Japan flouts UN ban and kills 30 minke whales

At man’s mercy: What is it about whales that makes hunting them such an emotive issue? © PA

In March the UN ordered Japan to stop hunting whales in the Antarctic. But it shows no signs of winding down whaling ‘for scientific purposes’ elsewhere. Can these hunts be justified?

Fried pieces of whale with a sprinkling of curry powder, raw whale sushi, sizzling whale burgers and whale steaks. Just a few of the culinary delights on offer at Japan’s annual Whale Week, held last week to encourage Japanese people to eat more meat. More whale meat.

For some it might seem like a hard sell. But for those who have ferociously campaigned for years to end Japan’s commercial whaling activities, renewed efforts in recent months by the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to boost the industry have left a particularly sour taste.

This week, it was revealed that 30 minke whales have been killed as part of supposed scientific research hunts in the north-west Pacific Ocean, despite a UN ruling ordering the country to put a stop to the practice.

The news came as a shock to the Australian and New Zealand governments, who have argued for four years that Japan’s whale hunting had little scientific research value and that the Japanese were merely cloaking a commercial operation – the buying and selling of whale meat – in a scientific lab coat.

In March this year, the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) agreed with the arguments and ordered Japan to stop whaling, which it duly did. But while the ruling banned whaling in the Antarctic, it failed to mention anything about Japan’s activities in the Pacific, leaving Japan free to continue hunting there.

Japan maintains that its annual slaughter of 850 minke whales and up to 50 endangered fin whales is necessary to discover valuable information about the mammals and better understand their habits.

The country also readily admits that the whale meat caught for research more often than not appears on dinner tables, or ends up in warehouses. But minke whales are plentiful, say government officials, and as the Japanese diet relies heavily on fish, managing whale populations is crucial for the country.

Whale wars

Meat and fish is eaten all over the world, some say, so why is Japan being unfairly targeted? Sustainable whaling contributes to global scientific knowledge and helps feed Japan’s population. Besides, whaling is a centuries-old tradition. Other countries should make more of an effort to understand Japanese culture and respect an important part of its national identity.

But others argue that hunting these majestic creatures is cruel and unnecessary. Only a small proportion of the Japanese population still eat whale meat anyway, and the methods of killing whales is thought to cause considerable suffering. Whales are complex, emotional creatures. We will look back in 100 years’ time and wonder how we ever allowed this practice to take place.

You Decide

  1. Is Japan justified in hunting whales?
  2. Do animals have rights?


  1. Many stories, novels and ancient traditions have been inspired by whales. Write your own poem or short story featuring one of these mysterious creatures.
  2. Write a five-minute speech either arguing for, or against, the following motion: ‘This House believes that killing animals can never be justified.’

Some People Say...

“If they’re not in danger of extinction, why not eat them?”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t live in Japan so how does this story affect me?
As the global population grows, many countries need to consider how to feed their citizens and provide meat in more sustainable ways. A recent scandal in Europe revealed that some meat products contained horse meat. Some of us get upset at the idea of eating whales or horses. Perhaps it is time to put such sensitivities to one side, or maybe we should explore vegetarian options.
Do other countries kill whales?
Norway and Iceland also carry out limited commercial whaling, and other countries, including the US, Canada, Denmark and Russia are involved in whaling activities. Many other countries carry out animal culls which help keep certain species under control, such as Australia, which permits some dangerous shark species to be culled.

Word Watch

Whale Week
Japan’s agriculture, forestry and fisheries department is trying to reacquaint Japanese people with the delicacy by giving away free samples of fried whale meat as well as hosting a whale exhibition in Tokyo.
Scientific research
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling in 1986, but a loophole allows it to take place if it contributes to scientific research.
Dinner tables
During and after the second world war, the Japanese relied heavily on whale meat to feed its population and it was, for a time, a staple food. But in recent years the taste for whale meat has declined. Stocks remain unsold with almost 4,600 tonnes stored in port freezers at the end of 2012, according to Japanese government statistics.
A population of 761,000 minke whales exists in the Southern Ocean, according to Japan, although some claim the number is closer to 268,000.

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