This article first appeared on JAPAN Forward written by Tetsuhide Yamaoka.

Another Antarctic whaling season will soon end, but most in Japan remain unaware of the fierce fight between the conservation ships operated by Sea Shepherd Australia, and Japanese whaling vessels in the icy waters of the southern oceans. For Australians, this issue is epitomized by a shocking photo taken from a Sea Shepherd helicopter that appeared in Australian newspapers of dead whales lying on the deck of a Japanese whaling vessel.

But people in Japan have little notion of the Australian outrage over whaling in the southern hemisphere. Whaling has been rapidly fading from the Japanese consciousness since the verdict of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordering Japan to halt its scientific research on the grounds that whales are not a part of Japanese daily life.

When I interviewed some members of Sea Shepherd in Hobart, Tasmania in early December 2016, they vowed to carry on the fight, condemning Japanese whaling as “illegal,” and describing it as “poaching” carried out in brazen defiance of the ICJ verdict and of the international community’s mounting condemnation. This will likely be quite a shock to average Japanese, whose understanding of the issue is likely limited to the following:

  • The Japanese government sued the Sea Shepherd group in a U.S. court for their violent activities at sea, and in August 2016 the U.S. District Court ordered Sea Shepherd vessels not to come within 500 yards of any Japanese vessels.
  • In March 2014, the ICJ ordered the discontinuation of the Second Japanese Whale Research Program in the Antarctic (JARPAII) due to insufficient evidence that the design and implementation of JARPAII were reasonably achieving its research objectives. Japan subsequently halted its whaling research program.

What’s going on here? In Hobart, Tasmania I was standing dumbstruck in front of the Sea Shepherd group’s sophisticated new vessel, Ocean Warrior, built in the Netherlands thanks to a huge donation of 8.3 million euros given by the Dutch PostcodeLottery, the People’s Postcode Lottery in the United Kingdom, and the Svenska Postkod Lotteriet in Sweden. The Sea Shepherd group boasted that the new vessel was so fast that it could outrun any Japanese whaling vessel, thus changing the entire dynamics of the confrontation.

Photo: Tetsuhide Yamaoka

I had a chance to board the Ocean Warrior. In outward appearance hardly distinguishable from a military vessel, the Ocean Warrior is armed with a powerful water cannon which apparently can create a huge water screen to block the sight of whaling vessels. It even has a helipad.

Ocean Warrior is to be sent on “Operation Nemesis,” sponsored by Sea Shepherd Global headquartered in the Netherlands, as well as by Sea Shepherd Australia. These groups say that the result of the court case in the U.S. does not affect the activities of other entities such as those in the Netherlands and Australia, so they consider themselves at liberty to resume their interventions against Japanese whaling vessels. I approached a member of the Sea Shepherd staff who had been talking to the gathered media to ask, “Do you assume you will follow the same path as your U.S. entity if you conduct dangerous activities?” The answer was that they would refrain from violent actions but would not hesitate to confront if necessary. Sea Shepherd’s consistent message has been, “Nobody acts to save whales, so we do.”

“Sea Shepherd shouldn’t have to be taking on the whalers again this summer,”

The people standing in front of the cameras by the Ocean Warrior’s berth included Sue Hickey, the Lord Mayor of Hobart who won the Miss Tasmania pageant in 1979. Her appearance, along with the gathering of other Hobart residents—mostly families with young children—suggested that Sea Shepherd’s members were being warmly welcomed by locals as heroes hunting down notorious poachers.

Photo : Sea Shepherd Media Archives

“Sea Shepherd shouldn’t have to be taking on the whalers again this summer,” said Australian Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, who was also present at the event. “Australia won the [ICJ] case against Japan, but unfortunately the government put trade deals ahead of whales and removed all diplomatic pressure. The Japanese whaling fleet might be able to escape and outrun the international courts, but it won’t escape Sea Shepherd.”

