Skip to main content

Unlimited Slaughter, Criminal Intent: A small history of Japanese Antarctic whaling

By December 23, 2013No Comments

Commentary by Erwin Vermeulen

Archeological evidence in the form of whale remains discovered in burial mounds indicate that whales were consumed in Japan since around 12,000 BC. These remains were likely from stranded whales, but non-industrial whaling began as early as the 12th century, as the earliest records of hand-thrown harpoons are from that era. During the Edo period from 1600 to 1867, whaling became an established industry in some regions. Organized whaling started with the Wadda family in Taiji during the early 1600s, the same time the Dutch and English started whaling in Spitsbergen and 3 centuries after the Basques. Just like the early Basques, the Japanese would watch the sea from towers and rocky outcrops on land. One of these places is now used by the Cove Guardians to watch the movements of the Taiji dolphin killers. When a whale was sighted the entire village was mobilized for the hunt. A whale would be subdued through a combination of driving with small open-rowboats and noise, shallow water netting and hand-held harpooning.


Coastal whaling ships in Taiji, Japan

Coastal whaling ships in Taiji, JapanJapan began modern whaling from its coasts in 1905. Norway provided people and equipment in the early years, especially the explosive harpoons, experienced gunners and steel steamships. Soon there were five companies hunting and processing whales. From that day on, it was all about the profit and not at all about ancient tradition.

With the assistance and instruction from Norwegian whalers and the leased or purchased fleet, later expanded by the capture of a Russian whaling fleet, Japan extended its hunting-grounds to Korean waters.

The League of Nations first raised concerns about the over-exploitation of whale stocks and called for conservation measures in 1925. This was not so much an effort to save the whales, but to halt the falling price of whale oil. This eventually led to the Geneva Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which was presented in 1931 but did not enter into force until 1934 and was completely ignored by rising superpowers Japan and Germany.

Whale catches by the pioneering whalers of the UK and Norway were so plentiful in the Antarctic in the 1910s, 20s and 30s that they induced several other nations to pelagic whaling. Not just for profit, but for reasons related to military expansion and self-sufficiency. Nazi Germany started whaling to stockpile edible oils. They forced Unilever, whose margarine factories were an important part of German industry, to keep their earnings in Germany and to build up a national whaling fleet. This resulted in the building of the factory ships Walter Rau & Unitas.

As whale catches diminished in coastal waters, Japan also looked to Antarctica. Toyo Hogei K.K. purchased the Norwegian factory ship, Antarctic and renamed it the Tonan Maru in 1934. They also bought the plans for the latest generation of factory ships. Thus, Japanese pelagic whaling started in the 1935/36 season. Refrigerator ships were sent along to freeze and transport the whale meat back to Japan.

Clearly, pelagic whaling is not a centuries-old tradition, nor a part of traditional Japanese culture.

In 1937 in London, the International Conference on Whaling, which Japan did not attend, led to limits on pelagic whaling in order to prevent over-exploitation and the extinction of the Blue whale, creating the International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling. Some of the agreements were: no Blues under 70’ were to be killed, pelagic whaling was only allowed South of 40S and the season would run from December 8 to March 7.

Acceptance of the Regulation was voluntary, and Japan ignored the 89-day season limit and butchered for 125 days. As a result a record 45,010 whales were taken in that season.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea convened a conference in ‘38. Nazi Germany refused to limit their kill of whales, while Japan refused even to participate.

The Protocol to the International Agreement for the Regulation of Whaling was signed in 1938 and established additional restrictions on whaling. Japanese representatives attended, but Japan did not sign the agreement and started hunting for Humpback and undersized whales five weeks prior to the agreed start of the season.

By 1939 Germany and Japan accounted for 30% of the world’s take of whales.

By that year, Japanese operations had expanded to 6 floating factory expeditions. All except the first one were new and built in Japan. Improvements in technology such as the world’s first diesel-powered whale catcher, the Seki Maru, increased the capacity to take whales. In the years building up to World War II, the Germans purchased whale oil from Japan, and both nations used it in preparation for war.

These nations had no minimum length requirements, as for instance the Norwegians did since 1929, or other conservation regulations. They were soon to drag the entire world into an orgy of bloodshed in which millions of people of all races would die. Why would these governments care about whales?

The efforts made to reduce the level of whale killing were ineffective in large part because Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan refused to cooperate.

Japan refused to sign or abide by any of the agreements reached in the League of Nations regarding minimum size, a ban on killing calves, or killing mothers with suckling calves. Japan refused to participate in negotiations, even when for her benefit, her oldest and nearest whaling area, the North Pacific, was excluded.

