South China Morning Post | 15 August 2023
How a dispute over whaling could spur Japan’s exit from US Indo-Pacific trade pact: ‘Kishida has zero leeway’
by Julian Ryall
A disagreement over whaling threatens to overshadow Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to the United States later this week for talks with President Joe Biden, with some observers saying Tokyo should be ready to “walk away” from a critical trade initiative in protest at the strong-arm tactics of its ally.
The Office of the US Trade Representative has been pressuring Japan to accept a passage critical of whaling in the charter for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) – a 14-nation trade deal unveiled by Biden in Tokyo last year to counter China’s growing influence in Asia and the Pacific – according to an August 10 report by the Financial Times newspaper.
Japan is pushing back, with one analyst saying that the inclusion of any passage criticising whaling is “an absolute non-starter” for Tokyo as it would effectively spell the end of Kishida’s government.
“I have no idea why the US is insisting on this clause at this point, when most of the main issues have already been agreed and when the question of commercial whaling was effectively solved when Japan pulled out of the International Whaling Commission in 2019,” said Michael Cucek, a professor of international relations at the Tokyo campus of the US’ Temple University, referring to the organisation that effectively banned whaling in the late 1980s.
Washington’s criticism of whaling is even more perplexing given the relatively low importance the Biden administration is attaching to the IPEF – a “face-saving gesture” to make up for the US pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement in 2017 under former president Donald Trump, Cucek said.
The whaling clause was likely included at the behest of a single congressman, he speculated, and could potentially delay or even derail the entire agreement.
Initially, the Office of the US Trade Representative wanted to include wording that would mean all IPEF signatory states agreed to a complete ban on whaling, the Financial Times reported, but that was watered down.
However, even a milder position is unacceptable to Japan, which restarted the commercial killing of whales after withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission – albeit supported by government subsidies and with quotas in place.
Publicly, Tokyo is keeping a diplomatic silence on Washington’s demands, but there are strong suggestions that Kishida’s administration would have little choice but to play no further part in the IPEF should Washington stick to its guns on the whaling clause.
The Japanese public is broadly defensive of the country’s whaling industry, although the number of people who actually eat whale meat has been decreasing year by year. Only about 1,000 tonnes of the meat were sold in 2021, down from a peak of some 233,000 tonnes in 1962.
Many people who never buy whale at a supermarket or go to a whale-meat restaurant still insist that it’s a plentiful resource that should be sustainably exploited in the same way as other countries farm beef or chicken. About 2.6 million tonnes of chicken and 1.27 million tonnes of beef is eaten in Japan each year, according to the latest available figures.
Japan’s whaling industry, which only employs an estimated 300 people nationwide, is ostensibly subsidised to provide jobs in rural areas and preserve Japanese culinary culture.
Many Japanese insist that whaling is an important part of the national culture and say countries should not impose their wills on another sovereign nation.
Since withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission, Japan no longer dispatches fleets to the Southern Ocean around Antarctica – a practice that brought it into confrontation with Australia and New Zealand – but does kill whales within its own waters. This year’s government-set quota is for 187 Bryde’s whales, 136 minke whales and 24 sei whales.
Whaling fleets have also ranged out into the North Pacific, under the pretence of “scientific research”, and the government is subsidising a new, state-of-the-art whaling ‘mother ship’ that’s able to travel thousands of miles and be at sea for weeks.
The ship, costing some 6 billion yen (US$41.33 million) is due to be launched next year, and aims to allow smaller, more agile vessels to hunt the whales, with their carcasses being returned to the ‘mother ship’ for storage.
Other government subsidies include support for companies that sell whale meat products at less than cost price.
While some might say that many people no longer eating whale meat speaks volumes, Yoichi Shimada, an international-relations professor at Fukui Prefectural University, said there were no signs of the public turning against whaling, meaning Kishida would have to stand up to US pressure.
“Hypothetically, if the US keeps pressuring Japan, then Kishida has no choice but to walk away from the entire agreement,” Shimada said.
Cucek agreed, adding that “Kishida has zero leeway on Japan backing down on anything to do with whaling”.
“He is in seriously hot water at home … and no political capital left to spend by kowtowing to the US on this,” he said.
Kishida’s domestic issues include inflation and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s ties to the controversial Unification Church.
“Japan has already gone rogue and left the international [whaling] organisation, so this is not a place where Japan can be flexible,” Cucek added.
The timing of the dispute is unfortunate, with Kishida due to meet Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol for a three-way summit on Friday.
Whales play a significant role in capturing carbon, says international conservation organisation WWF, noting that each great whale sequesters an estimated 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide, on average, “thus playing their part in the fight against climate change”.
Six of the 13 great whale species are endangered or vulnerable, even after decades of protection, it says. Some are caught accidentally, as by-catch. Norway and Iceland also still hunt whales.