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Japan Plans To Resume Commercial Whaling Operations


Japan says it is going to resume commercial whaling operations next year. This is a practice that has drawn widespread criticism from conservationists. Japan will also pull out of an intergovernmental body that regulates the industry. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins me from Tokyo to talk about why this is happening and why now. Anthony, good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what is the Japanese government saying here to explain this?

KUHN: What Japan's chief spokesman said today was that this organization that it pulled out of, the International Whaling Commission, which is based in Cambridge, England, has a sort of double task. Part of it is to protect whales, but the other part is to protect and promote a sustainable whaling industry. And Japan claims it's no longer doing that. It's completely siding with the conservationists, and therefore there is just no place - there's nothing the pro-whaling countries can do.

Now, Japan says it's going to remain an observer in the IWC. It's going to consider the IWC's guidelines on how many whales to catch, although it won't say exactly how many, and in general just stick to whaling practices. Also, it says it's not going to go very far afield anymore. It's going to restrict all its whaling to its own territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. So basically, its coastal waters.

GREENE: But whatever the Japanese government thinks about the Whaling Commission and its mandate, I mean, isn't there an international moratorium on whaling that is still in effect right now? What does that mean for Japan if they start doing this again?

KUHN: Yeah. It's still in effect. It went into effect in the mid-1980s. And after that, Japan just kept on whaling and selling whale meat. But what it said it was doing was scientific research. Basically, that was panned and dismissed by a lot of conservationists as a real fig leaf. You know, it was basically a hoax.

But Japan argues that, thanks to this moratorium, whale stocks have now recovered to the point where they can continue. And, you know, they lobbied the IWC for many years to allow more whaling, but it just doesn't work. And now that they're no longer a signatory to the IWC, they're not allowed to go to the Antarctic or to the Northwest Pacific. They have to fish in their own waters.

GREENE: I mean, this announcement was just hours ago, but it sounds like there's already been a lot of reaction from around the world.

KUHN: There's no doubt that whaling is a part of Japan's maritime culture, but it's not really much of a part of its diet anymore. According to government statistics, Japan consumed about 200,000 tons of it back in the 1960s before Japan's economy really took off. In recent years, that's down to about 5,000 tons a year. And in per capita terms, that's really an insignificant amount. But you could say it's also part of this sort of prickly, assertive nationalism under the Shinzo Abe administration. And this is sort of a way of telling foreigners, no one's going to tell us what to eat and what not to eat.

GREENE: And that was NPR's Anthony Kuhn talking to us about a decision by the Japanese government today to resume commercial whaling operations next year. This is a practice that, of course, has drawn a lot of criticism and a lot of countries already reacting this morning. We'll be following this story again, Japan picking up whaling operations again next year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.