “the news”, and editorial opinion appears in … editorials, but whaling is not an issue of huge concern to many. On the other hand, in Australia and New Zealand lately the newspapers themselves have actually been running their own anti-whaling petitions and campaigns – far beyond the realm of what I’d expect from an unbiased source of news. All this over an issue that basically doesn’t effect many Aussies or Kiwis either (it does seem to help sell the news there though).

I wonder if our different views of the media stems from our own individual beliefs of what should be reported? If we can agree on one thing, perhaps it is that there is unsatisfactory communication between people on the different sides of the argument. It’s not something that I see getting fixed anytime soon though, and nations like Australia and New Zealand will happily procrastinate with the status quo unless Japan and others decide that enough is enough.

Posted by david | Report as abusive

Do you understand Japanese? If you understand both languages, the bias is clear by comparison in how the same news is edited differently in Japan. The segment itself is distorted, then multiple commentaries follow that lead people in one way, with nobody suggesting an opposite viewpoint. Whenever they do present an opposite viewpoint, they interview the most extreme activists, which they are labelling as criminals/terrorists, so as a whole, they’ve created an “us or them” atmosphere. Either you support whaling, or you’re a member of such groups. (It’s similar to how Americans were led to support the Iraq war through the right-leaning media and talk radio.) The atmopshere makes it difficult for people with opposing views to speak out. Furthermore, I have never seen a TV segment or a news article that has reported the state of whales from an environmentally-concerned viewpoint, or even simply as animals. The legality of whaling is not discussed either. A lot of crucial facts are left out, unreported. And it’s not just the whaling issue that is distorted. I think some journalists are aware of how the media tends to get carried away. It’s an issue that they should be addressing within themselves, not something to look justifications for. Whatever Australia is doing has nothing to do with it.

Posted by Taka | Report as abusive

Taka, yeah I understand Japanese, but can’t agree with you, as explained in my previous comment.

Posted by david | Report as abusive

Not only are whale endangered species, but the way they are being hunted is cruel and unnecessary. Japan has been whaling for years, and it seems like they will continue to be stubborn towards this situation. It has not been mentioned that kangaroos are extinct or have a cruel way to be hunted, but until it is uncovered, I think Australia is not doing anything wrong. Australia is just trying to let whale hunters be aware that what they are doing should be illegal.

Posted by Monica | Report as abusive

Monica, the whalers don’t want to hunt species that are truely endangered. They agree that species like the Antarctic Blue whale (numbering in the low thousands) should remain protected so that they can recover in numbers.

But as for other species that are higher in number (some in the hundreds of thousands), the whalers hope to take a conservative number of them each year for use as food.

In that respect whaling is no more unnecessary than any other means which we provide food for ourselves, and furthermore there is more meat on a typical whale than there is on a cow, pig or chicken. It means we needn’t kill so many animals if we are to harvest whales conservatively.

So I’m sure Australians have their hearts in the right place, but they need to be a little more considerate of other people.

Posted by david | Report as abusive


Fin whales are endangered and so are Humpbacks and Japan have killed both these species in the past and will continue if not stopped. Whalers dont give a shit if they kill endangered whales as long as they can eat them, or put them in pet food (as hardly anyone eats the meat anymore). Whales are wild animals and thats theere is a difference between killing them and killing pigs or cows. Pigs and cows are bred to be killed, whales are not. Consideration doesnt come into the issue if there killing endangered whale to eat. Japan said at the start of the year that if they saw Migaloo they would kill him, Migaloo is the last albino Humpback left in the world. Do you why they wanted to kill him, becasue restaurants would pay 10 times as much for him than other whales due to his status. So if your barbaric enough to agree with this slaughter then thats just you, however more sensible people who respect such creatures want to save them.

Posted by Will | Report as abusive


The Japanese believe as a result of their government funded research that neither the Humpback whales or Fin whales are endangered anymore (these species have both been protected since the 1960’s and 1970’s respectively). They would not be hunting them again now if they thought there was a serious risk that hunting them could drive them to extinction. If Australia doesn’t like it it should start funding it’s own research programmes, and prove that the numbers are lower than what the Japanese think they are. Japan is not North Korea, and just screaming out “liar” isn’t going to convince them that Australia has a rational opposition to whaling.

Whales being wild animals is no rational justification for their complete protection, tuna and other fish are also wild, so too are kangaroos, but Australia accepts that slaughtering them for food (and subsequent export) is alright.

What matters is sustainability. This goes for farmed animals too – you can’t suddenly breed new cows and pigs if you already slaughtered your entire stock last season. Wild animals breed naturally without human interference, so we have to ensure that the number we take does not exceed the natural capacity of such stocks of animals to replenish themselves.

As for Migaloo, it’s just a white humpback whale, not his own species. If Australians have given him a special “status” for being a white humpback instead of a black one, that’s something for Australians to rationally justify to themselves. The fact is that he’s just a humpback, and the chances are like that like the rest of the members of his species, he’ll die of natural causes.

Posted by david | Report as abusive