In the early 1930s the production of whale oil was sometimes so great that the price fell below cost of production. The Norwegians and British tried to keep the price at profitable levels by not sending ships down or shortening seasons to limit production. Sometimes they even reached an agreement, but this became impossible when Japan entered the ring to support its war effort.

The reason for Japan’s refusal to adopt even the most rudimentary conservation practices was the urgent demand placed on the Japanese economy by the war in Manchuria, invaded in September 1931. Again, why would the government and army responsible for the rape of Nanking, which started in December 1937 and saw hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and disarmed soldiers massacred in just six weeks by the Japanese Imperial army, care about whales other than as a resource?

All the pelagic fleets sent to the Antarctic at that time were owned and operated by the Nippon Suisan Kabushiki Kaisha Company, the main share holder of which was Manchurian Heavy Industries Corporation, the principle economic and industrial arm of the Japanese army in Manchuria. The objective was to obtain foreign currency by selling the whale oil in Europe, mainly Great Britain, and to feed the Japanese armed forces with whale meat.

Japan did pass in 1933 the factory vessel law that was amended slightly in ‘36 and ‘’38 mainly to protect the coastal land-based whaling industry by demanding that factory vessels operate well out to sea. It also stipulated that Antarctic whaling could not begin before November 1. The European whalers could not begin before December 7. The law also contained some minimum length requirements, all below the European ones and often below the length of sexual maturity. There are no indications that even these weak rules were enforced. There could be no restraints on the whaling industry, as reduced production would have hindered Japanese military aggression.

During the Second World War, Japan’s whaling was limited to hunting grounds closer to home, such as the Bonin Islands, to provide meat and oil for domestic and military use. Naval action destroyed almost the entire Japanese whaling fleet. Most whaling ships had been commandeered by the Japanese navy, and by the end of the war the factory ships and most of the whale catchers had been sunk.

After the surrender of August 14, 1945, Douglas McArthur, governing conquered Japan, encouraged the Japanese to go whaling again to help the American taxpayer and let Japan feed itself instead of depending on US aid. The meat was for the starving population while the Americans kept the oil.

Two tankers of 11,000 gross tons were hastily converted into the factory ships Hashidate Maru and Nisshin Maru. A US naval officer and an Australian observer oversaw the first post-war expedition. The observer expressed disapproval in his reports of violated regulations and waste dumped over the side when the fleet began killing whales faster than they could be processed.

Back to business as usual!

The post-war recovery established whale meat as a nation-wide food source for the first time. In 1947, whale meat accounted for over 50% of the meat consumed in Japan and was soon to be included in school lunches.

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was created in 1946 in Washington to “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”. The ICRW led to the 1949 founding of the International Whaling Commission and consists of guidelines for the international regulation of coastal and pelagic whaling. Japan joined the IWC in 1951, so had 6 years of unregulated whaling between ‘46 and ‘51 in which the Japanese Antarctic fleet caught 3119 Blue, 5292 Fin, 76 Humpback and 584 Sperm whales.

In 1949 the fisheries law was introduced in Japan to change the control from a zaibatsu system in which the industrial and financial powers controlled the fisheries to government control. But not until 1962 were pelagic whalers to compile and submit catch reports and no research was necessary.

Never in history did a Japanese government official take action to benefit the whales. They always acted in the best interest of the whaling industry. The Japanese IWC commissioner, from joining in 1951 throughout the 1960s, was not even a government official but a representative of the whaling companies. The companies were intent on continuing to kill whales until the industry would collapse.

The status of an inspector on a Japanese whaling ship was such that they would never venture onto a flensing deck themselves. The taking of measurements was delegated.

Japanese catches showed a heavy cluster of whales just over the minimum size, indicating that a number of undersized whales had been stretched to make them legal.

The Whales Research Institute was founded and funded by the whaling companies. No conservation measures were to be expected.

In 1951 the treaty of peace with the allied powers restored Japanese sovereignty, and rapid expansion of the whaling fleet followed. The government founded the Japanese development bank to finance the reconstruction of the fisheries. 50% of its loans went to the whaling industry. Whaling was a subsidized industry from the beginning.

That came at a time when the existing fleets were sufficient in catching the Antarctic quota. It meant disaster for the whales. It increased the necessity for the reduction of the catch and at the same time made that impossible.

In that year, 1951, Japan expanded the fleet with the 19.209-ton Tonan Maru, followed by another vessel Nisshin Maru, built from scratch and the only factory ship the Japanese constructed after WW2. All others were acquired from other nations:

In 1956 the Olympic Challenger was purchased from shipping magnate and outlaw whaler Aristotle Onassis. His ship had gained notoriety for ignoring all limits of size and species. When the Peruvian navy finally stopped and seized the rogue fleet, and just as sanctions were to be applied, the entire fleet was sold to Japan. The factory ship was renamed the Kyokuyo Maru II.

