THE BLOG
06/21/2014 06:09 pm ET | Updated Aug 16, 2014

In Killing Whales and Dolphins, Japan Is Hurting Itself

And the US Government Should Help Them Stop!

Why is Japan so off-the-wall in insisting on waving the bloody shirt in front of the world public by slaughtering whales and dolphins in the most inhumane manner possible and then defending the bloodshed with bogus claims?

Japan's outrageous actions in supporting the carnage are truly breath-taking. Since 1986, Japan has flaunted the international moratorium on killing whales voted by a three-quarters majority of the member nations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and Japan has further abused the basic rationale of scientific investigation by insisting their killing is "research," with the whale meat being sold in Japan markets in order not to "waste it." Japan's whaling in the Antarctic further violates the sanctuary designation the IWC approved in 1994 for the Southern Ocean. The IWC has passed several resolutions condemning Japan's "research" whaling.

The government of Australia, in exasperation, brought a case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague in 2010. On March 31, 2014, the court majority came down soundly against Japan's whaling, chastising Japan for a lack of scientific rigor in a scheme that clearly had more to do with keeping the whaling industry alive rather than study whales. The court ordered Japan to end their annual whaling operation in the Antarctic.

Yet, the set-back to Japan was short lived. Their phony Northern Pacific scientific research fleet set sail in April to kill sperm, sei, and minke whales, shortly after the decision came out. (While the ICJ decision officially condemned only the Antarctic whaling operations, the ruling clearly is applicable to Japan's North Pacific "scientific" whaling scheme as well.)

Japan's government is further proposing to revamp their Antarctic hunts to supposedly meet better scientific scrutiny so they can go whaling again in 2015-16. It's not clear how they will swing that, as the sale of whale meat is supposed to provide the financial backing for the research in the first place; yet, one of the major criticisms from the ICJ was the number of whales being killed for paltry scientific results. Likely, Japanese taxpayers will continue to subsidize the hunts, despite the fact that as much as 5,000 tons of whale meat is already held in freezer units in Japan, unsold and unwanted by Japanese consumers.

Japan also, in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), recently imported thousands of tons of whale meat from Iceland. Both Iceland and Norway are countries that kill whales by formally objecting to the whaling moratorium approved by the IWC. Clearly, this illegal trade in whale meat is one more part of Japan's great game of pro-whaling politics.

Japan allegedly wines and dines and supplies prostitutes (according to an undercover story by UK's Sunday Times in 2010) to IWC representatives from small nations, giving them cash and building expensive "fisheries centers" in exchange for their votes in support of whaling at the IWC, a blatant bit of bribery vividly depicted in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove.

The Cove also revealed that in response to the whaling moratorium, the Japan government handed out thousands of new permits to Japanese fishermen to hunt dolphins. Some towns, such as Futo, on the coast southwest of Tokyo, have given up the practice of chasing and herding dolphins as too difficult compared to regular fishing, yet the Japan government continues to issue a quota to them to kill dolphins. And each year, the Futo fishermen refuse to go dolphin hunting.

Dolphin meat is contaminated by mercury, methyl mercury, and PCBs, as repeated tests by Japanese labs at the behest of scientists and environmentalists, including Earth Island, have shown. These levels exceed maximum levels recommended by Japan's health authorities and the World Health Organization. Yet Japan does not put a warning label for consumers on dolphin meat. Some dolphin meat, again as revealed in The Cove and based on DNA studies, is actually mis-labeled on the Japanese market as presumably safer "whale" meat to fool trusting shoppers.

Japan's illegal and immoral hunts for whales and dolphins have shocked the world. Anger is rising, as the Twitter-verse exploded in activity when a gross slaughter of dozens of dolphins in Taiji's notorious cove was recently publicized by Earth Island and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Formal objections to the hunt were voiced with Japan by the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and the US. Whale Wars, which depicts Sea Shepherd's and Paul Watson's quixotic and successful efforts to interfere with Japan's Antarctic whale hunts, is one of the most popular shows on the Animal Planet TV network.

The Japanese government's responses have been sullen and of questionable truth. Even Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe claimed to media that the Taiji dolphin hunts are "an ancient fishing practice rooted in their culture."

