Japanese Whaling and the Language of Science

By Russell, Denise | Tamkang Review, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Japanese Whaling and the Language of Science


Russell, Denise, Tamkang Review


In 1987 the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling. This was prompted by the decline in whale populations but also the widely held view in different countries that it is morally unacceptable to kill whales. (1) In the same year Japan set up a "scientific whaling" program, killing whales from the Southern Ocean and taking them on board research vessels. This work is funded by the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which is authorized by the Japanese Government.

The right to kill whales for scientific research is accepted by the IWC. Proposals are reviewed by the Commission but it is the member state putting in the proposal that decides on whether or not to issue a permit to whale. Japan has issued itself permits to kill about 1,000 whales a year from 1987 to the present. The Commission cannot stop the issuing of permits but it can comment on the practice. It has for many years asked Japan to stop issuing permits or to change their program so that non-lethal means are used. Pressure from outside the Commission is mounting. In 2002 in an open letter to the New York Times, twenty-one scientists declared that they "believe Japan's whale 'research' program fails to meet minimum standards for credible science" (Briand et al.). Captain Paul Watson from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society stated in 2009 that "The Japanese 'researchers' have not published a single peer reviewed scientific paper on their observations or discoveries" (Sea Shepherd Conservation Society 2). In an open letter to President B. Obama in 2010, Ric O'Barry from the Earth Island Institute claimed that the Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean is "bogus scientific research" and "an illegal front for commercial whaling." This letter was endorsed by eleven organisations representing two and a half million members (O'Barry 4).

These are strong statements, no doubt supported with conviction. However I don't believe that there has been any detailed analysis presented in the public arena to back such claims. As I will show there definitely are peer-reviewed scientific papers emerging from the Japanese whaling programs in the Southern Ocean appearing in respectable journals. They seem to constitute credible science and non-bogus research, yet what is actually studied diverges significantly from the aims of the research presented by the Japanese Government to the IWC. If the research programs are primarily about science then why would there be such a consistent divergence? I try to address this question towards the end of this article.

The Japanese Government seek to justify some whaling around their coast on cultural grounds, e.g. the killing of thousands of dolphins on a yearly basis out from the town of Taiji. This is not a rationale they put forward for the whaling in the Southern Ocean which is supposed to be justified by the scientific research. In a document headed "The Position of the Japanese Government on Research Whaling" (5) it is stated that: "The purpose of Japan's program [in the Southern Ocean] is to conduct scientific research."

This article analyses the publications resulting from the Japanese whaling research over the last decade to ascertain what findings have resulted, what value these findings have and whether the findings, if valuable, could be researched in other ways. The discussion will revolve around what the Institute of Cetacean Research says that it is doing with the whaling programs and what the research papers actually conclude. The analysis will look at whether the body of work examined could be said to constitute science or whether the language of science hides another agenda. The texts studied are listed in Appendix 1 by year of publication, following the Institute's notification of these papers. Full details are provided in the Reference list.

Japanese Scientific Whaling

The focus of this study is on Japanese research on whales in the Southern Ocean as this is the main area where the Japanese are whaling. …

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