Senator Whish-Wilson handed out a piece of paper to the press. It was the general notice of motion no. 153 submitted by Senator Whish-Wilson to the parliament condemning Japanese whaling and demanding that the Australian government send a patrol boat to the Southern Ocean in support of Sea Shepherd. I was intrigued by the following sections which were noted by the Senate:

  • The Federal Court of Australia found the Kyodo whaling company in contempt relating to illegal whaling in the Australian Whale Sanctuary, and the company was fined 1 million Australian dollars.
  • Japan has subsequently pulled out of the ICJ jurisdiction in relation to whaling, and has restarted a new whaling program, NEWREP-A.

To hear Sea Shepherd and its supporters tell it, Japan must be the world’s most notorious outlaw. Japan, it seems, defies the laws of all nations and courts in order to continue poaching in the waters of other countries.

But Japanese are generally compliant with the law as a rule, and “outlaw” does not fit the image that most people around the world have of Japan. Something must have gone terribly wrong.

I flew to Tokyo and visited the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to ask candid questions. I wanted to know how another whaling program could be resumed given the court cases against its predecessor, and what justification there could be for continued whaling activities. I was able to meet with three officials, including the manager of the Whaling Affairs Section.

I was first told that the Japanese government believes that commercial whaling should resume in the future because there is tangible demand for whale meat as long as it is feasible to maintain a steady supply. They say that the cetacean group—that is, whales—should not be exempted from the effective use of living marine resources. In other words, Japanese whaling will end if the demand for whale meat dies out sometime in the future.

The Japanese government understood that the ICJ considered that JARPAII (the previous program) could be broadly characterized as scientific research, but that the evidence did not establish that the design and implementation of JARPAII were reasonable in relation to achieving its research objectives. However, the ICJ Judgment did not deny the use of lethal methods and further stated that “it is to be expected that Japan will take account of the reasoning and conclusions contained in this judgment as it evaluates the possibility of granting any future permits under Article VIII, paragraph 1, of the Convention (which exemplifies whaling for research purposes).” Therefore the Japanese government developed a new research program called NEWREP-A, which took into account the points raised by the ICJ judgment.

So what did the ICJ find to be of concern? These are the main points in the ICJ judgment to which Japan was to respond:

  • The JARPAII Research Plan should have included some analysis of the feasibility of nonlethal methods as a means of reducing the planned scale of lethal sampling.
  • The evidence relating to whale sample sizes provides scant analysis and justification for the underlying decisions that generate the overall sample size. This raises further concerns about whether the design of JARPAII is reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives.
  • Japan’s statement that JARPAII can obtain meaningful scientific results based on the far more limited actual take suggests that the target sample sizes are larger than are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives.
  • JARPAII’s open-ended timeframe casts doubt on its characterization as a program for purposes of scientific research.
  • In light of the fact JARPAII has been ongoing since 2005 and has involved the killing of about 3,600 minke whales, the scientific output to date appears limited.

The Japanese government says that it worked to address all these matters in developing the NEWREP-A program, in which the sample size was reduced from 850 minkes, 50 humpback whales, and 50 fin whales to only 333 minkes. The program spans 12 years with a midterm review after 6 years, accompanied by increased efforts to publish scientific findings. The Japanese government also contends that the population estimate of Antarctic minke whales is over 500,000 in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning that minkes, while protected species, are not endangered.

This new program had to be scrutinized by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) before moving forward in 2015. All the recommendations made by the expert panel were condensed into a table for subsequent monitoring and discussion. The 2016 report of the Scientific Committee focused on reviewing the progress made from the previous year and summarizing the feedback from its members on the reported progress. Some members commented that, although the required work is still ongoing, tasks remain incomplete and the results thus far have not justified lethal sampling to achieve the stated objectives. Other members commented that Japan had responded satisfactorily to most of the recommendations of the expert panel, noting that some of the suggested further analyses have already been completed. The Japanese government believes that it made a good-faith effort to address and resolve all the items pointed out by the Scientific Committee, including the recommended further analysis which presumably allows fewer lethal samplings.

