Cetacean exploitation in Japan


Report on the Activities of Citizens’ Groups in Japan to heighten awareness of the problems 
of cetacean exploitation


Dolphin and Whale Action Network (IKAN)

The number of animal rights’ activists in Japan can be counted in hundreds rather than thousands, however, due to the work of organisations such as IKAN, (the Dolphin and Whale Action Network), people are becoming more aware of these issues and the rights of marine animals are being considered as well as those of land animals.
It should be remembered that animal welfare law in Japan just covers pets, unlike in the West where it covers farm animals as well.  In order to understand better Japanese views on whaling and the treatment of other cetaceans, it is helpful to look at the history of their relations with the West.


In 1853, Japan was forced to open itself up to the outside world through the actions of a Captain Perry of the United States, who arrived with a fleet of warships and demanded a trade agreement under threat of military action.

Even by this time the US had almost exterminated whales in the Atlantic and off the west coast of America and wanted to make their way to the western Pacific to capture whales there. For this they needed bases in the western Pacific, the first view the Japanese had of these white men was of them shooting birds for sport, something that horrified them.

As isolation had been broken, Japan decided to modernise itself.
The Buddhist sects in Japan forbade the eating of four-legged animals, and for this reason traditional Japanese cuisine comprises fish, seafood, vegetables and rice. However, the ruling elite felt that part of their modernisation should entail promoting the eating of meat, as this was considered sophisticated.

They also appropriated western technology, at which they were so successful that by the end of the first World War Japan was one of the most powerful nations in the world.
They had a seat with the big powers in the League of Nations, but were never treated as their equal, and felt that their
opinion was ignored in favour of the other white powers. This treatment of them as inferior to the white man was to lead to serious consequences in the second World War, and is a sentiment that is still felt by them when they deal with the West.  In looking at these issues it can help the West to more fully appreciate the resistance the Japanese exhibit when pressured by groups from the West to stop whaling.

These issues have now come full circle. The price of beef imports is so expensive that the government is now trying to re-stimulate interest in whale eating, citing it as an ancient Japanese tradition. Whale eating was traditionally a part of the diet of the people who lived on the coast line where they were caught, but was not eaten by the majority of the population except when there was poverty, (after the war for example).
Indeed in Japan today it is still only eaten by a few, often as a gourmet delicacy, hence the government’s desire to increase its consumption.

Indeed IKAN argues that enough whales become beached each year to satisfy this small demand without commercial whaling to resume. One of the reasons that IKAN has had trouble in getting the Japanese media interested in running stories about the plight of whales, is that it is considered of minor interest.

Safety First !

However, IKAN and other groups are actively campaigning against the government-induced offering of free whale meat to shoppers in Ginza and other areas to stimulate demand. The tactic has been to appeal to people’s concern about health as much as to arouse concern about the animals themselves.

The citizen’s network, « Safety First! » campaigns on behalf of consumers in raising the issue of the contamination of marine products. It reported that although Japanese government scientists and independent scientists have been studying heavy metal and toxic organic substance accumulation in cetaceans for over two decades,
and the results have been presented to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, most of the Japanese public have not been made aware of the problem.

They report that annually about 20,000 dolphins and small-type whales are caught and marketed nation-wide as ‘whale’.
Aside from being at the top of the food chain cetaceans have a lot of physical contact with toxic substances, yet there is no regular inspection scheme in place to check contamination levels.
In addition research conducted recently by independent scientists revealed that almost one half of this ‘whale meat’ actually came from dolphins and toothed
whales hunted locally which were contaminated with highly dangerous levels of chemical substances.

As an example dolphin entrails were found to contain mercury 1600 times more than the Ministry of Health and Welfare guidelines. ‘Safety First!’ maintain that as many as one in four cetacean products are mislabelled making it virtually impossible for consumers to exercise choice in what they are buying.

In 1999 « Safety First! » contacted over 1,000 Japanese consumer groups, government officials, retailers and fishing co-operatives informing them of these dangers, but no effective action was taken. This parallels the campaign by activists in the West after such crises as BSE or mad cow disease, to ask people to reflect on what they are eating for their own sake, as an impetus to change. The inaction by the Japanese government also parallels that of Western governments, in particular Britain, in waiting until there is a public health disaster before action is taken.

Nanami Kurasawa 

Nanami Kurasawa, Secretary General of IKAN, whilst not denying the importance of international pressure groups, is convinced that the emphasis must be on Japanese activists making their own countrymen aware of the issues.

In her paper « Greedy Whaling: Is the debate about whaling really a conflict of interests between Japan and Western countries? » she states « I think the best way of changing their attitudes is to shift ideas within ourselves and pulling out of whaling by our own efforts, rather than giving way under the pressure of foreign countries. Luckily, many young people love to swim with the wild dolphins and go whale watching …this young generation who have never eaten whale meat probably have the same sensitivities as those of the foreign countries who oppose whaling. I wish these young people would get involved in the whale issue more aggressively… »

In order for the Japanese to view it as their choice to stop whaling « we have to shift the focus of discussion from ‘conflict between Japan and anti-whaling Westerners’ to ‘conflict between the advocates for industrial development and exploitation’ and the ‘advocates for environmental protection ».

In April of this year IKAN and other pressure groups worked hard to lobby Parliament members on changes to the Wildlife Conservation Law in a bid to move more mammals, including cetaceans, from being under the control of the Fisheries Agency to being under the protection of the Environment Ministry.

Although cetaceans were not moved, some success was recorded.
The Dugong, of whom there are less than 50 in the wild, were moved.
This is important because the natural habitat of the northernmost Dugong is being threatened by plans for an airport in the area. The Fisheries Ministry had stated that it would stop killing them and that was all.

The Environmental Ministry on the other hand has plans to move them out of the disputed area. Five species of seals were also moved to the Environmental Ministry and the Japanese sea lion. The Stellar’s sea lion, sea otter, fur seal and cetaceans remained under the remit of the Fisheries Ministry.

However it is acknowledged that this process takes time and a lot has been achieved even in the last thirty years. The Environmental Ministry is the weakest ministry in the government and so needs all the support it can get from pressure groups. Discussions at the Parliament will continue until the middle of this month.

In the meantime vigilance continues on the plight of mammals of various kinds.
At the moment the focus is also on the plight of the orca. Russia expects to capture at least 5 orcas and the aquarium at Nagoya has plans to accept 2 of them.

IKAN produced plans of a mechanical orca to the aquarium as an alternative to the imprisonment of live ones. These ideas were gleefully accepted by the administrators there and they will possibly go ahead with the idea, but alongside accepting the live specimens! The fight for these animals’ rights, as ever, continues ….

Copyright IKAN

Report from meeting with Nanami Kurasawa, Secretary General of IKAN
Additional information from « Safety First ! » Newsletter (March 2000)
This text written by Karen Trevayne in May 2002 was approved by IKAN

Back to Japan Page

Cetacean exploitation in Japan

log in

reset password

Retour à
log in