Mayor Kazutaka Sangen of the town of Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture has long lobbied for the resumption of commercial whaling. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the southern part of the Kii Peninsula, Taiji is known as the birthplace of Japan's whaling tradition.
On the day the government announced its decision, Sangen met with Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai at the party's headquarters in Tokyo. He told reporters afterward that the move was only possible because of Nikai's efforts.
"The Secretary General did whatever he could to get our voices to the prime minister's office," he said. "We believe the decision is a result of his efforts."
Taiji is located in Nikai's electoral district.
"The IWC has changed as an organization and its anti-whaling members don't have the slightest consideration toward the livelihoods of the fishermen who depend on whaling," Nikai said after the announcement. "We have no choice but to pull out. This decision is a dream come true for the many Japanese people who have long awaited the resumption of commercial whaling."
He also said: "Why do some countries apply pressure on another country and make complaints about its dietary culture? Has Japan ever acted in that manner? We repeatedly warned that we may withdraw but they never listened to us."
The IWC and whaling in Japan
The International Whaling Commission was established in 1948 by the terms of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. The IWC was initially founded to oversee the practice of whaling while conserving whale stocks. According to its website, there are 89 member countries, including Japan, which joined in 1951.
Whale meat was considered a valuable source of protein in postwar Japan, with commercial whaling peaking in the 1960s. However, due to falling blue whale numbers, the practice began to draw growing international criticism. In 1982, the IWC passed a pause on commercial whaling. Japan lodged a formal objection, but withdrew it in 1985, and began scientific whaling from 1987 to study whale biology and reserves. The meat obtained during these research hunts is distributed in domestic markets. There is also limited coastal whaling of small breeds not subject to IWC regulations carried out in some areas, including off Taiji.
Japan isn't the only country to have pulled out of the IWC. Canada announced its withdrawal in 1982, the year the pause in commercial whaling was put in place, due to practices of its indigenous people. Iceland also pulled out in 1992, but rejoined later. It resumed commercial whaling again in 2006, as an IWC member. Iceland and Norway are now the only member nations that conduct commercial whaling. A rift exists in the group between pro and anti-whaling members.
LDP Upper House member Yosuke Tsuruho, who like Nikai is a representative from the whaling heartland of Wakayama Prefecture, says lawmakers have been mulling the decision for more than a decade. But he says until now, it considered the move "too premature" and thought it more prudent to "persistently negotiate, considering its effects on foreign diplomacy."
Tsuruho says Nikai has long been a crucial voice in the debate. He shared an episode when a young Nikai accompanied the Prime Minister on an overseas trip and was warned not to bring up whaling with other countries. Nikai shot back that he would leave the delegation if he was forced to do so.
As commercial whaling became a thing of the past and whale meat was disappearing off the Japanese dinner table, Nikai drew up plans for a whale meat curry to be served at the cafeterias of the LDP headquarters and the foreign ministry.
There were three factors behind Japan's sudden withdrawal. The first was a ruling by the International Court of Justice. The second was the issue of the continuation of scientific whaling. And the third--and most important--was a decision adopted by the IWC general assembly in September.
Unexpected court decision
In 2014, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered a temporary halt to Japan's research whaling, saying the country had failed to prove the program was for scientific purposes.
The ruling was the result of legal action taken by the Australian government to force Japan to halt whaling in the Antarctic Ocean. It claimed the hunts were actually carried out for commercial purposes.
Japan objected, saying that the number of whales it caught was necessary for scientific research, and that the sale of whale meat was approved under the IWC. It also claimed that its research had produced useful results.
But the Hague ruled otherwise, and Japan was forced to stop.
Tsuruho says he believes the decision was severe, and that he expected the court to show sympathy to Japan's position.
The burden of scientific whaling
Tsuruho says another issue that contributed to Japan's decision to pull out was determining whether it was worth continuing scientific whaling at all.
He says the undertaking costs Japan a fortune, as it is the only country that conducts whaling research in the Antarctic Ocean. The projects are led by Japanese scientists and completely funded by Japan. Tsuruho says an aging fleet of research boats had left his country at a crossroads. It had to decide whether it was worth investing the considerable amount of money needed to upgrade research facilities.
"We were unable to conclude that it was worth continuing scientific whaling for the IWC given the considerable amount of money that would be needed," he says.
This all came to a head with a resolution adopted by the IWC at its general assembly last September. While Japan's proposal to resume commercial whaling was rejected, a resolution was adopted to take action on whale conservation.
"We tried all means possible but hardly had an influence," Tsuruho says. "The situation had actually deteriorated. After the general assembly's decision, we realized the nature of the IWC had completely changed.
Despite the conviction of LDP lawmakers, the foreign ministry was cautious about leaving. It worried that withdrawing would harm diplomacy.
At an LDP meeting held after the IWC general assembly, lawmakers asked to ministry officials prepare detailed measures for leaving the treaty. But officials did not respond positively. An enraged Nikai apparently shouted at them, "Why are you being so indecisive? Enough already! Get serious!"
This turned out to be the shot in the arm that the move needed.
Prime Minister sides with Nikai
With doubts lingering over the foreign ministry's cooperation, Nikai headed to the Prime Minister's office to get his support. He was able to get unilateral backing.
Tsuruho believes the major reason Nikai was able to get support on the issue is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's constituency includes Shimonoseki City, a leading whaling hub.
Shimonoseki was a flourishing whaling center before and after World War Two. But when commercial whaling was halted, the number of restaurants in the city serving whale meat plummeted.
"I believe Prime Minister Abe knew all too well how the lives and situations of the people in Shimonoseki had been affected."
