Surprising theory emerges as Japan considers butchering massive new whale species

Whaling commentators believe Japan's decision to expand whaling is linked to international pressure to reduce its tuna harvest.

Background - a sushi plate circled at train restaurant. Inset - tuna on rice sushi close up.
Tuna is a popular food in Japan and the country is facing international pressure to reduce its catch. Source: Getty

Japan wants to add another species of whale to its hunting list, and opponents think they know why.

The decision to target fin whales – the second longest species after blue whales – and harvest more meat was initially confusing for many analysts because consumption of whale has dropped from a peak of 230,000 tonnes in 1962 to just 2000 tonnes in recent years. The situation had become so bad hunters began installing whale meat vending machines around Tokyo.

Whaling opponent Ren Yabuki believes the plan to start hunting fin whales is less about consumption and more about sending a message to the rest of the world.

“Whaling is a symbolic industry that is under pressure from the international community, and Japanese government is using it to show its people that it will not bow to such pressure,” Yabuki told Yahoo News.

“Not only to the Japanese people, but also to foreign countries that Japan will not give in to such pressure.”

Related: Another Aussie animal faces extinction thanks to popular menu item

Yabuki, the founder of advocacy group Life Investigation Agency, thinks international pressure to further regulate the commercial catch of at-risk species like bluefin tuna has sharpened the reaction.

Commercial whaling is opposed by most countries, and Japan is one of only three commercial whaling nations – the other two are Iceland and Norway. So the proposal to add fin whales to its established target list which already includes minke, sei and Bryde´s whales is set to be controversial.

Japan consumes around 80 per cent of all caught Atlantic and Pacific bluefin tuna — which is popular in traditional delicacies like sashimi and sushi. But it’s not just consumers who could be affected – after Indonesia, Japan is the second biggest tuna fishing nation in the world, and so there are likely concerns about jobs and business profits.

In 2019, Japan ceased its so-called “scientific” catch in the Southern Ocean and resumed commercial hunting in its own territorial waters.

Background - Japanese whale meat vending machines. Inset - the logo for the new Kangei Maru ship.
Japanese whaling companies are using cute logos and vending machines to target younger customers. Source: Getty/KRY News

But the completion of the massive new $70 million, 9300-ton, Kangei Maru mothership by whaling company Kyodo Senpaku has some observers concerned the company could return to international waters. That's because the ship can travel almost 1300 km and store and freeze the bodies of whales killed by smaller vessels.

A spokesperson for the company said in April the company hopes increased haul will enable them to target new demographics. The ship has a cute character logo to help target younger generations and foreign tourists.

  • Kangei Maru has individual rooms for 100 staff.

  • The ship is 112 meters long and 21 meters wide.

  • It can haul up 21-metre-long fin whales.

Looking back a decade, Australia’s government was once highly critical of Japan’s whaling in international waters. In 2014, it paired up with the New Zealand government and successfully prosecuted Japan in the International Court of Justice.

But since Japan withdrew from the so-called "scientific" whaling Southern Ocean and pivoted to commercial harvesting in its own waters, Australia's response has been muted. The nation's current and previous environment ministers have redirected questions from Yahoo to their departments. They in turn have declined to directly criticise Japan's commercial hunt, and instead restated Australia's blanket opposition to whaling.

Whales on the back of a Japanese ship in 2013, in the Southern Ocean.
Australia and New Zealand took Japan to court over its whale hunting in the Southern Ocean. EPA/TIM WATTERS / SEA SHEPHERD AUSTRALIA

In 2021, when a whale became caught in a Japanese fishing net and was left to languish for 19 days, before ultimately being drowned by fishermen, the office of Australia’s then environment minister issued a general statement confirming Australia is “committed” to the protection of marine mammals and “remains strongly opposed” to both commercial and “scientific” whaling.

Three years on, in response to Japan’s expanded whaling plan, an Australian government spokesperson told Yahoo, “Australia is opposed to all forms of commercial whaling. Australia’s efforts through the International Whaling Commission have led to a whaling-free Southern Ocean and a decline in commercial whaling around the world.”

Australia of course has its own commercial wildlife harvesting industries, an issue that's been raised by Japanese whaling advocates when it's faced criticism. Its kangaroo cull takes the lives of over 1.5 million animals a year and constitutes the largest land-based wildlife slaughter in the world, with much of the meat used to feed domestic cats and dogs.

This interest in harvesting native animals in Australia only looks to be expanding. In 2024, the Northern Territory announced a plan to cull 1200 crocodiles a year, and take 90,000 eggs from the wild so they can be hatched inside farms and raised to become luxury handbags. It also refused to rule out crocodile hunting safaris in future.

Japan hasn't been a member of the International Whaling Commission since 2019, and some observers think it'll be hard to deter the country from resuming hunting in the Southern Ocean.

Speaking through an interpreter, Yabuki urged Australia and other governments outside of Japan to speak out more aggressively against whaling.

“It’s important the international community puts pressure on Japan could go back to the [Southern Ocean]. It’s important for Australia to pressure Japan to stop it returning,” he said.

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