Anti-Whaling Activists Hit a Nerve in Japan

Japanese whaling authorities and anti-whaling activists are trading blame after a harpoon ship collided with two vessels from the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd in Antarctic waters on February 20, 2013.

The incident offered a glimpse into the country's complicated relationship with whaling as many Japanese Web users, regardless of their opinion on the practice, lined up against Sea Shepherd and slammed what some called the world's selective outrage over Japanese whaling.

Activists from US-based Sea Shepherd maintain that the 8,000-tonne factory ship Nisshin Maru rammed two of the organization's vessels, the Bob Barker and the Steve Irwin, as well as its own refueling ship, the South Korean tanker ship Sun Laurel.

Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research, the country's quasi-governmental whaling body, disputes the anti-whaling group's version of events, claiming that Sea Shepherd vessels made a “foolhardy” attempt to sabotage the Nisshin Maru's refueling effort, provoking the collision.

No one was injured in the incident.

The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986. In recent years, Japan has caught between 400 and 1,000 whales per year as part of what it calls “scientific research” and the meat is sold as a byproduct on the open market in Japan, despite the country's waning appetite for whale meat. Critics have called the Institute of Cetacean Research a ruse to continue commercial whaling despite the moratorium.

Critics have also accused Sea Shepherd of using aggressive, at times violent tactics to stop Japan's whaling. Days after this latest clash, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling on an unrelated case filed against the organization by Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research in November 2011, labeled them as pirates.

Image from Institute of Cetacean Research.

Image of the collision from the Institute of Cetacean Research.

After the collision, many Japanese Web users took to social media to condemn Sea Shepherd without explicitly professing support for their homeland's practice whaling, a sign of the Japanese people's nuanced perspective on the practice.

In an online poll on newly launched polling platform [ja], users were asked to answer whether they thought Sea Shepherd's intervention of Japan's whaling is a criminal act. Many of the 210 users who participated answered that they consider it a crime regardless of if they are for or against whaling. User @naoki_ma commented:


It is up to the Sea Shepherd to protest research whaling, but their behavior seems obviously against international law however I tried to align with them. Given that there is no criticism [by Sea Shepherd] against whaling in European countries, I cannot help but feel that they have some sort of contempt [for Japan]. I ask for the government to stand resolute and consider countermeasures for self-defense.

Japanese media coverage of opposition to whaling has been relatively scant compared to the amount of coverage devoted to the subject by international media, as the case has been for other marine mammal hunts by Japan.

But the news of the clash between the whaling ship and Sea Shepherd ships dominated headlines in Australia, which is one of Sea Shepherd's most prominent supporters. Japanese author Kaz Hagiwara (@reservologic), who resides in Australia, noted on Twitter:

@reservologic: 今朝から豪州のニュースは、日本の調査捕鯨船が豪州領海内でシーシェパードを暴力的に妨害したという記事で持ち切り。国政選挙が近くなると出てくる日本の捕鯨問題はオーストラリア政府の定番スピンなのだった。そういやギラード首相の支持率は最低。

@reservologic: Media coverage in Australia this morning flooded with the news that Japan's whaling research ship violently intervened with the Sea Shepard in the Australian territorial waters. The issues surrounding Japan's whaling always come up almost routinely when an election is near. Note that the approval ratings of PM Julia Gillard is in a slump now.

But despite the Japanese's clear cut opposition to Sea Shepherd, opinions about the actual matter of whaling aren't so unanimous. Some wonder about the inconsistency of plentiful whale meat available in the online [ja] and offline marketplace as a byproduct of whale research. Twitter user @one_one_nine[ja] asked:

@one_one_nine: 調査捕鯨といいながら、市場には相当量出回っているのは何故なんだ? RT @lllpuplll: 捕鯨はだめ。クジラさんが可哀想、といいながら、ブタさんやウシさんを平気で食らう日本。日本人は、自分の足下をよく見つめるべき。

@one_one_nine: Then why is it that there is a substantial amount of whale meat available in the market while they claim that it is for research purposes? QT@lllpuplll: No whaling because it's a pity while you devour piggies and cows? Japanese should be more aware of where they stand.

