Whaling a small issue in relations between Australia and Japan

Author: Joel Rathus, Meiji and Adelaide Universities

There appears to be a perception gap between Australia and Japan over the significance of whaling to the overall relationship – and it needs to be closed. In various media, Australian writers have identified the whaling issue as problem of great significance. By contrast, in the Japanese media the whaling issue is not seen as serious (see top 30), and has not been linked to the state of the bilateral relationship overall.

What, then, is the Japanese attitude towards the dispute around whaling?

The Japanese are not so much angry as puzzled by what they see as the eccentric love of whales in Australia – whales are considered a fish by the Japanese. In addition, Japanese experts and policy makers are a little concerned about the Australia media’s linkage of whaling and the bilateral relationship. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in particular was interested enough to grant me an interview with the principal deputy director of the Oceania division, Takero Aoyama, who offered to go on record with the observation  that ‘the whaling issue is simply not that important a problem in our relationship.’ (my translation)

The deputy director’s assessment is borne out by an examination of the facts. Four areas significant to the bilateral relationship are cooperation on Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT), the future of the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA), the still under negotiation Free Trade Agreement  (FTA) and popular sentiment within Japan and Australia.  In each of these areas, the dispute about Japanese whaling has caused no significant damage.

First, some had been concerned about the apparent silence emanating from the International Commission of the Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND, and had assumed the worst – that the relationship’s apparent deterioration was real. But on the 23 March the fruits of this project were revealed. The Australian and Japanese Governments jointly submitted a working paper to the UN for the 2010 review of the NPT Treaty, entitled ‘(a) new package of practical nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation measures for the 2010 review conference of the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).’ The Japanese specifically cited the ICNND as the catalyst for the joint working paper.  So cooperation appears to be continuing in this area. Regarding any possible spill-over from the whaling issue, officials at MOFA’s disarmament and non-proliferation desk report that neither they nor the Australians raised whaling in their discussion.

There is still of course scope for improvement. MOFA was a little surprised to read that PM Rudd will not be attending a non-proliferation conference in Washington next week. As the host was the United States Australia was not obliged to inform the Japanese beforehand. But as Australia is an important partner in NPT cooperation, additional Australian effort would be appreciated by the Japanese.

Second, some in Australia are concerned about the impact of the dispute over whaling on ACSA. But only Japan’s Deputy Defense Minister Kazuya Shimba has made such a link. Even then, this link was made only once, and Shimba backed away it in a recent interview. Moreover, Shimba is only one Member of Parliament. As to the details of ACSA, one round of discussions has already occurred and the Japanese expecting negotiations to proceed smoothly. Both sides have stated that they desire to have the agreement in place ready to be signed by the first half of this year. It is only problems relating to negotiating various technical details that may cause slight delay.

Third, in weighing up the prospects for the conclusion of an Australia-Japan FTA, whaling is not an important factor. One possible link between the two would be via the Ministry of Agriculture Farming and Fisheries (MAFF). The MAFF is a major player, and obstacle, in Japan’s FTA negotiations. But the MAFF’s objection to an FTA with Australia is already absolute. Moreover, the MAFF is finding it harder to get the ear of government. Indeed, the setting up of the WTO/Economic Partnership Agreement promotion facility by MOFA last year reflects a desire to cut the MAFF out of decision making in the future. So any upset caused to the MAFF is of questionable significance in the scheme of things.

At the level of relations between the Japanese and Australian Prime Ministers, whaling could have impact. But only if the issue were to get out of hand, and leaders on both sides seem well to understand the domestic politics of the whaling issue in both countries and keeping it within those bounds.


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  • andrew mcgregor

    It’s good to get the whales into some kind of perspective. One would have thought that nobody could seriously think that this fringe issue could impact on the wide ranging economic and political relationship that there is between Australia and Japan.
    Tabloid journalism is one thing but as you must know blowing this issue out of all proportion is not confined to the tabloids: http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2010/03/17/Japan-Australia-relations-Signs-of-damage.aspx

  • Jerry Burong

    Your article raises the interesting observation of Australian public outrage and public bewilderment in Japan.
    Notice that Australian media ignores whale harvesting by Nordic countries.

    From a neurological perspective, killing whales with harpoons is barbaric as is catching fish with fishing hooks.
    Fish mouths contain more sense receptors than humans implying more sensitivity to pain.

    Australia for economic reasons stopped harpooning whales at Albany Western Australia in the 1960’s.
    Our agricultural industry for economic reasons export live sheep and dock off sheep tails.

    The problem is our public assumes the right to judge and condemn other cultures based on a sense of moral superiority.
    This is a legacy of Western ascendancy.

    The rise of regional economic powers such as China, Korea, Japan and later Asean requires Australian public opinion to be more understanding and accommodating of their point of view.
    Simply put Australian media and our leaders to help educate our public to be more sophisticated and mature.

    It is not a question of pragmatism because economic power determines who legitimises the narrative.
    Western nations determine the narrative for the world now it is no longer the case.

    We do need to adopt a moral stand to prevent inhumane harvest of whales but it must be thru persistent civilised dialogue based mutual respect.
    Our political leaders should lead and educate.

  • Aurelia George Mulgan

    On whaling, it has never been Western nations who have determined the narrative in Japan. There has only ever been and remains one narrative, and that is the narrative determined by the Japanese government and specifically the Fisheries Agency. There is no domestic challenge, for example, to the pivotal notion of ‘research whaling’, a term that is highly contested internationally, but which is accepted ubiquitously and unquestioningly by all media and all politicians and government bureaucrats in Japan. It is a mantra endlessly repeated as implicit justification for a supposedly ‘non-commercial’ industry. Nor is there any sign of willingness on Japan’s part to engage in so-called ‘civilised’ dialogue with Western countries on whaling in a spirit of mutual respect or compromise. Dialogue is for the sole purpose of obtaining Western ‘understanding’ of Japan’s position.