Japan has decided to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission in a bid to resume commercial whaling for the first time in about 30 years, government sources said Thursday.
The government is considering allowing commercial whaling in Japan's nearby seas and within its exclusive economic zone but is not planning to do so in the Antarctic Ocean, where it has conducted whaling for what it calls "scientific research" purposes, the sources added.
The decision, which will be officially announced as early as next week, comes after decades of confrontation between pro- and anti-whaling members of the IWC.
It is extremely rare for Japan to withdraw from an international organization and the withdrawal could spark criticism from anti-whaling countries.
Japan's rationale could be also questioned as it is a member of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea that calls for the use and conservation of marine resources via international organizations.
To leave the IWC in 2019, Japan needs to notify the commission by Jan. 1.
(The plenary session of the International Whaling Commission opens in Florianopolis, Brazil, on Sept. 10, 2018.)
Reports of the envisioned withdraw drew a rebuke from environmental groups. Greenpeace urged the Japanese government to reconsider the decision that the non-governmental organization called a "grave mistake."
"This snub to multilateralism is unacceptable," Sam Annesley, executive director at Greenpeace Japan, said. "We hope that Japan will reverse its decision and take its place beside the nations trying to undo the damage human activities have done to whale populations."
Japan's attempts over the last 30 years to resume commercial whaling of relatively abundant species such as minke whales have always been stymied by countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
Most recently, its proposal to ease the IWC's decision-making rules was also voted down in an annual meeting held in Brazil in September, leading Tokyo to issue a veiled warning of a potential pullout.
Although Japan halted commercial whaling in line with a moratorium adopted in 1982 by the IWC, it has hunted whales since 1987 for what it calls research purposes, a practice criticized internationally as a cover for commercial whaling.
Japan cannot continue research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean if it pulls out of the IWC. Of the member countries, 41 are for whaling and 48 are against it, according to the Fisheries Agency.
Under IWC rules, a withdrawal decision becomes effective, in principle, on June 30 following notification to the commission by the previous Jan. 1.
Government officials say Japan will explain its stance and seek understanding from other countries.
"There are fishermen in Japan making their living by whaling and we can't simply end it," one of the officials said.
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.
Japan joined the IWC in 1951. The entity 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."
The following is a chronology of events related to Japan's whaling.
1948 - The International Whaling Commission is established under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.
1951 - Japan joins the IWC.
1982 - The IWC adopts a moratorium on commercial whaling.
1987 - Japan starts hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean for what it calls "scientific research" purposes.
1988 - Japan halts commercial whaling.
1994 - Japan launches research whaling in the Northwest Pacific.
2005 - Anti-whaling Sea Shepherd starts obstructing Japan's research whaling in the Antarctic.
2014 - The International Court of Justice issues an order to halt Japan's research whaling in the Antarctic.
2015 - Japan resumes research whaling in the Antarctic by reducing the number of whales it hunts.
September 2018 - The IWC rejects Japan's proposal to resume commercial whaling at an annual meeting in Brazil.
Dec. 20 - Japan's plan to withdraw from the IWC comes to light.