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Japan's strategy to resume commercial whaling

Japan has been playing a long game to ensure that it achieves commercial whaling once again

(1) Firstly, it is publicly pursuing support for its scientific whaling programme. After the International Court of Justice ruling one could have expected that Japan would have stepped back and considered the reality of the errors it has made in pursuing its so-called 'scientific' whaling programme. But not Japan, it has launched into a full on assault to press through new regulations that would allow it to continue whaling in 2015. Japan is courting support outside and within the International Whaling Commission, but in doing so it may also be creating ‘cover’ for it's other strategies that it may be pursuing.

(2) Secondly, Japan is seeking to slip though the restrictions of the moratorium by undermining the Whaling Convention's classification of Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) and is using Greenland to pioneer this strategy.

Kumi Kato writing in 2007[1] in seeking to summarize some of the core arguments for so-called ‘Japanese Small type whaling’ or ‘Small Type Coastal Whaling’ (STCW) notes that proponents claim that it should be viewed as ‘indigenous subsistence whaling’.

Many readers of the WDC site will know that this language as very close to that used to describe and codify Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW). Previous statements such as this, and more recent events, show us that Japan’s strategy is not to claim that its whaling is actually ASW, but to engineer a situation where ASW is so close to JSTCW that it becomes impossible for the whaling commission to refuse to grant it a quota.

Chart of Greenland and Japan's arguments

Japan has been very clear that it believes that its whaling is no different to that of Denmark’s overseas territory, Greenland. Resolution IWC/65/15 Resolution on Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (AWS)[sic], to be presented to the IWC at its 65th meeting is unfortunately – and presumably unintentionally – drafted in a way that accommodates Japan´s arguments and facilitates the development of its moves to achieve a resumption of commercial whaling.

Japan and ‘Small-Type Coastal Whaling

The 1982 moratorium decision resulted in officially all commercial whaling for large whales (as regulated by the IWC) in Japan ending in 1985/86. Japan claimed in 1986[2] to have four ‘STCW’ communities, at Monbetsu-Abashiri and Kushro in Hokkaido, and Ayukawa, in Miyagi Prefecture, and Taiji. Today Japan claims that the four communities are Abashiri, Ayukawa, Wada and Taiji.

The current ‘STCW’ operating in Japan take Baird’s Beaked Whales, Risso’s dolphins and pilot whales, and so have not actually stopped their whaling operations. Indeed, minke whales are also taken as part of the JARPN ‘scientific’ whaling programme. Indeed, there has been a continuing hunt by the commercial companies involved in the ‘coastal’ whaling from before and during the IWC moratorium.

As a reflection of the terminology accepted by the IWC at the time, Japan argued for the ‘nutritional, subsistence and cultural needs of small-type coastal whaling in the local community’[3] should be recognised, and even submitted its application to the IWC ASW sub-committee. Japan noted that, ‘The Japanese have utilised whale meat as one of the principal sources of protein since ancient times’.

In 1987, Japan was arguing for ‘Subsistence whaling’[4] with respect to Japan’s coastal whaling industry, a theme it has continued right up until now. In this paper Japan noted that,

‘In 1986, the Government of Japan submitted Small-Type Coastal Whaling in Japan’s Coastal Seas (TC/38/AS2) to the Technical Committee Sub-Committee on Aboriginal/Subsistence Whaling based on the belief that a part of small type whaling in Japan’s coastal seas should be recognised as subsistence whaling because of its similarity to aboriginal/subsistence whaling, now authorized by the IWC, in the United States, the USSR and Denmark.’

Japan has been very clear that it believes that its whaling is no different to that of Denmark’s overseas territory, Greenland. The resolutions presented to the IWC at its 65th meeting have gone a long way to meeting Japan’s arguments. Specifically IWC/65/15 Resolution on Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (AWS)[sic], as developed by Greenland and the European Union Commission, has significantly delivered many of the elements of Japan’s arguments.

