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The ‘Pivot’ and the Whale

US Foreign Policy and the Future of Japanese Whaling

Monday the 16th June marks the 20th anniversary of the coming into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Law of the Sea Convention opened for signature on 10 December 1982, only a few months after the International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopted and signed into the Schedule of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) the global moratorium on commercial whaling.

Some would argue that despite decades of the development of international law, some nation states still seek to avoid the ramifications of upholding this growing area of law, relying on historical soft and hard power to influence future policy. The ramifications of such a world-view are that such countries can therefore fail to hold other states to account for their failures under international law. But what has this to do with US foreign policy?

Under President Obama’s leadership, the USA is significantly realigning US foreign policy with foci deep within the Asia-Pacific region [1].

New diplomatic, economic and security programmes, known collectively as the ‘pivot’ seek to consolidate and develop previous US initiatives. In doing so the US is making new promises and calling in old favours, but whether the US is able to successfully navigate these waters is still to be seen. In recent decades the USA’s almost sole focus has been in developing expertise in its diplomatic corps to meet challenges in the Middle East and to a lesser extent Latin America and Europe. Whether it has the Asia-Pacific institutional knowledge and diplomatic expertise in its various government departments to meet the emergent challenges remains to be seen [2].

Economically the Asia-Pacific region represents ever-developing markets; destination for over 50% more US exports than similar exports to Europe [3].

The US has relatively recently gained membership of the East Asia Summit and enhanced its association with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and is seeking to build further relationships through the signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

Japan, the role of whale killing in domestic politics

The US’s support for the current Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, may fit with its pivot strategy, but it is having major repurcussions for whale conservation.

Abe has recently forcibly restated his commitment to Japanese commercial whaling and his country’s whaling industry’s abuse of Article VIII of the ICRW in continuing to carry out Japan’s internationally condemned ‘scientific whaling’ programme.

In support of the Japanese Prime Minister, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, who appears to have ‘overcome’ the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) increasing concerns with respect to whaling, launched a “whale week” campaign as part of efforts ‘to let Japanese people know that whaling and eating whale meat are part of their culture.’

Maybe I am getting cynical but one has to question if something is really ‘cultural’ if the public need to be reminded that it is?

That aside, I would suggest that whaling is being used by the Abe government to nurture a domestic nationalistic agenda that spells problems for more than just the whales.

Abe has decided to take a different position internationally this time around from his first tenure as Prime Minister in 2006. Then he had introduced more conservative education policies, but his rhetoric towards China and South Korea were measured and temperate. For example, he did not once visit the controversial memorial to Japanese war dead, including convicted war criminals, the Yasukuni Shrine.

In 2013, following his election in 2012, and bolstered with stronger support in the Diet and the prospect of not facing another election until 2016, Abe chose to visit the Yasukuni Shrine and provoke his Asian neighbours as part of a more assertive foreign policy. Abe has sought to parallel this strategy with a defence policy rooted in closer military cooperation with the USA whilst promoting a form of ‘Japanese exceptionalism’ [4] that seeks to excuse Japan from some international norms.

In 2012, 81% of Japanese public reported ‘feeling no affinity for China or tending to feel no such affinity’ [5] and this was the backdrop to Abe’s return to power. No wonder Abe has felt able to challenge China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and openly question Japan’s imperialistic war time record, – any other posturing would have diluted the constant nationalistic fervour that Abe needs to maintain to secure him future power.

Abe’s statements on whaling must be seen in this domestic context and the US should really be being careful not to pander to such expressions of nationalistic angst. The US would be better off acting to temper Japan’s wider rhetoric by addressing its posturing in the relative safety of the whaling arena, than risk Japan’s domestic pandering stimulating more tensions in the broader pan-Asia Pacific political and military environment.

Why the US must look to international law and why whaling could be the key

As the US seeks to engage with China and the other regional powers it will not be able to rely on its solo diplomacy.

The US needs to influence the Japanese government as Abe continues to play the domestic nationalism card whilst openly antagonising China and South Korea in pushing a revisionist history of the last century, especially when it comes to Japanese previous imperialistic actions.

China’s declaration of ‘air defence identification zones’ comes at the same time that the US is encouraging Japan to bolster its self-defence forces and play a more active role in the region.

Increasingly the US will have to look to, and actively support, international law in protecting its interests and its allies in the region.

The Philippines has taken China to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea [6], but China is refusing to cooperate or even recognise the hearings. The US has the opportunity of both supporting an ally and taking the moral high ground if it would only engage with supporting the development of further rule-based order in the region.

However, this will only work if the US is also seen to support and enact international law and norms in other conventions such as the ICRW (the treaty that governs whaling).

In a recent conversation between an IWC Member State government representative and WDC the issue at hand was one of whether ‘reducing political relations over whaling to one of legality’ could serve any purpose? 

The problem, as argued by WDC is that, ‘once you are not following the law, you’re undermining the rule of law’. Yes, reducing things to ‘legal argument’ can become somewhat sterile, but WDC believes that a failure to start from international norms as established by years of debate within the IWC, and other international fora, would be a mark of failure in our duty towards international governance and to the whales. It also undermines the Treaty and fails those who have previously met their responsibilities as required of them by the IWC. For example, the Alaskan Inupiat people who hunt bowhead whales have always sought to comply with the requirements of the IWC to be able to receive an ASW quota. Greenland on the other hand believes it has the right to create new exclusive rules, incompatible with the IWC and the recent International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that Parties to the IWC could not create new forms of whaling under the ICRW.

Both Greenland and Japan are not fulfilling their international responsibilities, and indeed both appear to be openly rejecting international law, but the US must be cautious that it is not seen to ‘step back’ as it ‘pivots’ and by default, allowing decades of work to be undermined simply to fuel the nationalistic impulses of the Japanese and Greenlandic governments. 

Failure to help Japan and others such as Greenland fulfil their responsibilities under international and cooperative norms risks undermining the US’s wider foreign policy objectives. 

Why should China or others react positively to US’s calls to negotiate with emergent and established US allies in the Asia-Pacific region whilst they see the US allowing Japan to ‘run riot’ within the IWC? 

Japan knows this, and it would seem that Abe is willing to risk maybe more than the US realises as he pulls and manipulates whatever strings the US dangle for him.

[1] Campbell K.M and Andrews B, (2013) Explaining the U.S. Pivot to Asia, Chatham House. Available at: See also


[3] Campbell K.M. and Ratner E., (2014) ‘Far Eastern Promises: Why Washington Should Focus on Asia’, Foreign Affairs, Volume 93, No. 3, New York.

[4] Estévez-Abe, M. (2014) ‘Feeling Triumphalist in Tokyo: The Real reasons nationalism is back in Japan’ Foreign Affairs, Volume 93, No. 3, New York.

[5] Ibid quoting a Japanese Cabinet Office Poll