The South African factory ship Abraham Larsen, formerly the Empire Victory and before that the Unitas, became another Nisshin Maru in that same year.

From the 1946/47 season until 1953/54, Japan sent two factory ships to the Southern Ocean. Three were sent during the 1954/55 and 55/56 seasons, five in 1956/57, six from 1957/58 to 1959/60, and seven from 1960/61 to 1964/65.

After 1956, additions to the Japanese fleet were authorized only if it was through the purchase of existing whaling expeditions. This eventually moved the entire European fleet into Japanese hands. In 1960 the Balaena was sold to the Japanese, in 1961 the Kosmos III, and in June 1962 the Southern Venturer. Japan didn’t even bother to take that ship out to sea; they only wanted the 4% quota included in the sale. In 1963 the Southern Harvester was sold to Japan along with her quota. It was scrapped in 1966.

As previously stated, Japan joined the IWC in 1951. From 1953 to 1960, it was mainly the Netherlands, and not Japan, that blocked the conservation attempts in the IWC. When the Netherlands rejoined in 1962 Japan got 33% of quota, the highest of all, but still refused to retract their 1960 veto of changing the opening of the Blue whale season from February 1 to February 14.

In 1963, the UK and Norway agreed reduction was necessary if the whales and the whaling business were to survive, and proposed 4.000 Blue Whale Units, a disastrous invention for assigning quota. One BWU consisted of one Blue whale or two Fin, two and a half Humpback or six Sei whales. Japan refused anything less than 10.000 BWUs and Japanese blackmail won.

In 1963 an independent commission of three advised the IWC to implement a total ban on catching Blue whales in Antarctic, but Japan demanded they be allowed to go on killing them in an area between 40 and 55S and 0 and 80W in the South of the Indian Ocean. 75% of Blue whales had been taken there in the 1962/63 season. Japan was set on killing every single one remaining. They declared these Blues a separate stock, if not a separate species, from the Pygmy Blue whale. Japanese blackmail won again.

In 1964 they reported that 20% of their kill in the season before were actually regular Blue whales. So, scientists wanted the area closed. Japan and the Soviets were the only ones to vote against it and the motion passed. Japan vetoed and the killing of Blues continued another year.

Not until 1966 did the number of Japanese pelagic fleets begin to decline. Whales of all species had become too rare. For this reason, most other nations had abandoned pelagic whaling in the years prior. Only the Soviets were left for Japan to compete with.

The surplus catching capacity of Japan, however, was not retired. This could have saved whales, but was leased out all over the world, some of them to land-based whaling companies in Peru and Chile. In 1965 the IWC had finally decided on a ban on killing Blue whales in the Antarctic, and in 1967 everywhere South of the equator. Japan had no choice but to comply, but Peru and Chile as non-members did not. Japanese whalers therefore established joint companies in these countries. Japan continued to kill whales, including fully protected Blues, under the Chilean flag. The meat was shipped back to Japan.

The reason why Japan could continue whaling when effort and costs compared to the dwindling catches made it difficult for the European whalers to make a profit, lies in the consumption of meat. The Japanese boiled blubber and bones down for oil for the European market and used the meat for human consumption at home. The production and sale of whale meat was almost exclusively Japanese. A significant portion by weight of a whale is meat that yields little oil, but Europeans refused to eat the meat. That gave the Japanese a huge economic advantage. Whales could be worth 3-4 times more to the Japanese whalers than to the Europeans.

During the 1950s, Japan’s domestic land-based whaling stations alone produced more meat than all foreign pelagic companies together. By 1960, the total Japanese production of whale meat exceeded 155.000 tons and was greater than the domestic production of beef from cattle. The peak was in 1964/65 when the Antarctic hunt alone produced 147.721 tons. Most of it was frozen and sold as a substitute and competitor for beef, but at one third the price. Whale bacon was belly blubber; tail flukes were eaten raw as a delicacy, as was pickled jaw cartilage. Even Sperm whale meat was considered edible and sold as frozen, salted or as meat extract; dried Sperm whale blubber was an additive in stews and soups.

As Japanese whalers brought in $239 per ton, the Europeans got 100 pounds of oil from a ton of meat worth less than $10.

Japan got three times the revenue from a whale compared to, for instance, the Norwegians. The Norwegians and British tried to export the meat to Japan. Japan bought some Norwegian whale meat ship to ship, as of 1961, at 25-35 pounds per ton, but did not allow imports. It was not in their interest that others made a profit from whaling, as that left fewer whales for them. Some whale meat was taken to Europe for the pet food industry, but that did not fetch the prices that Japan got.