What is the difference between dependence on whaling for ‘subsistence and cultural purposes’ and ‘nutritional subsistence and cultural’ purposes?

The International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling has no definition of Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) in the original Treaty.

However, as the Japanese Government[5] noted in 1987,

'Under the present International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, signed in 1946, permission of aboriginal whaling (not in the form of exemption from the provision) is provided for not in the main texts of the Convention but in the Schedule attached thereto. The main texts of the Convention give procedural provisions while concrete items pertaining to regulations on whaling are dealt with in the Schedule. The present Schedule does not include the conditions stated in (1) to (3) in the 1931 Convention but has, as its conditions, what corresponds to (4) in the 1931 Convention, namely, whale meat and products should be used exclusively for local consumption by the aborigines. [Emphasis added]

meat in supermarket in Nuuk

Paragraph 13a of the Schedule to the Convention describes the aim of Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) as

‘catch limits foraboriginal whaling to satisfy aboriginalsubsistence need”.  Furthermore, Paragraph 13(5) states all aboriginal whaling shall be conducted under national legislation that accords with this paragraph’. I.e. national Governments cannot reinterpret ASW through national legislation.

The IWC reviewed the definitions addressing ASW in 1982[6], and concluded,

‘Aboriginal/subsistence whaling means whaling, for purposes of local aboriginal consumption, carried out by or on behalf of aboriginals, indigenous or native peoples who share strong community, social and cultural ties related to a continuing traditional dependence on whaling and on the use of whales

Local aboriginal consumption means the traditional uses of whale products by local aboriginal, indigenous or native communities in meeting their nutritional, subsistence and cultural requirements. The term includes trade in items which are by-products of subsistence catches’. [Emphasis added]

The definitions above formed part of the Report of the ad hoc Technical Working Group on Management Principles and Guidelines for Subsistence Catches of Whales by Indigenous (Aboriginal) Peoples which was accepted by the IWC when proposed by Resolution IWC/32/36 (Resolution concerning Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling), The resolution was accepted by ‘unanimity’[7], including by Denmark.

In this case, Denmark and all Member States must abide by the Schedule text at 13(a) and the interpretation of the ad hoc report, which defines ASW as whaling, for purposes of local aboriginal consumption’

What is the effect of relegating out the phrase ‘nutritional’?

IWC’65/15 refer to ‘accommodating the needs of aboriginal people who are dependent upon whales for subsistence and cultural purposes…’

By leaving out the term ‘nutritional’ the resolution allows for the argument, as fostered by Greenland, that it does not have to have a ‘nutritional’ need, but only a ‘subsistence need’ that can include the taking and selling of whales for providing a wage income. Japan has made the same arguments back in 1987, and in 2014 the EU has sought to change the definition of ASW to suit the changed circumstances and demands of the Greenlandic Government, and in so doing has provided Japan with further ammunition to argue that its whaling is discriminated against.

Political Science

SLA’s and multi-species SLAs

Resolution IWC/65/15 refers to ‘Multi-species SLAs’; calling on the Scientific Committee to provide multi-species advice before the next quota block’.

A review of IWC/65/Rep01 (2014) Annex E, Report of the Standing Working Group on the Aboriginal Whaling Management Procedure (AWMP), shows no discussion of the multi-species management being discussed at the Scientific Committee working group.

In fact, multispecies management is only discussed briefly by the plenary meeting of the Scientific Committee. In IWC/65/Rep1[8], it states,

 ‘The Committee has recognised that in a multi-species fishery, hunters would like to have some flexibility across species in terms of meeting the overall need expressed in terms of edible products. It has agreed that the inclusion of such flexibility across a series of interlinked SLAs is complex (e.g. IWC, 2011b). The Committee has therefore agreed that this aspect only be considered after single species SLAs have been developed and adopted.’

Thus, it is the Scientific Committee, reacting to a request of Greenland, and not the Commission that has considered the use of so-called multi-species SLA’s.