It appears that Japan failed to obtain a unanimous endorsement from the Scientific Committee. However, the Scientific Committee’s 2016 report sounds slightly different from how Sea Shepherd describes it:

Japan has since presented to the IWC a new and revised “lethal scientific research” program called NEWREP-A. The 2015 IWC Scientific Committee report found the new proposal “contained insufficient information” for its expert panel to complete a full review and specified the extra work that Japan needed to undertake in order to fill these gaps. Regardless, Japan’s whaling fleet has headed out of port this December, intending to slaughter whales in a whale sanctuary. (“Japan – The Cherry Picking Rogue Nation”; Tuesday 5 January 2016)

Sea Shepherd says that Japan has been completely ignoring the judgment of the ICJ and poaching in Australian territory—which is a whale sanctuary. The Japanese government says that they have been doing their best to comply with everything suggested by the ICJ and the Scientific Committee of the IWC. The gap between the two seems deeper than the Marianas Trench that splits the sea floor between Australia and Japan. The Australian government is not as blunt as Sea Shepherd, but it is also clearly opposed to whaling and disappointed by the resumption of Japan’s whaling program.

Is a reconciliation of the two positions possible? Having seen the steps taken by the Japanese government thus far, I don’t think it is logically tenable to accuse Japan of conducting illegal activities by completely ignoring the judgment of the ICJ. The Australian Antarctic Territory is not recognized by Japan anyway. (It is only recognized by the United KingdomNew ZealandFrance, and Norway.)

I also don’t think it feasible to argue from a moral point of view, even though there is absolutely no doubt that whales are an intelligent and remarkable species. As a dog lover, I personally never want to see dogs consumed as food. But recent studies have revealed that cows and pigs are smarter than dogs. On a moral basis, is it possible to carve out an exemption for whales as a special species? And what about the conservation point of view? As far as minke whales in Southern Hemisphere are concerned, they are protected but not endangered. We seem to be running out of arguments for condemning Japan on the whaling issue.

There is still one thing we should remember. Australia and Japan are in fact close partners and whaling is perhaps the lone source of discord between the two nations. Apart from whaling, Japan and Australia are natural friends—Japan needs Australia as a closest ally along with the United States now more than ever, given the enormous pressures from neighboring unfriendly nations equipped with missiles and nuclear weapons.

The Sea Shepherd volunteers I spoke to in Hobart were very friendly. When I saw a pack of Japanese seaweed donated by a local grocery shop, one lady smiled at me and told me convincingly, “This is not racial.”

Photo: Tetsuhide Yamaoka

If our politicians are smart, it should be possible to strike a comprehensive bilateral deal covering many areas, including agriculture, mining, education, tourism, and defense. If the deal is truly beneficial for both counties and also for the region, then it might even be possible to include a compromise on lethal samplings of whales as a goodwill gesture for the sake of Japan-Australia friendship. I cannot see any other way at the moment. Needless to say, any further violence at sea would bring goodwill negotiations to a screeching halt.

Operation Nemesis officially ended in early March and Sea Shepherd’s two vessels (Ocean Warrior and Steve Irwin) came home. Sea Shepherd declared that the operation had been successful in terms of continuously hassling Japanese vessels for about three months at sea. Sea Shepherd also admitted that it became much harder to disturb the Japanese vessels, as they were catching fewer samples in a 200 percent wider area. It remains unknown how many samples the Japanese whaling vessels have caught. It is likely that the Japanese fleet will stay longer at sea after Sea Shepherd’s departure from the Antarctic, in order to make sure they reach their planned catch as long as the weather permits.

After all, there is no real winner in this battle—a battle which, for Japanese readers, is still going on somewhere both physically and psychologically very far away.

Tetsuhide Yamaoka is a journalist and president of the Australia-Japan Community Network

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