Time to support Japan’s shift to whale conservation

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Two decades ago this year I accompanied the U.S. Senate’s leading environmentalist, John Kerry of Massachusetts, to Tokyo for discussions with his counterparts in the Japanese Parliament or Diet on global environmental issues of shared concern.

Had you told me then that I would be spending much of the next 20 years working on the issue of Japanese whaling, I’d have told you to have your head examined.

So as my Japanese colleague Ms. Naoko Funahashi and I have met with government officials and key media in Tokyo this week to share the conclusions of a major new International Fund for Animal Welfare report on the failing economics of Japan’s whaling industry, I have been struck by life’s surprising shifts.

Mine began in the spring of 1969, when I was in first grade. My father - then a U.S. Army officer – flew to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese government. He returned three weeks later bearing two beautiful lamps of fragile, white porcelain lined with delicate rice paper.

Those lamps, still treasured by my aging parents, glowed in our living room throughout my childhood; and, together with my father’s glowing stories of cherry blossoms and bullet trains, sumo wrestlers and Takarazuka dancers, the Great Buddha and Mount Fuji, formed my earliest impressions of faraway Japan.

My dad later introduced me to Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, and other films by master director Akira Kurosawa, and the Japanese author Kobo Abe, whose provocative 1972 novel The Box Man tells of a man who rejects society and retreats from the outside world to live on the streets of Tokyo in a cardboard box.  

Now, more than four decades on, my early infatuation with Japanese culture has blossomed into a full-blown love affair.

I regularly bring my own family trinkets and treasures from the Land of the Rising Sun; two of our three children have joined me on work trips to Tokyo. And a delicate Japanese paper lantern made by my daughter Isabelle Kathryn when she was in first grade adorns my desk at the International Fund for Animal Welfare – where I help lead an international campaign against Japan’s Fisheries Agency’s attempts to resuscitate the commercial slaughter of our planet’s great whales and revive the international trade in whale meat in the 21st Century. 

My first visits to Japan had little to do with this campaign. In 1992, I began working with John Kerry and other Members of the U.S. Congress eager to collaborate with members of the Japanese, Russian and European Parliaments on a range of global environmental challenges.

On many of these issues, from acid rain to zero population growth, Japan is a shining example of environmental leadership. And several of Japan’s early environmental leaders in the Upper and Lower House – Wakako Hironaka, Kazuo Aichi, Takashi Kosugi, Akiko Domoto, and others ultimately became valuable mentors to me and close friends to their Western counterparts working to promote balanced environmental policies worldwide.

But the whaling issue was one where these men and women of conscience seemed to disagree.

Two decades working on whaling and other issues in and around Japan, have brought a deeper understanding and appreciation of Japanese culture and particularly the extent to which pro-whaling bureaucrats in Tokyo cynically (and effectively) package and sell their wrongheaded pro-whaling policies in cultural terms – furiously insisting that anyone opposed to commercial whaling is somehow anti-Japanese.    

Looking for the deeper reality beneath the surface, which the Japanese call “honeh”, IFAW 18 months ago enlisted leading Japanese agencies to undertake an unprecedented analysis of the economics of the whaling industry.

Their findings are striking:

  1. that Japan’s whaling industry has relied on taxpayer subsidies for more than 20 years and is now dead in the water,
  2. that a majority of Japanese are utterly indifferent to whaling and have no interest in eating whale meat,
  3. and that responsible whale watching provides a profitable, attractive alternative for coastal communities around Japan to build a better economic future. 

Japanese officials we have briefed in recent weeks here in Tokyo are responding positively to this information, much of it never before shared publicly by the government of Japan.

This is very encouraging.

Beneath the surface, a shift is taking shape in Japan’s approach to the whaling issue.

Now is the time for each of us to do what we can to encourage the good people of Japan and their government to reject the invitation of Kobo Abe’s “Box Man” and move forward to join the emerging global consensus for whale conservation instead of commercial whaling in the 21st Century.

So far the shift is fragile, like porcelain and rice paper, but IFAW’s new report, made possible by the generosity of our supporters here in Japan and around the world, is helping light the way. 


Download the new IFAW report publicly presented at a briefing hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan by clicking here.

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Beth Allgood, Country Director, United States
Country Director, United States
Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation
Sonja Van Tichelen, Vice President of International Operations
Vice President of International Operations
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime