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When Shaming Fails: Japanese Withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission

18 Nov 2020
By Michal Kolmaš
On January 3, 2007 Animal Liberation Victoria organised a lunchtime protest against Japanese whaling outside the building housing the Japanese Consulate in Melbourne. About 250 people attended,

Japan’s withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and return to commercial whaling in July 2019 marked an ending to an uneasy relationship that lasted for more than three decades. This has significant implications for general theory of shaming in international relations.

The Japanese decision drew widespread condemnation by individuals, organisations, and states. Obviously, international criticism of Japanese whaling is not a new phenomenon. Since at least the 1980s, when the IWC’s moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect, a coalition of states spearheaded by Australia and New Zealand and a variety of non-governmental organisations and media, have criticised Japan for its excessive whaling, arguing that its scientific whaling program mandated by the IWC is nothing but a front for commercial whaling. Australia even successfully took Japan to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over its annual hunts in the Antarctic in 2013.

And yet it had virtually no effect on the Japanese government and society. A poll from 2019 showed that 53 percent of the Japanese public considered the decision to withdraw from the IWC “very good” or “rather good,” and only 37 percent were against it. The government has been steadfast about the decision. It argues that whaling is a part of Japanese culture, it is in line with scientific evidence, and that the commission has lost its original goal of promoting sustainable whaling, rather than whale conservation.

It is clear that although there was a sustained international effort to shame Japanese whaling policies by a huge variety of actors, it has been largely unsuccessful. Not only has it failed to prevent a Japanese return to commercial whaling, but it has also failed to install anti-whaling norms into the Japanese society. While “soft” shaming practices in the pre-moratorium era had a relatively strong impact on Japanese whaling policy, the “hard” shaming practices adopted after the IWC moratorium failed to understand Japanese political culture and thus failed both to install anti-whaling norm into the Japanese society and persuade the political leadership to change its course over the whaling issue.

Shaming refers to an act of criticism over a violation of specific norms. It can target a state, company, or an individual, but always has a specific aim of generating an emotional , political , or normative reaction . Shame is achieved through a variety of means, including political proclamations, speeches/condemnations within international institutions, media accounts of the perceived wrongful behaviour, or campaigns targeting mass audiences. States are the main instigators of shaming, but non-governmental organisations, epistemic communities, and individuals also have a role in the process.

But in many cases, shaming fails to persuade the target to change its behaviour, and even antagonises it. For instance, bad human rights records had virtually no effect on the participation of states in an International Monetary Fund program. “Antipreneurs” can be formed to either criticise the normative shaming arguments, promote the establishment of a normative advocacy networks, or even formulate an opposing agenda which can sometimes gain significant societal and political traction. Some states even develop strategies of “counter-stigmatisation” to transform the deviant status into an emblem of national pride.

Japanese domestic culture has been one of the defining factors in the success of various shaming strategies. The relationship between the state and society play a significant role in the adoption, promotion, and transformation of international norms. In the case of Japan, the political culture is defined through autonomy and insulation of the state from the society, centralisation, top-down norm formation, and a tendency for public cohesion. In this system, it is difficult for other actors such as NGOs or states to permeate normative change.

This political culture has had direct influence over employed shaming strategies. “Soft” shaming refers to non-threatening and non-violent means such as through criticism within international institutions, diplomatic notes, dialogues, and articles in the media. “Hard” shaming refers to pressure that takes up more radical means, such as attacks on whaling ships, disrupting whaling operations, and protests within local communities. Both of these are visible in international pressure against Japanese whaling, but they seem to elicit different types of reaction. Soft shaming, a less confrontational and ultimately less visible practice, has been more in line with Japanese political culture and thus played a constitutive role in the formation of an anti-whaling norm. Hard shaming has had  a neutral, or even destructive, impact.

Although Japan argues that whaling is a part of its culture and history, Japan did not have a large-scale modern commercial whaling program until the beginning of the twentieth century. Business was quick to recover after World War II. The American allied command (GHQ) supported using whale meat as a cheap source of protein and recommended the Japanese transform their tankers into whaling ships to expand their whaling operations to the Antarctic. The growing population led to a radical increase in whale meat demand, and in the 1960s, whaling reached its highest ever levels. Since then, the Japanese demand for whale meat gradually decreased due to two interconnected factors: (1) the rise in the price of whale meat, and (2) the globalisation of food market. In 2019, domestic whale production fell to approximately 1000 tons, and even with imports from foreign markets, it remains at a fraction of the past decades.

Japan joined the IWC, under the newly formed International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), in 1951. At first, it was relatively content with the IWC’s policies because the IWC was initially designed to regulate trade of stocks and promote sustainable development of the whaling industry. Over the years, however, the Japanese position changed. In the late 1950s, during a dispute over harvesting quotas, Japan and some other whaling states formally announced their intent to exit the commission, which eventually failed to materialise. Since the 1970s, this dissatisfaction has grown significantly.

The composition of the IWC membership radically changed as membership expanded from 14 to 39 members by 1983, including many new non-whaling or anti-whaling states such as New Zealand and the Netherlands. Euro-American environmentalist movements such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund also began to influence IWC decision-making. These groups, came up with the save-the-whales campaigns that lead to the IWC passing a US-backed resolution to allow NGOs to participate in IWC meetings as non-voting observers. Since then, many NGOs have taken full advantage of this procedure, circulating position papers, presenting research outcomes, and demonstrating against whaling states. NGOs have reportedly contributed to the expansion of the IWC by footing the membership fees and writing required documents for small and low-income non-whaling states. Likeminded anti-whaling states such as the US, Australia, New Zealand, UK, and Germany have established a successful coalition that has been able to command more than half of the IWC votes and thus control many of the IWC decisions.

By the 1970s, the anti-whaling norm also gained traction within the larger international community and had a significant impact on domestic policies. The United States, for instance, passed two pieces of legislation for protection of marine animals: The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In the same year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) finally passed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which entered into force on the 1st of July 1975. Furthermore, the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm passed a ten-year moratorium on commercial whaling as a result of protracted campaigns by environmental groups and the US government. Over the next several years, the IWC had made a series of steps to ban commercial whaling altogether, and this moratorium was adopted in 1982 to be implemented between 1985 and 1986. The United States played a key role in drafting the moratorium, often threatening economic sanctions against whaling states, including the famous 1979 Packwood-Magnuson Amendment, which threatened to immediately disrupt Japan’s fishing quota in the American Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), if Tokyo continued with commercial whaling. Outside of the USA and other anti-whaling states, NGOs played a defining role in the process. They pushed forward two key narratives: (1) that whale stocks have been severely depleted and cetaceans need protection, and (2) it is unethical to kill whales because they are intelligent, friendly, and large.

Japan was one of several states to vigorously oppose the moratorium and propose a return to commercial whaling. Tokyo lodged a formal objection, but was ultimately unsuccessful and eventually succumbed to the new system of controlled scientific whaling. Japan claims that the ban goes against the original principles of the ICRW and that scientific evidence does not support the claim that whales are endangered. According to Japan, the majority of whale stocks have recovered, and Japan does not hunt endangered species of whales. Japan also claims that whaling is a part of a cultural tradition that goes back centuries, though this cultural argument became prominent only after sustained pro-whaling pressure since late 1980. Despite objections, Japan accepted the IWC’s ruling based on rational calculation of costs and benefits of whaling against access to the US EEZ.

Post-moratorium shaming

The birth of the cultural argument in the whaling issue was marked by a period of unrest both within and outside of Japan. In the 1980s, Japan found itself in the midst of trade frictions with the United States. Japan was also vehemently criticised for its stance on wildlife trade issues in CITES. In 1989, Japan was the biggest importer of ivory in the world. Meanwhile, the Japanese economy faced a bubble crisis at the end of 1980s, which marked the end to a high-growth era and generated a economic stagnation and the rise of inequality. The dissolution of the Soviet Union put more pressure on Japan. No longer certain of American security guarantees, Japan saw a need to take up its regional role, which corresponded with its economic prowess.

The so-called “whaling camp” in Japan consisted of three key actors: pro-whaling LDP politicians from traditional whaling prefectures, the political-scientific Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), and the business organisation Japanese Whaling Association (JWA). Along with other LDP members, then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo pushed to identify whaling with Japanese culture and shape the narrative into a cultural struggle between Japan and Western cultural imperialists. Because of peculiarities of Japanese political system, such as the kisha kurabu, a top-down system of reporting the news according to government guidelines, and Japanese general support for the political system, LDP politicians had a strong position to influence popular attitudes towards whaling.

This cultural messaging often came with information regarding ‘‘dangerous’’ attacks by international antiwhalers on Japanese vessels in the high seas, which strengthens the view that illegitimate anti-whaling activism is threatening Japanese national interests. Indeed, in the late 1980s, anti-whaling activists started taking direct action in Japan. After the announcement of the IWC moratorium and the onset of Japanese scientific whaling, Greenpeace have made attempts to interrupt the scientific whaling Japan has undertaken in the Antarctic since the 1987/88 season, without preventing the Japanese to catch the quotas they had set for themselves. These activities have been accompanied by camera crews, who filmed and shared the videos of slaughtered whales to the international community. Since 2002, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) has followed Greenpeace in trying to disrupt Japanese whaling operations. Between 2002 and 2017, Sea Shepherd carried out 11 campaigns against Japanese whalers, with a goal of tracking down and attacking Japanese whaling vessels by water-jetting, butyric acid attacks, and shooting signal rockets at the fishermen. Their protests were further increased after the movie Cove, which depicts inhuman practices of killing dolphins in Taiji, Wakayama, was released in 2009.