Another reason for Japan outcompeting Europe is the cheaper labor in nationalistic Japan compared to the unionized workforce in Europe.

The European companies started to diversify late in the game, while the Japanese companies were all fishing companies with whaling interests.

Sei whales have more popular, higher quality meat, so as catches for larger whales decreased and those of the smaller Sei whales increased, this was more advantageous for Japan.

Japan had a similar advantage with the decline of baleen whale catches compared to more constant Sperm whale catches. Europeans could render no edible oil from Sperm whale flesh and blubber, while Japan did use the flesh.


Current factory ship Nisshin Maru

While British and Norwegian ships were idle for 5 months a year, the Japanese could hunt in the Pacific. Even though the IWC forbade the use of a factory ship for catching baleen whales anywhere else in the world if it had been used in Antarctica that same year, there was no such restriction for Sperm whaling. The Japanese normally used three factory ships in the North Pacific in summer; one for Sperm whales only.

There were no restrictions for the catcher boats; Of the 82 catchers used in the Antarctic in the 1963/64 season, 40 were used in the Pacific in 1963 and 37 in the summer of 1964.

The North Pacific saw the first Japanese factory ship Kaiko Maru in 1946, followed by the Baikal Maru in 1952. A second fleet of one factory ship plus catchers was added in 1954, and a third fleet in 1962. From that year until 1975, the Japanese operated three fleets in the North Pacific, in competition only with the Soviets.

Even so, the Japanese whaling industry was worried by the almost complete extermination of the great whales. Six Japanese whaling companies negotiated an agreement through the Japan Fisheries Agency through talks in July 1975. The six companies (Nihon Suisan, Taiyo Gyogyo, Kyokuyo, Nitto Hogei, Nihon Hogei and Hokuyo Hogei) merged to create a new company, Nihon Kyodo Hogei Co., Ltd. on February 15, 1976.

“The government will be doing all it can to actively support your efforts,” Minister Shintaro Abe promised. Just as it was after WW2, the Japanese whaling industry was a government-subsidized endeavor.

Nihon Kyodo Hogei Co. Ltd was later renamed Kyodo Senpaku Co. Ltd, and merged with the Japan Whaling Association and Institute of Cetacean Research to create the modern Institute of Cetacean Research in 1987.

In 1972, the United Nations Environmental Conference produced a resolution through a 52–0 vote in favor of a 10-year global moratorium on commercial whaling, but it was not adopted by the IWC. Japan, Russia, Iceland, Norway, South Africa and Panama voted no.

In 1973, a moratorium was once again proposed and voted down in the IWC, lacking the required 3/4 majority. Japan, Russia, Iceland, Norway and South Africa again voted no. Between 1973 and 1982, the IWC saw its membership increase from 14 nations to 37. In 1980 and 1981, two more votes failed to establish a moratorium by a 3/4 majority. In 1982, the IWC finally voted in favor of a moratorium on commercial whaling to go into effect in 1986.

Japan objected to the moratorium and continued whaling. Under the ICRW, an objecting nation is exempted from the disputed regulations. These ridiculous rules made the IWC so ineffective, that it stood by and watched all the great whales being driven to the brink of extinction. Japan also continued to hunt Sperm whales, despite a 1981 IWC zero-catch quota.

Japan finally complied after the US applied pressure by not allowing fishing by Japanese vessels in the waters surrounding Alaska.

Japan withdrew its objection to the moratorium and ceased commercial whaling in 1988, but immediately found a way to get around the moratorium through Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which states:

1. Notwithstanding anything contained in this Convention any Contracting Government may grant to any of its nationals a special permit authorizing that national to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research subject to such restrictions as to number and subject to such other conditions as the Contracting Government thinks fit, and the killing, taking, and treating of whales in accordance with the provisions of this Article shall be exempt from the operation of this Convention.

2. Any whales taken under these special permits shall so far as practicable be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in accordance with directions issued by the Government by which the permit was granted.

Japan had used that loophole before. In 1976, the quota for Southern Hemisphere Bryde’s whales was set to zero by the IWC. Japan however took 225 of them during the 1976/77 season by issuing itself a permit to take them for scientific research.

In 1988 Japan issued itself a scientific permit to take 825 Minke whales and 50 sperm whales every year for ten years. Despite the fact that the IWC scientific committee rejected its research proposals, Japan continued whaling. The IWC adopted a resolution in 1987 recommending that Japan not proceed until disagreements over its research proposals were resolved. A second resolution was adopted on February 14, 1988 recommending that Japan not proceed. On February 9, 1988, Japanese whalers had killed the first Minke whale in Antarctic waters under the new self-issued research whaling permit.

