Will Japan leave the International Whaling Commission?

Every now and again whaling interests in Japan call on their government to leave the International Whaling Commission (IWC, the body that regulates whaling). ‘JEXIT’ as one commentator noted, trying to be clever.

This is not the first time that Japan has threatened to leave the IWC. Seemingly used as a negotiating tool, it has previously been a hollow threat in an attempt to move its whaling agenda forward. 

Realising that leaving the IWC would make it a whaling pariah outside the accepted regulatory order, Japan has always stepped back from the brink.

However, after its failed attempt to reinstate commercial whaling during the September 2018 meeting of the IWC, Japan’s Vice Minister of Fisheries stated that ’Japan will be pressed to undertake a fundamental assessment of its position as a member of the IWC.’ Perhaps the whaling interests in Japan now believe that their time has come.   


japan speaking at the IWC

But what has given them such hope?

One reason might be found in the dire changes in the global geopolitical landscape.

Acting alongside the EU, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and the Latin American members of the IWC, the US and the UK could proudly claim to be part of the backbone of protecting whales through the IWC.  For decades, the US and the UK were considered conservation leaders.

However, it could now be said that, due to the tidal forces of domestic politics, both countries have their ‘eyes off the prize’, and many of us are concerned that events are having an impact on the efforts of the negotiators they send in todeal with whaling matters.

Since the Brexit decision, the UK, whilst still officially remaining a member of the European Union (until it leaves in 2019), has seen its influence greatly diminish with the other EU Member States. Historically, the UK has been one of the EU Member States that acts as a counterbalance to the pro-whaling moves of Denmark in its attempts to support Greenlandic and Faroese whaling.

With the political situation increasingly acting as a drag on the UK in negotiations, observers have commented on the fact that Denmark may have been able to exploit the Brexit situation to advance its arguments during the last IWC.  Securing significant advances for its Greenlandic whalers and the increasing commercialisation of Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW – under which some nations are allowed to kill an agreed number of whales to meet subsistence nutritional and cultural needs), Denmark is likely to demand to kill many more whales in the years to come than would have died under a EU position tempered by the UK standing alongside other pro-conservation EU members.


The Faroese pilot whale hunt
The UK and other EU countries have acted as a counter balance to Denmark’s attempts to support Greenlandic and Faroese whaling

Even more significant is the increasingly isolationist position of the US.  From its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and other international rules-based regimes, the US has become a neon beacon on the global stage to other countries, which believe that they too can buck the trend and ‘go it alone’. 

I have written before about the US ‘permission umbrella’ that Japan has often seen itself operating under when it comes to whaling. Indeed, I have asserted that Japan took up scientific whaling in the 1980s because it believed the US had signalled its approval, or at least that it had indicated that it would not press its disapproval with any vigour. Once again, Japan is looking to the signals coming out of Washington and may believe that the US is at worst, negligently signalling ‘approval’, or is so inwardly naval-gazing at this time that it is saying it ‘does not care’ what Japan does when it comes to whaling.

Do some within the Japanese government believe that Japan’s withdrawal from the internationally recognised body mandated to regulate whaling might even ‘assist’ the current US Administration’s apparent desire to undermine international rule-based systems?

Whatever the calculations, any decision by Japan with respect to its membership of the IWC will have huge repercussions.

The IWC is the only regulatory body for whaling and is recognised as such by the other major Conventions including CITES, the Convention for Trade in Endangered Species. Having been one of the original signatories to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling back in 1946, Japan’s departure would likely be viewed as an attempt to place itself outside of the rules-based order and would relegate the country to pariah status for its whaling- a fate it may never be able to shake off.

Has Japan considered that its departure could galvanize opposition in those states that have, to date, been willing to ‘tolerate’ its whaling within the legal framework of the IWC? Or that it could stoke the fires of a global public that it had almost managed to convince that whaling was long dead?

If it’s no longer a member of the IWC we may well see a change in the IWC’s membership as Japan’s ‘followers’ drop away when no longer ‘incentivised’ to attend. (The Japanese public may be surprised at how much money has been ‘spent on their behalf’.)  Isolating Iceland and Norway (who may no longer be able to trade whale meat and products with a non-IWC member) may allow the remaining IWC members to progress a new wave of conservation measures that will confront Japan in other international conventions for decades to come.

Japan’s hopes of ever achieving a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council may be harpooned if it carries on with its pirate whaling outside the frame of the IWC. One wonders if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan has really thought this through, or whether the Ministry of Fisheries is pulling all the nationalistic strings now?

The other thing Japan has to consider is that, in only two years, the US people will choose whether to keep the current Administration or switch to a new one. A new US Administration may well have a different view of the world, once again changing the geopolitical and regional considerations.  Perhaps a renewed anti-whaling American public will feel motivated to focus their ire on Japan?

The whalers have always accused the pro-conservation countries of using the whaling issue as an easy stick to beat them with…well imagine how this may be with a revitalised and reengaged US when it comes to illegal whaling by Japan.

The world could become very messy for an isolated Japan. 

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Whaling