Discussion paper

Whales apart: tensions in Japan-Australia relations

1 Mar 2010

Good relations with Japan are critical for Australia. On by far the majority of issues, our two countries tend to agree, but on whaling we have hit an impasse.

Australians are strongly opposed and - says Trevor Wilson - the Japanese have adopted international behavior entirely out of their normal character. International thinking on whaling has changed: Japan could cease open sea whaling and win enormous international support, he argues. In the mean time, Australia would be wise to stop provoking Japan unnecessarily and allow it to back down with some grace.

Australia and Japan have been at loggerheads over Japan’s “scientific” whaling program since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) set aside its temporary moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986 and allowed a small annual catch of more common whales in the name of scientific research. This was consistent with the IWC’s primary purpose of managing whale resources, rather than just conserving them.

Whaling has often been identified as one of two main issues over which Australia and Japan di!er, the other being agricultural protection, but until recently there has been an informal consensus that neither side will make whaling the central issue for bilateral relations. Both Prime Ministers now have entered the debate: Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, stated publicly he “hated” whale meat, though did not vary his party’s support for whaling; and Kevin Rudd this week warned that Australia would commence legal action if Japan does not stop Southern Ocean whaling by the end of 2010.

And so, with politicians and officials continuing to exchange heated words, exaggerated posturing by conservation groups, and sensational media treatment, a solution seems more remote than ever.

Image: 'Harpoon ship blocks bow', guano / flickr


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