In the wake of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s shocking assassination on July 8, eulogizers from around the world have struggled with a dichotomy in his legacy. Abe has been widely praised for his diplomatic touch and leadership in creating a new Asian order, while also remembered for refusing to compromise on issues he considered of fundamental importance, regardless of the international backlash.

One such issue was whaling. Abe was the rare Japanese politician who was willing to publicly support whaling not just domestically, where the practice has broad political backing and acceptance among the general public, but also abroad, where it is widely condemned. Those connected to the whaling industry in Japan have lost an unfaltering voice of support on the international stage.

Researchers pour omiki (sacred rice wine offered to the gods) before starting scientific measurement of a freshly caught minke whale.

Paving the way for Japan’s IWC Departure

As the public leader of Japan, Abe knew he would face harsh criticism for the country’s whaling practices. And he even reached out to his peers privately to give his tacit understanding and explain his position. He described one such episode in an interview that ran in the Japanese magazine President in 2021:

In 2018, Japan decided to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The first thing I did was call (Scott) Morrison, the Prime Minister of Australia. Australia is a country where public opinion is strongly against whaling. 

So first I told Prime Minister Morrison “I completely understand the situation in your country.” And then I explained the situation here, adding “but in our country whaling is a culture with a long history, and part of our tradition.”

I told him that the discussions in the IWC had become unproductive, and pledged that Japan wouldn’t hunt whales near Australia. 

“I understand that when you make comments on this matter as the prime minister, they will severely criticize Japan,” I said. “But it is my hope that the relationship we have built between Japan and Australia will not be damaged.”

Morrison is a statesman with strong insight, and he gave us his deep understanding.

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe shakes hands with Australian PM Scott Morrison at the Osaka G20 summit on June 27, 2019 (Pool photo)

Abe makes this sound like a simple matter, but members of the Japanese parliament were moved by how much political capital the Japanese prime minister was willing to spend on the issue. One representative recalled the same incident in a different way during an interview with Gendai Business in 2019: 

“In November of 2018, just before the final decision to leave the IWC, Prime Minister Abe held a meeting with the new Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison. Abe spent 30 minutes of this precious time explaining the resumption of commercial whaling to gain his understanding on the matter.”

Deep Whaling Roots

The former prime minister’s whaling roots ran deep. While Abe was born in Tokyo, his family home was in Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, part of the political district he took over from his father and would represent throughout his political career in the National Diet. 

Shimonoseki is a port city on the southwest tip of Honshu Island that has served as a base for industrialized whaling for the last hundred years. He emphasized this history in his public remarks, such as when he addressed a national gathering of fishing cooperatives in 2019:

Shimonoseki City, which was crowded with coastal and pelagic operators, has played a significant role in Japan’s food culture as the birthplace of the modern whaling industry.

Today Shimonoseki remains the home port for Japan’s factory whaling fleet. It is home to many active whaling restaurants, museums, and monuments. 

In 2002 the city hosted a meeting of the IWC, drawing representatives from around the world, many from countries that staunchly opposed whaling in any form. A younger Abe, who then served as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, didn’t waste the opportunity in his home district, reporting afterwards he had provided the visitors with a clear picture of Japan’s stance on whaling. 

“We introduced Japan’s whaling culture, with its long coexistence with whales, as well as a ‘whale song’ sung in fishing villages to express gratitude toward whales. We explained that Japan has no intention to make whales extinct, but rather aims to live together with them,” Abe said about the 2002 meeting of the IWC.

Shimonoseki Marine Science Museum Kaikyokan in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture (Photo by MK Products)

Taking The Flack

Abe absorbed public criticism from allies over whaling without escalating the matter through retaliation. After a surprising unfavorable ruling in an international court on Japan’s research whaling, international criticism reached a crescendo. Many world leaders called for the country to permanently cease such research expeditions. 

The Japanese Prime Minister didn’t flinch, signaling in 2014 in a parliamentary commission after the ruling that research would continue, and that he would support with diplomatic efforts:

We will continue to conduct research and collect the scientific data which is crucial to the conservation of whales as a species, which I hope will lead to the resumption of commercial whaling.

It is regrettable that this part of Japanese culture is not understood. I will step up efforts further to gain the understanding of the international community.

His remarks at the time immediately alleviated concerns over the future of whaling at home, while sending the message abroad that Tokyo would support further expeditions in the future. After a year of limiting its research to sightings, in 2015 Japan once again began research whaling in the Antarctic.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is interviewed on the CNN program “Fareed Zakaria GPS” about the controversy over hunting dolphins in Taiji. (Screenshot, CNN Interview of January 23, 2014)

Speaking Out for a Small Town

Abe’s vocal support for whalers extended beyond national issues like the IWC. He also spoke up for individual communities. When fishermen in the tiny fishing village of Taiji, who hunt small whales and dolphins locally, were made the subject of the scathing documentary The Cove, the town faced a barrage of international criticism that it was ill equipped to handle on its own. 

The prime minister went out of his way to make clear that the town had the full backing of the administration. In a rare interview in January 2014 on CNN, the United States cable news channel, he voiced his support:

In terms of the dolphin fishery in Taiji, this is an ancient fishing practice that is deeply rooted in their culture. It supports their livelihoods. We hope you will understand this … In every country and every region, ancestors have passed down various ways of living and practices, as well as culture. I naturally feel that such things should be respected, although at the same time I know that there are various criticisms.

Abe’s legacy included overseeing a dramatic shift in Japan’s whaling policy. He encouraged research expeditions in the face of withering international criticism, and then backed the controversial decision to withdraw from the IWC and restart commercial whaling without the support of the global community. 

He takes his place as a chapter in Japan’s long whaling history. His family grave in Yamaguchi is just a 20-minute drive from the old headquarters of Japan Far Seas Fishery (the predecessor to modern Nissui), considered the birthplace of modern whaling in Japan.

This article is published in cooperation with the Institute of Cetacean Research in Japan. Let us hear your thoughts in our comments section.


Author: Jay Alabaster

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