Japan has since conducted ‘research’ whaling programs in the North Pacific (JARPN 1994–1999, JARPN II 2000 – present) and in Antarctica (JARPA 1988–2005, JARPA II 2005 – present). The IWC has asked its members to demonstrate that the research provides critical information, that the research is needed for whale management purposes, and that non-lethal research techniques are not able to provide the same information. The IWC has issued at least 19 resolutions criticizing Japan for failing to meet these conditions and asking them to stop these “research” whaling operations.

In 1994 the IWC established the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Commercial whaling is prohibited within the sanctuary’s boundaries. Only Japan voted in opposition and continues poaching whales in this internationally recognized whale sanctuary.

Disagreement over the value of the research, the use of lethal methods and the sample sizes continued within the IWC. In 2005 and 2007 the scientific commission passed resolutions by majority vote, urging Japan to stop all lethal research in JARPA II.

In 2009 Japan accepted imports of whale meat from Norway and Iceland for the first time in over a decade. The international trade of whale meat is prohibited by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). However, Japan, Norway and Iceland registered reservations with the treaty in order to remain exempt.

Japan killed 388 sperm, 634 Bryde’s and 4497 Minke whales under objection between 1985 and 1988. Under permit from 1988 until 2013, Japan killed 18 Fin, 55 Sperm, 989 Sei, 630 Bryde’s and 12.935 Minke whales.

The current permit is for 850±10% Antarctic Minke whales, 50 fin whales and 50 humpback whales annually in the Antarctic, as well as 100 common Minke whales, 50 Bryde’s whales and 10 sperm whales in the Northwest Pacific. To date, Japan has refrained from taking humpback whales.

If you read this all the way through, you will see at least one common trend: Japan has resisted every whale conservation measure, no matter how small or how meaningless. The Japanese companies and government were intent on killing every whale they could find. This was an extermination campaign for profit.

Recent remarks from Japanese officials, labeling Minke whales “the cockroaches of the sea” that have to be culled to help the recovery of fish stocks and the Blue whale, you know that no matter how much ‘research’ they do, they will never learn anything worthwhile and will continue on their path of destruction for profit.

There are a few other important conclusions regarding the excuses and accusations that Japanese politicians and media use to ward off criticism on whale killing the moment they forget that their whaling is ‘research’.

Whale meat was one of the many food items reaped from the sea in coastal communities in older days. Just like in all primitive societies of the world, be it subsistence hunters in the Arctic or medieval Europeans, people would eat what they could get.

Only when the Japanese nation was starving after the defeat in the disastrous war that they started, was whale meat the staple for the masses, and only for a mere two decades. The inclusion in the early 1950s of whale meat in school lunches might have especially instilled some nationalistic nostalgia in the aging policy makers of today.

The peak of whale consumption in Japan was in 1962, with 226,000 tons of whale meat sold and consumed nationwide. In 1985, the year before the ban on commercial whaling was enacted, the number had fallen to 15,000 tons after a steady decline. Now whale meat consumption is negligible. Today, whaling is unnecessary.

Tradition is a popular disclaimer against compassion and commonsense. A professor of environmental studies, Jun Morikawa, wrote that Japan’s modern commercial whaling bears little resemblance to the small-scale subsistence whaling that, until the dawn of the 20th century, was limited to certain coastal regions. Morikawa also wrote that Japan’s whale-eating culture was very limited in scope and an invented tradition, only lasting 20 years from the end of World War II to the early 1960s.

Pelagic whaling is not part of Japan’s cultural identity. The origins of Japanese whaling do not only coincide with, but are directly linked, to Japan’s military aggression, fascist dictatorship and mass murder in the 1930s. It might not be a coincidence that Japan has found it enormously difficult to accept responsibility for both the crimes of WW2’s bloodshed and the near-extinction of the great whales.

There is no reason to kill whales.

Whaling is a heavily subsidized industry, and a taxpayer’s burden.

The claims of science behind Japan’s whaling have been proven bogus.

Their apologies of tradition and culture have been debunked.

Their accusations of racism and cultural imperialism are pathetic.

So why does it continue?

Japan is a political superpower and an economic bully, intimidating the greedy, uncaring politicians who run most of the world.

That’s why Sea Shepherd, the movement, is the only one standing between the harpoons and the whales and will continue to do so until whaling ends. Sea Shepherd stands opposed to all whaling.

Leave a Reply

Get the Latest Campaign Updates by Signing Up for our Newsletter Today!