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Why is Japan killing hundreds of whales? Tradition and cultural ties trump all else

Steven Ivings is an assistant professor at the University of Heidelberg who specializes in the cultural and economic history of Japan.

This week, Japan's Antarctic whaling fleet departed from the city of Shimonoseki with the intention of killing 333 whales – despite a massive international outcry. The country is defending its killing with science, insisting that it is assembling a body of scientific research in order to assess stocks and pave the way for sustainable commercial whaling.

The reaction has been harsh, and swift: Environmental groups, the New Zealand and Australian governments, even the United Nations all condemn this decision.

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So why does a country renowned for its consensual approach to international affairs, and respect for the rule of law, adopt such a defiant – dare I say combative – stance on an issue such as whaling? Is it worth all of the fuss?

The rational answer has to be no.

Whaling is not a mainstay of the Japanese fishing industry; there are only a handful of coastal whaling towns, and the Antarctic fleet's crew numbers fewer than 200. It is true that in the early postwar, when Japan's dislocated economy struggled to produce enough food, whaling – encouraged by the occupying forces – provided an important source of protein.

But since the 1970s, the industry was in terminal decline. Today, economically speaking, it is marginal, a drop in the ocean for the world's third-largest economy. Indeed, stocks of whale meat have proved hard to shift, and are kept frozen at public expense. Ongoing government efforts promote its consumption, but demand for whale meat has continued to fall.

Clearly there is more to whaling than commercial profit. In Japan, whaling has become an emotive issue.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Hayashi Yoshimasa, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for most of Mr. Abe's second term, both hail from Yamaguchi prefecture, an area long associated with whaling and home to the current Antarctic whaling fleet. Their ties to the area can be only a good thing for whaling interests, which have successfully cultivated the idea that sustainable whaling is an intrinsic part of Japanese culture.

With such views entrenched, foreign criticism comes across as irrational, unfair and with a heavy dose of cultural imperialism – especially when the critique comes from countries that were largely responsible for the whale population depletion in the first place.

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Nationalism in Japan, a hallmark of the Abe regime, is certainly stirred by international pressure on whaling. Yet this is not to say the defiance of a ruling by the UN's International Court of Justice (ICJ) signals a more assertive Japan under Mr. Abe. Whaling policy under his office has been a continuation of previous years.

Just a year ago, the issue was temporarily muted.

In 2014, the ICJ ruled that Japan's scientific whaling program in the Antarctic (JAPRA II) should be halted, as it was not being carried out in accordance with its stated purpose: scientific research.

The ruling implied that JAPRA II was nothing but a cover for commercial whaling activities, a practice currently banned under the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) global moratorium (Iceland and Norway openly continue commercial whaling via objections to the moratorium).

The ICJ's ruling was lauded by environmental activists, Western media and the Australian government, which had taken the case to the ICJ, as a real breakthrough.

In recognition of the ruling, the Japanese program for the austral summer of 2014-15 was conducted without lethal methods. For the first time in almost 30 years, the fleet returned without a catch.

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Yet here we are today: The Japanese retreat was short-lived, and in what has been widely interpreted as a snub to the international community, the program has been revamped.

The nation is essentially trying to gain recognition that its new program is scientific, and therefore legal under the IWC's moratorium.

True, there is an air of defiance in Japan's actions, but ultimately, it remains committed to pursuing legality within the international community.

Whaling continues in Japan because the whaling lobby has convinced the public that it is sustainable and a tradition worth protecting. The outcry against whaling strikes the Japanese as excessive, and in this way strengthens the public's resolve, playing right into the hands of the whaling lobby.

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