Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission in 2019 to resume commercial whaling next July after a three-decade hiatus, the government said Wednesday, drawing immediate criticism from anti-whaling nations and groups.
Following the withdrawal, Japan will hunt whales in nearby waters and within its exclusive economic zone but not in the Antarctic Ocean, where the country has carried out so-called "scientific whaling" for what it says are research purposes.
An annual IWC meeting in September "unveiled the fact that it is not possible in the IWC even to seek the coexistence of states with different views. Consequently, Japan has been led to make its decision," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference. Japan's proposal to resume commercial whaling was rejected then.
The announcement came months after Tokyo 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.
It is rare for Japan to leave an international organization but the country took issue with the IWC's failure to fulfill the "dual mandate" of promoting whale conservation and pursuing the development of the whaling industry.
The Japanese government notified the IWC of its decision Wednesday. Under IWC rules, Japan's withdrawal is expected to become effective on June 30 following notification to the commission before Jan. 1.
Even after the withdrawal, Japan will continue to contribute to preserving maritime resources by participating in the IWC as an observer and conduct whaling within the catch limits calculated by the IWC's method, Suga said.
Bryde's, minke and sei whales, whose stocks are considered abundant, will be hunted, government officials said.
Whaling towns welcomed the planned withdrawal and restart of commercial whaling but Japan came under a barrage of international criticism. Government officials are expected to seek understanding of its policy, seen as necessary to preserve the tradition of whaling in regional areas.
Australia said it is "extremely disappointed" with the withdrawal while New Zealand described whaling as "an outdated and unnecessary practice." Still, both countries welcomed Tokyo's decision to stop whaling in the Antarctic Ocean.
Conservation group Greenpeace also condemned the decision. "The declaration today is out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures," Sam Annesley, executive director at Greenpeace Japan said in a statement.
Japan is a member of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea that calls for the use and conservation of maritime resources through international entities. Suga hinted at the possibility of creating a new international framework on whaling in the future.
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 anti-whaling countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
A Japanese proposal to change decision-making rules at the IWC was also voted down in the September meeting, leading Tokyo to issue a veiled threat that it could potentially pull out.
Although scientific evidence has shown certain whale species are abundant, member countries focusing exclusively on whale protection have refused to take "any tangible steps" toward the sustainable use of marine resources, Suga said in a statement.
"Japan hopes that more countries will share the same position to promote sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence," Suga added.
Some whaling communities in Japan such as Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, 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 the figure has fallen 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, say there is a need to preserve local whaling traditions, but it is unclear whether demand will increase even if commercial whaling resumes.
"It has been a rough and difficult road (to withdrawal). The restart of commercial whaling will help revitalize regional economies," farm minister Takamori Yoshikawa told LDP lawmakers at a meeting on whaling on Wednesday.
Japan halted commercial whaling in line with a moratorium adopted in 1982 by the IWC. Since 1987, however, it has hunted whales for what it claims are research purposes, a practice criticized internationally as a cover for commercial whaling.
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 IWC members, 41 are for whaling and 48 are against, according to Japan's Fisheries Agency, but the organization has long been associated with lobbying and vote-buying allegations on both the pro- and anti-whaling sides. Provision of Japanese aid to some countries has allegedly been tied to support for its policy 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.
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.
Dec. 26 - Japan formally announces it will withdraw from the IWC in 2019