Objections and concerns
Despite the united front of the LDP and the prime minister's office, the withdrawal led to strong objections, both internationally and domestically.
On December 31, The New York Times published an editorial titled, "Japan: Stop Slaughtering Whales." It calls on Japan to reconsider its withdrawal from the IWC and says the country shares in a "universal obligation to manage dwindling resources."
On January 11th, the paper published a rebuttal by foreign ministry Press Secretary Takeshi Osuga. He writes that the editorial omits several critical facts and that "Japan is committed to the conservation of whales" and prohibits the hunting of endangered species. Osuga says Japan's move is in full compliance with international law and its whaling will be limited to the country's exclusive economic zone. He also writes that whaling has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, just has it has been in Norway and Iceland among others, and that "it is unfair to single out Japan."
Criticism flooded in from other countries, including Australia, which has a particularly anti-whaling stance. In a joint statement, the country's Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Environment Minister Melissa Price said that their government is "extremely disappointed" in Japan's announcement. They said the "decision to withdraw is regrettable and Australia urges Japan to return to the IWC as a matter of priority."
The French government also issued a statement, saying the withdrawal was a step back for multi-nationalism in environmentalism.
The environmental group Greenpeace said the Japanese government purposefully made the announcement at the end of the year to avoid the spotlight of international media. The group said Japan should be conserving marine resources, not restarting whaling. It maintained that most whale populations have not yet recovered.
There were also concerned voices within Japan. "Japan could be isolated from the international community if it withdraws," said Constitutional Democratic Party leader Yukio Edano. "The government has not presented a vision for the country's whaling after withdrawal either. It will significantly damage Japan's interests if the country is viewed as exiting from international cooperation for sentimental reasons, and the current process is not appropriate."
Head of the Japanese Communist Party's secretariat Akira Koike accused the government of "behaving almost like US President Donald Trump." While he acknowledged that whale is part of Japan's food culture and that scientific whaling should continue, he said Japan would not be able to win the understanding of the international community by withdrawing just because its claims were not accepted. "Japan should not act like Trump, who says he will take his country out of an international organization if it doesn't go its way."
Do you eat whale meat?
NHK conducted a poll on the withdrawal and resumption of commercial whaling. A majority of respondents supported the decision but the results did not indicate a mandate: 13 percent said the move was very good; 40 percent said rather good; 27 percent said not very good; and 10 percent said not good at all.
The amount of whale meat in distribution has been declining. The Fisheries Agency says the supply reached a peak of 233,000 tons in 1962 but dropped to 3,000 tons a year after commercial whaling was halted. Current supply remains between 3,000 and 6,000 tons.
Young people have been commenting about the issue online, and some say they've had whale meat in the past.
"I've seen tweets and websites that say whale meat was served for school lunches during the Showa period. I was born in the Heisei period and had whale meat for lunch at elementary school."
"Fried whale meat is very good and goes really nice with beer."
But others say they've never had it.
"My boss was talking about Japan's withdrawal from the IWC today and was surprised when I said I'd never had whale meat."
"Many people in my generation have never had whale meat and aren't too interested in Japan's withdrawal. I personally think whaling is part of local culture and people shouldn't care if Western countries say eating whale meat is barbaric. What's barbaric is for them to not try to understand foreign culture."
"Some Japanese people in their teens and 20s have probably never had whale meat. I'm a university student and don't feel like eating it. It's almost like eating a cat or dog. I think it'll be alright if whaling is done locally in some coastal areas as traditional practice since whale meat doesn't seem to be in strong demand. I don't think there's a need to travel far away for whaling."
Significance of the move
"I hear the view that there is no need for whaling as the consumption of whales has been declining," Tsuruho says. "But I want to ask them what they think about the feelings of people hoping to eat whale and the people engaged in whaling."
He also stresses that whaling is significant in terms of passing on culture.
"For example, the hinges used for Bunraku puppets are whale baleens and some material for perfumes come from sperm whales. We need to preserve and revive these cultures. Catching whales and disassembling them requires special techniques. People who can do this are getting older. Restarting whaling is necessary from the standpoint of preserving culture."
Tsuruho says that whaling should also be resumed for the sake of securing seafood resources. The Japanese government has consistently insisted that whale feeding patterns cause a decrease in seafood resources. The country's Fisheries Agency says whales catch about three to five times the amount caught by fisheries around the world. "Five-fold may be an exaggeration," he admits. "But the fact remains that seafood resources are under a great deal of pressure. To put it simply, some whales should be culled."
What happens after withdrawal?
Japan officially pulls out of the organization on June 30th and will be able to resume commercial whaling in July.
But Japan is also a signatory of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs the use of marine resources. The convention requires its parties to appropriately control whaling through an international organization. Therefore, the Japanese government plans to become an observer at the IWC's general assembly and scientific committee. It is also considering establishing a new international institution to conduct whaling. Meanwhile, it will not be able to continue scientific whaling if it withdraws from the IWC. The practice requires approval from the group.
What’s at issue
It's extremely rare for Japan to pull out of a major international organization like the IWC. Since the end of World War Two, the country has put a priority on diplomacy through cooperation, choosing to hold talks to resolve differences. The decision to withdraw from the IWC could mark a turning point.
Japan will be pressured to respond to the international criticism. The withdrawal may make it difficult for the country to press its case on how to preserve seafood resources, such as tuna. Japan will also face the possibility that commercial whaling may not be a viable industry amid falling domestic whale meat consumption.
Japan has made a major decision on whaling. But the fallout will continue for some time.