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Humpback whale playing with kelp

Why do humpback whales wear seaweed wigs?

Alison Wood Ali is WDC's education projects coordinator. She is the editor of Splash! and KIDZONE,...
Japanese whaling ship

WDC in Japan – Part 5: The meaning of whaling

Katrin Matthes Katrin is WDC's communications and campaigns officer for policy & communication in Germany...
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We're at COP28 to Save the Whale, Save the World.

We’re at COP28 to save the whale, save the world

Ed Goodall Ed is WDC's head of intergovernmental engagement. He meets with world leaders to...
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Will nationalism trump conservation in a ‘post-truth’ world?

Is the new US Administration’s apparent negative attitude toward environmental protection an open door for renewed Japanese commercial whaling?

If you have read the WDC blog regularly, you will know that we have often discussed the issue of Japanese vote buying at the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Japan has even admitted to using overseas development aid to get countries to attend the whaling commission and vote in favour of whaling, even if they have no interest in the issue and no need for whaling themselves. For nearly twenty years WDC has been reporting on and campaigning to stop this undermining of international law through the use of what we believe is a form of ‘economic imperialism’.

We have covered this form of abuse by Japan not only because we believe it affects the future of the world’s whales, but also because it serves as an example of the potential to corrupt governments that engage in actions which undermine international treaties like the IWC.  One might argue that the corruption of international treaties and agreements undermine the very society that passively accepts such activities carried out in their name.


Nationalism and the ‘Permission Umbrella’

Japan’s Prime Minister Abe has long been a supporter of whaling and this should not come as a shock considering his family links to the whaling industry. However, his political use of the whaling issue in support of his increasingly nationalistic political agenda within Japan should not be underestimated. 

I have previously also discussed how Japan has been free to build its whaling empire through economic imperialism (i.e. vote buying) under what I have loosely called, the US ‘permission umbrella’. In a previous 2014 blog, I called for the US to champion an international regulation to encourage Japan to pull back on its whaling.

That was of course under the previous Obama Administration. The new Trump Presidency has not yet made any inroads into the issue of whaling that we know of, but I am not holding my breath that whale conservation, or any environmental conservation for that matter, is going to be high on the list of policy initiatives for those running the White House. I don’t provide that opinion from any political standpoint but simply based on the comments and actions coming out of the White House in the recent weeks.

Indeed, I would go so far to warn that the statements and actions coming out of the US are creating a new form of ‘permission umbrella’, enabling Japan to reject international cooperation over whaling as the US leads with its new political “nationalist” agenda.

Trump and Abe have much in commonJapanese nationalism is not new and indeed has nothing to learn from the new US Administration. In fact, some observers have noted similarities between President Trump and Prime Minister Abe.  But Japan’s Prime Minister Abe has regularly played the nationalism card in his bid to maintain power in Japan. For example, his administration has revised textbook screening guidelines to give Japanese children a more ‘patriotic’ take on modern Japanese history and, as the Japan Times reports in discussing how the Japanese Government views World War II, Abe is suggesting that the peace enjoyed today came from Japanese aggression in the 1930s and ’40s and thereby tries to bestow some legitimacy on those actions.”

It goes on, revealing Prime Minister Abe’s nationalistic and family reasons for such a position This underhanded justification of war is not necessary to honor the war dead. They died because of Japan’s leaders at the time, including Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, launched Japan into this avoidable tragedy. Those leaders held Japanese lives cheap, and they were sacrificed and subjected to awful horrors for an ignominious cause. Dressing this sanguinary rampage up as the bedrock of contemporary Japan is a deplorable deceit.”

 Japanese whalers

There are mistruths, alternative facts and then there is whaling rhetoric 

Whilst here we have discussed previously the link between whaling and previous Japanese aggression, taking a different approach Japan’s whalers have been merging the nationalistic rhetoric with the whaling debate to create a ‘post-fact world’ (or provide “alternative facts”) of their own making. For example, Japan has been a staunch proponent of the whales eat all the fish’ argument, contesting that if there were fewer whales in the oceans then there would be more fish for its fishermen to catch. They continue with this rhetoric despite the rejection of such claims by some of the world’s foremost fisheries scientists and ignore emerging research which underscores the ecological role of whales in rebuilding fish stocks. 

For organisations such as WDC, it has always been difficult to penetrate the Japanese press to get alternative opinions across. Japanese journalists have historically tended to act as a collective taking their lead from official government sources. However, an increasingly nationalistic agenda in Japan is pressuring Japanese media organisations to further toe the ‘party line when it comes to reporting what the government of Japan wants to be discussed in public. This is particularly notable in the recent passing of the controversial State Secrets Law. Despite reports of 80% opposition from the Japanese public the law was passed allowing the imprisonment of journalists for up to five years for publishing information from whistle-blowers, with the Abe Administration acting as the judge, jury and enforcers despite there being no parliamentary consensus on what a state secret actually is.

