Japanese Whaling: The World’s Worst Research Expedition


It’s almost impossible to provide an original editorial perspective on the modern-day Japanese whale hunt. The practice is wholly deplorable and universally condemned. The rationale is so patently absurd that it squeezes out any opportunity to provide thoughtful insight, context or nuance. Whaling is simply terrible and depressing, the kind of thing that makes us ask ourselves why we, as a planet, still can’t get the easy questions right.

If you want facts and figures, Vox.com has written a brilliant summary per usual. Here are a few highlights–or rather, lowlights.

Japan recently returned from whaling the waters of the southern pole with 333 minke whales. Of those whales, 157 were pregnant. Though not endangered, their numbers are in decline. The hunt was conducted in direct violation of orders from the International Court of Justice.

If one were to take Japanese claims of engaging in oceanic research at face value, the situation is not just tragic, but farcical. Despite funding whaling “research” at a cost of $10,000,000 per year, only two peer-reviewed papers have been released since 2005; both of dubious value.

In my effort to contribute something to the conversation other than my deep sadness, I hope you’ll take a moment to read the essay below. It’s excerpted from my unpublished novel THE ACTIVIST and illustrates my strong feelings on the subject; specifically that whaling is a intentional distraction, a firebreak preventing larger action against the current state of unsustainable fishing practices.


The Japanese claim the heritage of their whaling practices dates back to the twelfth century. That’s technically true but highly misleading. Whaling before the 1800’s was a small scale endeavor, tiny boats in shallow water driving whales towards shore, then spearing and butchering them near coastal villages.

Japan came into European-style whaling—long-range sail or steam-powered ships armed with modern gunpowder or compressed-air harpoons—in the late 1800’s, after the industry had already peaked and collapsed in most other countries. As part of their rapid industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan copied cutting-edge Scandinavian hunting practices and Western corporate structuring, quickly rising to become a top whaling nation alongside Norway and Iceland. This meant fast, diesel-fueled engines on ships equipped with modern radar and exploding harpoons.

The modern environmentalist movement came into its own in the 1970’s and 1980’s, just in time to see whales teetering on the brink of extinction. Awareness campaigns and international pressure shifted popular opinion and most of the world abandoned the whaling industry.

And yet Japan did not cease the hunt. In a blatant affront to a bevy of anti-whaling laws and treaties, Japan issued itself lethal “research permits” to stalk and kill whales, a thin veil of legitimacy whitewashing an ugly reality. To gain the international support necessary for these phony permits, Japan did what any nation engaged in dirty practices does—funded foreign economic development projects, paid favors to officials and occasionally engaged in outright bribery.

Though Japan has only one whaling fleet (a fleet consisting of a single cannery “factory” ship and four smaller harpoon boats) her swath of destruction is incredible. Every year, she sets out with a quota to hunt fifty fin whales, fifty humpback whales and a staggering thousand minke whales.

The very idea they are somehow conducting research is offensive. Most of the whale meat ends up in Tsukiji fish market or on the government-subsidized plates of Japanese schoolchildren. Nobody knows what these yearly culling do to the psyche of these intelligent, gentle beings. Take elephant herds, perhaps the nearest land equivalent of a mammalian whale. Elephant herd cullings have been found to devastate generations. Surviving elephants manifest bereavement, post-traumatic stress behavior and violent hostility towards both people and each other. Maybe that’s why in the mid 1800’s sailors began reporting stories of grief-mad bull whales charging and capsizing smaller ships, often killing themselves in the process.

I have a theory on why Japan still whales. They don’t do it despite how terrible the practice remains; they do it because it’s so horrifying. When the world’s attention is focused on the suffering of these beloved mammals, few pay attention to how Japan’s fishing fleets strip the world’s oceans bare. (They are, of course, far from the only nation guilty of this.) It’s like a crew of gangsters shooting up a liquor store as a distraction for their real objective—robbing a bank. We’re all being robbed and most of us don’t even know it. If we don’t make hard changes as a species, soon we’ll have nothing left.

Excerpted from THE ACTIVIST by Taylor Zajonc: In this retelling of Moby Dick, an idealistic environmental activist signs on for a dangerous voyage to Antarctica with Captain Ernie King, an obsessive and enigmatic figure who will stop at nothing to end whaling in the Southern Ocean.


Taylor Zajonc | Author, Historian & Shipwreck Expert

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