IWC/65/15 retrospectively endorses the actions of Greenland and the Scientific Committee and seeks to accelerate work that the Scientific Committee has indicated has a great level of uncertainty. Indeed, the Scientific Committee notes that in looking at the issue of fin whale takes off Greenland, ‘The Committee is concerned that the complexity of the model nay not allow development of an SLA for fin whales in time for the 2017 Scientific Committee meeting. It agreed, that priority should be given to the development of an SLA for minke whales, in view of the greater contribution of minke whales to the overall interspecies needs satisfaction for Greenland.’

Japan has previously argued for a multispecies ecosystem management approach to the work of the IWC. For some observers this smacks of the discredited Blue Whale Unit – BWU – a disastrous strategy used by the IWC in the last century. In light of these concerns Greenland’s argument for the use of tonnage of whales rather than specifying its need in numbers of whalers also sounds a lot like the BWU 

Who qualifies for an ASW quota?

IWC/65/15 refers to ‘ASW countries’ as opposed to ASW communities. Greenland has argued that the whole of Greenland is to be considered a local community.

Japan has now made its case for the taking of 17 minke whales in IWC/65/09[12] and makes specific reference to the similarity between its proposal and that of Greenland, noting that ‘the meat and products of such whales are to be used exclusively for local consumption’. The Japanese proposal also notes that ‘“Local consumption”, under the current aboriginal subsistence whaling accommodates consumption within an entire country and even transport of whale meat across a national border…Further more, Japan prohibits export of whale meat.’

Japan is using the example of Greenland to argue that local consumption allows for commercial exchange.

‘Furthermore, under the current aboriginal subsistence whaling regime, sales of whale products, including meat and crafts made from whale parts, are accepted as non-commercial. However, claiming that meat and craft sales in other countries are non-commercial while whale meat sales in Japan are commercial is not logical and, for Japan, unacceptable’.

Circumstance or Strategy?

The Japanese Ambassador to Copenhagen, Seishi Suei, visited the capital of Greenland, Nuuk, from 1-4 July 2014. He was scheduled to meet both Aleqa Hammond, head of the Greenland Government and Finn Karlsen, the Minister of Fisheries, Agriculture and Hunting; they were to discuss, amongst other things, economic cooperation, cultural and research issues, exports of fisheries products, tourism and natural resources.

During his visit Seishi Suei spoke of the opportunities of increased exports to Japan including that of seal products[13].

WDC knows also that the Japanese IWC team met with the Danish and Greenlandic IWC representatives in London during early June[14], and that the Japanese Foreign Minister of Japan meant with his Danish counterpart and the Greenlandic Premier during early May. Japan reported that the three countries discussed the issue of whaling and that,

'The three ministers agreed to continue to communicate closely based on the standpoint of supporting the sustainable utilization of marine biological resources, including Cetaceans’


In its Needs Statement IWC/65/17 Greenland refers to ‘Food Security’ nine times between pages three and twelve.

This year IWC/65/10 Rev 1 ‘Resolution on Food Security’ has been submitted by Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and the Republic of Guinea. We note that, this resolution, which is not properly within the purview of the IWC and is routinely addressed by other international agencies and conventions, is a direct result of a meeting of the Ministerial Conference on Fisheries Cooperation Among African States Bordering the Atlantic Ocean (ATLAFCO) held in early July in Morocco.  The meeting, described as a preparatory meeting for IWC/65, was described as a “Contribution of Fisheries to Food Security”.

The ATLAFCO meeting was supported by the Government of Japan and was attended by representatives of the Japanese government, including IWC Commissioner Joji Morishita. In his presentation to the ATLAFCO meeting, Commissioner Morishita spoke on the “ issue of sustainable use of marine resources and food security and on the challenges of the next IWC session”.[16]  The meeting endorsed both Japan’s and Greenland’s proposed Schedule Amendments.