Hugh Cortazzi, who was the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984, writing in Japan Times (9th March 2017), notes that the recent state secrets law was pushed through the Diet without adequate debate. Its provisions, which remind some of the absurd lengths to which the pre-war military went to preserve secrecy, do not contain adequate safeguards to prevent action being taken against whistleblowers and investigative journalists’. 

For whatever his reasons, U.S. President Trump seems to be following a somewhat similar strategy declaring the press to be the ‘enemy of the people’.

In so doing the President is possibly seeking to create a public distrust of the media so as to prevent the media from publishing any current or future news story that does not coincide with the Administration’s point of view. That this approach to managing the press has included the defensive use of ‘alternative facts’ is worrying as we have seen the use of such ‘alternative facts’, or lies as I like to call them, used by pro-whaling forces in the IWC for many years.

Ignoring the facts, dismissing the experts

Trying to create distance between the press and the public should not be surprising considering the US President’s views on experts was made clear during the recent Presidential campaign when he seemed to suggest that he did not need to rely on experts as, “the experts are terrible”. 

This dismissal of ‘experts’ was a tactic successfully used by the ‘leave campaign’ in the recent UK European membership referendum (Brexit). In dismissing experts as being ‘part of the problem’, the proponents were able, in one sweep of rhetoric, to dismiss the informed opinion of a whole bunch of influential specialists that were trying to ensure the public were informed fully before engaging in such a monumental decision.

This dismissal of expertise with ‘alternative facts’ makes life difficult in a forum such as the IWC where, whatever your opinion on the rights and wrongs of whaling at the end of the day, most people involved in this field are consistent in wanting to have as much agreed science and facts upon which to base their positions. When ‘alternative facts’ become the currency of scientific and policy decision making, everyone suffers.

To those in Japan who may wish to see the free press marginalised, reinventing history or historical revisionism, is, of course, second nature. If the US is beginning to use similar tactics, we may see these ‘nationalistic’ pro-whalers take this as permission to push even harder for a resumption of commercial whaling.

Japan has long sought to skew the interpretation of its own recent commercial whaling history to create an image that it actually pursues some form of ancient whaling that has always existed throughout Japan.  The IWC currently allows Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) for native peoples with a continuing nutritional and cultural need for whale meat but has repeatedly said that Japan’s whaling falls outside of this definition. The recent International Court of Justice (ICJ) reiterated that Japan’s whaling was commercial whaling, even whaling that it claimed was so-called ‘scientific whaling’.

Are US actions giving the green light to Japanese whaling?

Pro-whaling elements in Japan may also feel empowered by the US’s apparent intention to reject international agreements or even adhere to their own environmental protection regulations.

For example, President Trump campaigned on his commitment to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a ground-breaking international agreement on climate change. His appointment of Scott Pruitt as the new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been followed almost immediately by Pruitt declaring climate change needs more ‘study and debate’, and that ‘Carbon dioxide is not a “primary contributor” to global warming’. This came just a week before scientists demonstrated that the “Earth’s oceans are warming 13% faster than thought, and accelerating”

In one interview, Pruitt has turned US climate change policy on its head. Ironically, this may well cause some interesting problems for the US delegation at the forthcoming IWC as the US were expected to request flexibility with their Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) quota arguing that the Alaskan native peoples hunting bowhead whales are significantly impacted by climate change and changing sea ice conditions. We shall just have to see if climate change as a concept is even allowed to be acknowledged as a factor in the whale conservation debate by the US delegation from now on.

Again, Japan may take its lead from the new US Administration. Like Pruitt’s stance on climate change, Japan may well see its effective rejection of the 2014 International Court of Justice’s ruling against its whaling as simply being a similar refutation of actual facts replaced with its own ‘alternative facts’ that means it can simply ignore the Court’s judgement.

 As noted above WDC and the conservation community have long publicised Japan’s previous abuse of its overseas aid programme and Japan’s behaviour is now increasingly attracting critical international academic attention which demonstrates that this aid policy benefits no one but the Japanese Fisheries Ministry and the commercial whaling interests.

Yet, after years of denying that it was actively recruiting allies to the whaling commission, in this new world order of ‘might conquers right’, Japan has openly declared that it will be recruiting more countries through use of its overseas aid programme to bribe countries to vote alongside it for a resumption of commercial whaling.

Whilst I do not anticipate any change in the Japanese Government’s position on whaling, I am concerned that the US Government’s potential abdication of a longstanding leading role at the IWC and the European Union’s (EU) internal ‘naval-gazing’ after the shock of the decision of the UK to leave the EU, will leave a vacuum in which the Japanese agenda will be allowed to flourish.

We cannot afford to let this happen.

WDC standing up for the whales

Over the last quarter of a century, WDC has helped thwart various attempts by the whalers to overturn the moratorium on commercial whaling. We have been able to do this only because of public support.

While the IWC meetings may only take place every two years, the work of WDC to end whaling goes on daily. 

In these times when we find some government allies distracted by other things, we need you to continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with WDC as we take the fight to the whalers.

The challenges are huge but with your continued help, we shall achieve the world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free.