This is rubbish and easily dismissed. The vast majority of Japanese people never eat either whale or dolphin meat. Japan's powerful Fisheries Agency has conducted promotions to try to interest the public in buying and eating whale meat, without doing much to stem the decline in interest. They have even stooped to putting whale meat into school lunch programs, exposing youngsters to mercury and other poisons. Most Japanese enjoy dolphins in the wild -- several stranded dolphins have even been rescued by citizens in Japan -- and few Japanese know that the "ancient tradition" of slaughtering dolphins for meat is still going on in the remote town of Taiji and other coastal towns. Nor do they know that the dolphins they enjoy in aquariums were ripped from their families in Taiji as their pod -- their family -- was brutally murdered in a welter of blood.

Japan had a whaling industry beginning in the 12th century from small boats with woven nets and hand-held harpoons. It died out long ago. Trips to Antarctica and the North Pacific on massive factory ships, which is now Japan's main whaling "research" industry, only began at the turn of the century. Dr. Jun Morikawa, in his seminal book Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics and Diplomacy, notes that many fishing towns objected to the imposition of the whaling factories on the local populace. Indeed, in at least one town in 1911, the locals burned their whaling station down, because the blood, oil and offal from the whale hunts polluted the bay and harmed traditional fishing.

Our colleagues in Japan, the Elsa Nature Conservancy and several other grassroots Japanese anti-dolphin hunting groups, pointed out in an open letter to Mr. Gerald Dick, Executive Director of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), that the claim of "culture" and "tradition" are false claims for the Taiji dolphin slaughter, which began only in 1969 and actually was started to provide captive pilot whales for the local Taiji Whale Museum, owned by the town government. (The Taiji Whale Museum, sponsor of the dolphin slaughter and trade in wild dolphins, is a member of the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an affiliate group of WAZA.)

And, as Dr. Carl Safina noted in a recent blog on CNN, Japan is the most Westernized of any Asian country, easily dropping hundreds of years of true Japanese traditions, so why this clinging to an outmoded sense of maintaining a ghastly ancient "cultural practice" that nobody in Japan except the government bureaucracy seems to think is useful or necessary?

Yoko Ono, a strong defender of Japan, wrote her own open letter to the hunters and Japan's government, warning them:

The way you are insisting on a big celebration of killing so many Dolphins and kidnapping some of them to sell to the zoos and restaurants at this very politically sensitive time, will make the children of the world hate the Japanese.


Japan is hurting it's own international reputation as a rational government. Japan is angering the American public. And that, in turn, should alarm the Obama Administration.

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has maintained an agreement with the Japanese government to protect that nation in the event of its being attacked. Japan has virtually no standing army, air force or navy. They depend on U.S. military support.

Both China and North Korea have rumbled frequently about Japan. And the U.S. is obligated to take the side of Japan. But what happens to U.S. support if the American people rightly consider Japan to be an international scofflaw for killing whales and dolphins in violation of international agreements and norms?

In the East China Sea are a handful of islands claimed by both Japan and China. They are uninhabited and have few resources except fish and possibly oil and gas potential. Japan calls these islands Senkaku; China calls them Diayou. Both countries are currently in a war of words over these rocks. China has gone further by claiming jurisdiction over the airspace above the islands. The U.S. flew jets into the area in a show of force for Japan.

If I was a U.S. military man based in the Pacific, I would be very concerned indeed about Japan's very public antics over whales and dolphins. The U.S. military can only do so much without strong support from the American public. We have seen time and time again how the public support of foreign governments that we are bound to protect goes sour when those governments ignore world norms and conduct themselves arrogantly. The American public will only tolerate so much.

Is this really what Japan's government feels is in their best interest?

President Obama and our Japan Ambassador Caroline Kennedy are in a position to explain the issue to the Japanese government -- to maintain the goodwill and support of the American people, Japan should join the rest of the world in ending the killing of dolphins and whales. Japan can do this in a manner that would turn them from environmental outlaw to environmental protector.

The Obama Administration has given lip service to supporting an end to whaling and hunting dolphins. Ambassador Kennedy herself tweeted her concern for the "inhumane" hunts in Japan. This is a good first step, but Japan so far shows no interest in taking these concerns seriously.

It is in Japan's own best interest to stop the killing, and in the best interest of the U.S. as well. This so-called "ancient cultural practice" is doing far more harm than good to the people of Japan.

Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute, based in Berkeley, CA. He has worked on protecting whales and dolphins for more than 40 years. His blogs appear regularly on EII's DolphinProject.org; he also edits the daily newsletter for environmentalists, ECO, at International Whaling Commission meetings.