Needs Statement – Who defines Need?

Resolution IWC/65/15 states that 

‘WHEREAS the Commission recognises the importance of accommodating the needs of aboriginal people who are dependent upon whales for subsistence and cultural purposes and that the Commission intends that the needs of aboriginals shall be determined by the Governments concerned and explained in needs statements that are submitted to the Commission.’  [Emphasis added]

The IWC website states that,

‘For aboriginal subsistence whaling the IWC objectives are twofold:

  • ensure that hunts do not seriously increase risks of extinction and that hunted whale populations move to (if they are not already there), and are then maintained at, healthy, relatively high levels;
  • enable native people to hunt whales at levels appropriate to cultural and nutritional requirements (known as ‘need’) in the long-term.

It is the responsibility of a national government to provide the Commission with evidence of the needs of their indigenous people.  This is presented in the form of a ‘Needs Statement’, which details the cultural, subsistence and nutritional aspects of the hunt, products and distribution.  The Scientific Committee provides advice on the sustainability of proposed hunts and safe catch limits.  …

The Commission considers the information from both the Needs Statement and the Scientific Committee to decide catch limits for each hunt’ [Emphasis added][17] 

The Danish Needs Statement (IWC/65/17), states,

At page 8: ‘The products from indigenous hunting intend to meet both immediate nutritional requirements and to provide food for the winter period as well as satisfying important cultural and socioeconomic needs’.

At page 9: ‘From our initial point of view, the only legitimate requirements of ASW countries are that the hunt is undertaken by people living in an ASW country, that the hunt is based on a tradition, and intended for local consumption.’web

In Conclusion

So Japan is pursuing a strategy that cynically holds Greenland Inuit hunters up as both a snowplough to drive through Japan's IWC critics and a way of deflecting pro-conservation bodies from looking at Japan itself. If we look back at Japan’s definition of ‘indigenous subsistence whaling’ Greenland is in effect creating the road for Japan to follow.

It will be interesting what IWC65 decides.


[1] Kato, K. (2007) Prayers for the Whales: Spirituality and Ethics of a Former Whaling Community -Intangible Cultural Heritage for Sustainability, International Journal of Cultural Property 14:283–313

[2] Government of Japan, (1986) ‘Small-Type Coastal Whaling in Japan’s Coastal Seas’, (IWC) TC/38/AS2.

[3] Ibid page 6

[4] Government of Japan, (1987) ‘Japan’s Small-Type Subsistence Whaling’, IWC/39/25.

[5] The Government of Japan, (1987), History of the Consideration of Aboriginal /Subsistence Whaling.

[6] Donavan, G.P. (1982) The International Whaling Commission and Aboriginal Subsistence whaling: April 1979 to July 1981.G.P. Donavan, ed. Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (with special reference to the Alaska and Greenland fisheries) Rept. IWC, Special Issue 4:79-86

[7] Verbatim report 32nd IWC Meeting, Brighton July 1980, page 182

[8] Report of the Scientific Committee (2104) IWC/65/Rep 1 page 18, Available at

[9] Simon, M., (2014) Progress on Conversion Factors for the Greenlandic Hunt SC/65b/AWMP05 Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture, Government of Greenland

[10] Government of Greenland, ‘Addendum to Report of the Small Working Group on Conversion Factors (From Whales to Edible Products) for the Greenlandic Large Whale Hunt’, IWC/62/9 Donovan, G, et al 2010

[11] Supra 8, page 23

[12] Government of Japan ‘Japan’s Proposal and is Background for Schedule Amendment to Permit the Catching of Minke Whales from the Okhotsk Sea- West Pacific Sock by Small-Type Coastal Whaling’, IWC/65/09

[14] Pers comm.

[15] Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) Available at:, Accessed 31st July 2014

[16] The meeting was also attended by Eugene Lapointe of the pro-whaling NGO IWMC.

[17] IWC Website. Available at: Accessed on 1st July 2014