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Whaling has been an important part of Japanese society for over 1,000 years. Recently, however, it has come under fire from countries and organizations who strongly oppose this practice. It is important to be familiar with the history of whaling in Japan if one wants to fully understand the issue.

Whaling in Japan dates back to the seventh century during the Yamato-Asuka period in ancient Japan. The oldest Japanese book in existence, called the Kojiki, chronicled that the Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, ate whale meat. In addition to the Kojiki whaling is also mentioned in numerous other historical writings in Japan.

The 17th century saw a dramatic development in whaling techniques in Taji, Wakayama. In 1606, Wada Chubei founded a system that involved hunting in groups. He also introduced a hand-held harpoon. Later on, Wada Kakuemon introduced the Amitori hou, a safe and efficient whaling net technique that has greatly improved the industry since.

For a great portion of history the Japanese have obtained their food, oil, and other materials from whales. In fact, when the US naval officer Commodore Matthew Perry docked in the Edo Bay (now Tokyo bay), he was believed to be seeking a whaling base for the USA in the northwest region of the Pacific Ocean.

The Meiji era, 1868-1912, saw the introduction of power-driven vessels with guns designed after the Norwegian style of whaling. However, Japanese fishermen opposed this practice, as they believed it promoted indiscriminate killing of whales. The early Japanese viewed whales as deities of the sea as well as being useful for corralling fish. Many whaling villages built Whale Shrines, or Kujira Jinja, to worship the whales they hunted as gods. Whaling in Japan aimed to provide the Japanese people with as many resources, not just oil and animal protein, as possible. A famous proverb in Japan says, "There's nothing to throw away from a whale except its voice." This is quite different from the American whaling of the past that was solely aimed to extract oils for the industry sector.

Whaling Minke
A Minke whale is harpooned by a Japanese Whaling Ship

During the 1900's techniques for whaling improved as whalers in Japan sought to look for better and more modern whaling techniques. The aftermath of the Second World War was a period of scarcity in terms of food. As a result, whales were again hunted to provide an economical source of protein. It became a staple of the Japanese diet during post-war times.

In 1982, Japanese whalers encountered a major obstacle preventing them from continuing their practice. The International Whaling Commission voted on a resolution to ban commercial whaling. The moratorium was to be implemented in 1986. Japan finally complied after the US put pressure on them by not allowing them to fish in waters surrounding Alaska. Later on, the US went ahead with a complete and total ban on any foreign fishing vessels in Alaskan waters, and thus Japan began researching ways to restart commercial whaling under the jurisdiction of the IWC.

During recent whaling seasons Japanese whalers have encountered resistance from members of the anti-whaling conservation group Sea Shepherd.  Led by Captain Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd has gained much attention since Animal Planet began airing the show "Whale Wars".  Tactics include throwing butyric acid (a foul smelling liquid) on the decks of whaling vessels as well as physically boarding the whaling ships.  Regarding whaling, Paul Watson feels that "It's a dying industry and has no place in the 21st century".

whaling Paul Watson Sea Shepherd
Anti-whaling activist Captain Paul Watson

The peak of whale consumption in Japan was in 1962, with 226,000 tons of whale meat sold and consumed nationwide. In 1985, the year before the ban on commercial whaling was enacted, the number fell to 15,000 tons after a steady decline. The country is still interested in resuming commercial whaling, but the IWC has not been persuaded into lifting the ban.