Not Our Oceans, Not Our Whales: How To Stop Japan Whaling

December 7, 2015 Laura Bridgeman

The question of how to stop Japan whaling has been on many people’s minds lately. Here are some suggestions. 


As Japan sets off on a mission to kill whales in the Antarctic Ocean, outraged people the world over have denounced the country’s actions. Before placing all the blame on Japan, however, we ought to look at how even anti-whaling nations remain complicit in the slaughters.

Earlier this year, the International Court of Justice ordered Japan to halt its JARPA II research program after rejecting the country’s claims that it was for scientific purposes. Despite this, Japan unveiled a new research program, called NEWREP-A, which is scheduled to last 12 years and will result in the deaths of about 4000 minke whales. The fleet departed for the Antarctic last week.

One of the arguments made by Japan in support of it’s whaling program is that whaling is a part of their culture. While many are quick to debate the veracity of these claims, the ideologies that underpin the commercial killing of whales are indeed a part of Japan’s culture. They are also a part of America’s culture, Australia’s culture, and other western nations that may oppose whaling. This is the imperialist western culture, with its attendant perspectives on humanity’s relationship with nature.

Western culture’s assertion that humanity retains dominion over the ‘natural’ world has complex origins, some of which are borne from loose, and sometimes convenient, interpretations of Christianity. Having evolved into our modern-day legal structures, these notions dictate that whales, like all life on this planet save for that of homo sapiens, are considered property. Our contemporary language clearly reflects this: the oceans are “ours”. Our oceans contain “resources”. The whole of “nature”, from which we are separate, exists for our use, amusement and consumption. These ideas cause untold suffering for other animals, both wild and domestic.

One of the ways western imperialism has entrenched itself throughout the world is through the objective, “disinterested” scientific method that was popularized by people like Descartes. Japan strategically uses this framework in order to justify their destruction of the whales, for example by claiming that the purpose of JARPA II was primarily research “to monitor the Antarctic ecosystem and improve the management of minke whale stocks”. While the world sees through these transparent claims as being a way to exploit legal loopholes, few are questioning the validity of thinking about whales as “stocks”.

Japan’s whaling program is violating the global moratorium that was enacted in 1986. But the moratorium itself is problematic, for a moratorium is, by definition, not permanent. It implicitly considers whales as being resources, allows for the existence of the commercial whaling industry, and can technically be lifted at any moment.

What is needed now is to push our legal and ethical frameworks beyond their current limits. We must come to recognize that whales already have rights, and that we are violating these rights when we use them for any reason. Rather than bestowing rights unto whales, we must enact appropriate legislation to protect their existing rights. Some argue that this recognition is an inevitability, as it has already been anticipated by international law. Some countries have already made important progress – Colombia just passed a bill that would define other-than-human animals as sentient beings rather than personal property. New Zealand and Quebec have introduced similar legislation. Calls for whale nonhuman personhood are becoming louder as well.

Beyond the realm of legality, we must also be critical of the language we use to describe the whales and their environment. If gone unquestioned, the linguistic framing we are given by western culture will only reinforce our troubled relations with the whales and others. Recognizing that the oceans and its inhabitants are not ours is a good place to start.

Western imperialism has wrought enough damage on the world. It is time for an evolution. Each of us has an important part to play in rethinking our relationships with the more-than-human world. Until then, the blood of the whales slaughtered by Japan will remain on our hands.

Photo credit: Sea Shepherd/ Glenn Lockitch 2013.