Several states, led by inter alia Australia and New Zealand, have vigorously criticised Japan for its whaling policies. This international pressure has strengthened over the last decades. Although Japan tried hard to counter this anti-whaling coalition within the IWC, its diplomatic and economic appeal, including the funding of pro-whaling states through ODA, has diminished to an extent that it has become clear that Japan would be unable to buy a winning coalition within the organisation that would allow it to change its course. This is one of the key constitutive elements for Japan’s final decision to withdraw from the IWC.

But the strong tone in states’ and media proclamations, as well as direct violent action against Japanese whaling ships, have never had a positive impact on the formation of anti-whaling norm in Japan. Although a vast majority of the Japanese do not regularly, or at all, eat whale meat, there has been steady support for whaling, and, if anything, a growing tendency to support whaling after these campaigns took place. The reason for this lies in the incompatibility of confrontational style of shaming strategies with Japanese political culture.

Instead of confrontational action, less radical ways of activism have been promoted by domestic anti-whaling groups. IKAN has attended IWC meetings, and formed a Whale Conservation Coalition with Greenpeace and Japan in order to lobby and campaign for a change in Japanese commercial whaling policy. It has conducted several small-scale operations, such as the release of dolphins caught in nets of local fishermen from Futo, and published reports on the redundant stocks of whale meat in the market in 2006. While these actions have had positive effects on the lives of animals, and have not had a negative effect on the formation of anti-whaling norm in Japan, they remain limited in their outreach.

Contrary to large international opposition groups, many of the Japanese anti-whaling organisations and Japanese cells of larger international NGOs do not support a complete end to whaling in Japan. Their policies on whaling stands between relative support for commercial whaling as long as it was conducted sustainably (WWF Japan) and disagreement with commercial whaling, but support for small-scale local and sustainable whaling in traditional whaling prefectures (IKAN).

The return to commercial whaling

Abe Shinzo’s decision to withdraw from the IWC, announced on December 26, 2018, was a clear blow to international pressure designed to limit or stop Japanese whaling. The government declared that it would resume commercial whaling in its territorial waters and EEZ and cease research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean in July 2019, when the withdrawal came to effect. The decision is an outcome of a long-term conflict Japan had with the IWC. Japan has on many occasions voiced its dissatisfaction about how the original goals of the commission have been compromised, how the IWC disregards scientific data proving the recovery of whale stocks, and how the organisation disrespects Japanese traditional culture.

Prior to the decision, at the 67th meeting of the IWC in September 2018, Japan proposed a reform to the functioning of the IWC. The proposal called for a new approach to achieving both conservation and the development of whale trade, and recommended the establishment of a Sustainable Whaling Committee, which would “function as the main deliberative body’ and thus replace the existing Conservation Committee that does not take development into account.” The Committee would make recommendations to the IWC on catch limits for whaling and any management issues contributing to sustainable whaling. Furthermore, the Committee would generally implement activities that the IWC may request in relation to sustainable whaling and elaborate its Rules of Procedure to properly conduct its work for the promotion of sustainable whaling based on the best scientific evidence. The proposal was rejected by a vote of 27 in favour, 41 against, and 2 abstentions.

But although the schism between the IWC and Japan had been observed for decades, the very decision to withdraw was rather unexpected. Indeed, the decision to withdraw from the IWC further tarnished Japanese reputation among the anti-whaling camp, and brought another wave of criticism from the international community as well as from within Japan. The decision can only be understood as political.

Economically, Japanese whaling has been in a steady decline since its peak in the 1960s. The industry employs only about 1000 people in Japan and the government has been subsidising scientific whaling by around $10 million annually. Japan also has an interest in the sustainability of its fish stocks, especially now that whaling will resume only in its territorial waters and given its devotion to protecting cultural heritage and the livelihoods of local communities. Although the government has legitimised the decision because of its grave dissatisfaction with the functioning of the IWC, this as a sole decision for leaving seems unlikely, given the legal preparation to continue scientific whaling and the long history of uneasy relationship between the commission and Tokyo. Domestic factors such as the personality of Abe, who was committed to reconstructing Japan as a strong and sovereign international presence, and the prominence of some pro-whaling politicians such as Nikai Toshihiro paved the way for the final decision to withdraw from the commission. But the general popular sentiment, that was co-created by forceful shaming practices, significantly eased their political entrepreneurship.

Michal Kolmaš is an assistant professor of international relations and Asian studies at the Metropolitan University Prague. He focuses and published on Japanese foreign policy, national identity and environmental politics in journals including The Pacific Review, Japanese Journal of Political Science, Cambridge Review of International Affairs and Social Science Japan Journal. His latest book titled “National identity and Japanese revisionism” was published by Routledge in 2019.

This is an extract of Kolmaš’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled, “International pressure and Japanese withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission: when shaming fails.” It is republished with permission.