Japan's financial support of whaling has also attracted criticism at home that funds could be better spent elsewhere. Miyako Maekita (@maekitam), who heads green advertising agency Sustena, discussed [ja] on Twitter in October 2012 how the budget for reconstruction efforts in Ishinomaki, which suffered serious damage from the massive earthquake and resulting tsunami in March 2011, was diverted to whaling instead:


@maekitam: 2.3 billion yen was allocated to Arctic research whaling from the disaster reconstruction budget. Disaster-stricken Ishinomaki city in Miyagi Prefecture [whaling area] protested that “this does not help our community.” 1.8 billion yen for research whaling + 480 million yen for Sea Shepherd counter measure budget. The Institute of Cetacean Research, which handles whaling and selling whale meat, consists of former-government officials “parachuted” in. The former vice-director for the fisheries agency sits as chief director, three to four “parachuted” in former government officials of all 10 members. This is an act of thief. 

But defenders of the practice, despite Japan's image in the press as a cruel whaler, point to Japanese folk belief that considers whales as divine [ja]. A Twitter user commented last year that Japan holds memorials for dead whales in certain areas:

東北の鯨神社では日本が江戸時代から現在に至るまで捕鯨した全ての鯨を奉っており、全てに戒名を与えている。 日本は世界で最も鯨を大切に扱い、鯨の生命一つ一つを歴史に残し、長年にわたって鯨の慰霊をしている。しかし、シーシェパードががそのような事をしたと言う話は一回も聞かない。

In Tohoku [north east area of ] Japan, there is a shrine dedicated to celebrate whales, as a memorial for every single whale with their names. Japan has treated whales the best in the world, and for a long time, comforted the spirit of whale after life. I've never heard Sea Shepard did this kind of thing.


  • In reply to @maekitam it was not given to the ICR ”instead” it was in addition to. ”$30 million was not spent on beefed up security. It was closer to $6M in USD.”The funds are a part of the Y498.9 billion that was allotted for the agency in Japan’s Y12 trillion third extra budget, passed last month to cover additional costs for rebuilding the northeast region torn apart by the barreling tsunami.
    About Y1.8 billion will be spent on “supporting whaling research” and the remaining Y480 million will go towards “safety measures against disturbing activity,” according to Shigeki Takaya, assistant director of international affairs at the Fisheries Agency. ”
    The Fisheries Agency said on Thursday that supporting the expedition with reconstruction funds is appropriate, claiming that bringing back a full catch will help revive a whaling town devastated on March 11. The tsunami swallowed much of the small coastal village of Ayukawa, a district in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, the only whaling hub in the northeastern disaster zone. The massive wave destroyed the whale-processing facility and ports, dealing a blow to a business that had already been choking from increasingly depleted catches.
    Y480M equals about $6M USD.

  • We are all waiting for the Japanese government to grow up and become a part of the 21st century. A culture of criminals being funded through whaling has to stop.

    • A Realist..

      We eat cows, pigs, chickens, ducks and other animals that we keep as pets and no one has a problem with that.. The japanese eat whale and as far as I know they dont keep them as pets for breakfast and put them on the table for dinner.. Keep your nose in your plate and don’t worry about what other ppl are doing for their next meal they are just living off the land (or sea) just like everyone else on earth.. If you stop the whaling traditions other countries have you are suppressing their cultures and ways of living (making them extinct)…

  • […] national election in 2015. Cameron is under pressure from a growing number of party legislators and activists who have broken ranks to say they are unhappy with […]

  • Japan is the worst country on earth. I have no sympathy for their tsunami. It seems a form of divine justice. I can find no “culture” in Japan, only criminal depravity.

