Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission in 2019 to pave the way for the resumption of commercial whaling for the first time in about three decades, the government said on Wednesday, a decision likely to draw international condemnation.
Following the pullout, Japan plans to hunt whales in nearby waters and within its exclusive economic zone beginning in July but not in the Antarctic Ocean where the country has carried out so-called scientific whaling for what it says are research purposes.
The announcement comes months after Japan threatened to leave the international organization that has long been deeply divided between pro- and anti-whaling nations and others that support one side or the other. Under IWC rules, Japan’s withdrawal is expected to become effective on June 30 following notification to the commission by Jan. 1.
The rare withdrawal by Japan from an international organization will likely bring questions about its motivation. Tokyo is a member of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea that calls for the use and conservation of maritime resources via international entities.
Over the past 30 years, Japan has lobbied for the resumption of commercial whaling of relatively abundant species such as minke whales while still a member of the IWC, but its attempts have always been stymied by vocal anti-whaling countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
A Japanese proposal to ease decision-making rules at the IWC was also voted down in an annual meeting held in Brazil in September, leading Tokyo to issue a veiled threat that it could potentially pull out.
Some towns in Japan such as Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, have a whaling tradition but have become the focus of intense international pressure by conservation groups. Protein-rich whale meat was a major source of nutrition in the postwar era when it was served in school lunches.
Around 200,000 tons of whale meat was consumed in Japan each year in the 1960s, but it has fallen sharply to around 5,000 tons in recent years, according to government data.
Some lawmakers in the Liberal Democratic Party, headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, stress the need to preserve local whaling traditions, but it is unclear whether demand will increase even if commercial whaling resumes.
Japan halted commercial whaling in line with a moratorium adopted in 1982 by the IWC. Since 1987, however, it has hunted whales for research purposes, a practice criticized internationally as a cover for commercial whaling.
If Japan leaves the IWC, it cannot continue its research whaling program in the Antarctic Ocean.
Japan also suggested in 2007 that it might withdraw from the IWC in protest at the ban on commercial whaling but it was later persuaded by the United States and other countries to remain in the organization.
Among members of the IWC, 41 are for whaling and 48 are against, according to the Fisheries Agency, but the organization has been long-associated with lobbying and vote-buying allegations on both the pro- and anti-whaling sides. Allegations have been made that provision of Japanese aid has been tied to support provided at the IWC.
The IWC was established in 1948 under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to conserve whales and realize the “orderly development of the whaling industry.” Japan joined the organization in 1951.