    • madsbacker

      Whale meat tastes much like seal. It’s full of healthy fatty acid, you should try it. Maybe it will improve your iq.
      The whales hunted are not endangered, and the days collected from the corpses give us valuable information regarding the dangers posed to the whales from pollution.

    • eot8857

      And comments like this are exactly why the Japanese feel like this is a racially-motivated problem. While you are at it, why not state that NZ’s lack of action against whaling justifies the Christchurch disaster, or that the meddling of the US in the Middle East is why they deserve the earthquakes and hurricanes they get? Also note that Australia is responsible for its own Bluefin tuna collapse, and they allow natives to hunt docile Dugong. All governments and countries do things which we are ashamed of; anyone who believes their government is absolutely innocent lives in a fantasy world.

      If you are unable to find anything other than criminal depravity in Japan, I would suggest that you not hang out with criminals. There are plenty of cultural elements from Japan. Anime? Ninjas? Drifting? Watercolor art? Haiku poetry? Kabuki/Noh plays? Sumo wrestling? The man who closes his eyes cannot claim to be blind.

      A country (any country) is more than the actions of any one group – don’t judge an entire people just because of the actions of a handful. That’s called stereotyping, which is racist.

    • Midsky

      OK I don’t agree with whaling. I hate it. But that doesn’t mean that most Japanese people support it. It’s just like in other places, where people don’t agree with the common depravity of criminals and corrupt politicians. Saying what you said just proves a very dangerous lack of culture and lack of normal human understanding and conceptions, which can lead to racism and hate. Imagine “I can find no culture in [insert your country’s name here], only criminal depravity [because of what some stupid corrupt and criminal people from your country is doing].

  • sidewinder

    Japan is An international disgrace driving whales and tuna to extinction.

  • nannasin smith

    the approval ratings of PM Julia Gillard is in a slump now.


  • chorochoroshitai

    I, a Japanese do not like whale catching and whale. In old days free school lunch was provided with whale sausage. I still cannot forget of that bad paste. On the other hand we have never asked you to help us when facing difficulties such as war or earthquake Our culture is not for sale. But I have never heard of Australian culture. I believe human life is something to do with depravity which should not include criminal aspects. Criminal rate here in Japan is among the lowest.We are not part of Western civilization.Please stay there and play with your fatties and London miniature.

  • Donald Grant

    Funny how Sea Shepherd seem unable to stop the whaling that is carried out by people in the North Americas, such as the Alaskan and Canadian peoples!

    • A Realist..

      I don’t understand their logic (sea shepherd) we have so much other things wrong in our country and the way our food is processed, the way cows are butchered in some locations are plain and simple CRUEL, they are tortured to say the least..

  • Patrick Hannan

    Glad my tax money is funding criminals. Lets drop a few more bombs

  • Harry Potter

    Japan says anti-whaling stance is a civilising mission and moral crusade that is totally out of place in the modern world. And Professor Lawyer Payam Akhavan says the days of civilising missions and moral crusades are over. How it would be if I say let the world practice cannibalism because it does not have any civilism and moralism. I think it goes with your very intelligent argument. Killing a mammal is equal to killing a human you super idiots. Koji Tsuruoka and Payam Akhavan use your brains to argue not your arse you arseholes. International Court is not your toilets where you can eat whale meat and shit so have some sense before arguing. A bit of common sense is enough to understand what is right and wrong, and not ministership, professorship or lawyership you super idiots. You will argue that you are killing thousands of whales for year put together and you expect the world to nod its head you idiots. Moralism and civilism is what the world is you super idiots otherwise you won’t be living idiots so talk like humans not like devils. And whaling commission is not your doormat.

    • A Realist..

      Think before you post, before you join the discussion because you make yourself sound more ignorant than the ppl you are trying to insult.. If hunting a whale is a crime because its a mammal, what group of criminals are you supporting when you eat a burger, or pork chops… You really should look into the way our food is processed and how the cow you eat was tortured before it got on your plate..

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