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Asia

Japan ponders next move in whaling debate

After the International Court of Justice ordered Japan to halt its whaling operations in the Antarctic Ocean, the government and the whaling industry were digesting the implications of the landmark ruling.

While environmental groups around the world reacted with delight to the decision announced in The Hague on Monday that Japan's "scientific whaling" program falls short of the required standards and ordered Tokyo to halt its slaughter of whales in the Antarctic Ocean, the response in Japan was very different.

In a statement issued immediately after the ruling was announced by ICJ Chief Judge Peter Tomka, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, "Japan will abide by the judgment ... as a state that places great importance on the international legal order and the rule of law as a basis of the international community.

"We will consider our concrete future course of action carefully, upon studying what is stated in the judgment," the statement added.

A spokesman for the Far Seas Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries told DW that the ministry is still examining the decision and declined to comment further.

A whale hangs from the side of a ship

Japan has claimed its whaling program is for scientific purposes

'Very disappointed'

The reaction at the Japan Whaling Association was similarly guarded, with an official limiting himself to admitting that the association is "very disappointed."

The spokesman agreed that the decision by the court means that thousands of jobs are potentially at risk now, along with the futures of dozens of companies, ranging from restaurants to processing firms, ship operators and firms in related industries such as the transport and storage sectors.

"At the moment, we cannot make any comments as we are waiting for the government to give us its official policy in light of the decision," he added.

The ruling does not, however, put a complete end to Japan's whaling program.

The ICJ ruling was in response to a complaint filed by the government of Australia and specifically targeting Japan's whaling operations in the Antarctic Ocean, which the International Whaling Commission declared to be a whale sanctuary in 1994, but Japan refused to recognize.

In this May 23, 2012 file picture Paul Watson, founder and President of the animal rights and environmental group Sea Shepherd Conservation takes part in a demonstration against the Costa Rican government near Germany's Presidential residence during a visit of Costa Rica's president Laura Chinchilla in Berlin, Germany.

A number of groups, among them, Sea Shepherd, have campaigned against whaling for years

The IWC introduced a moratorium in commercial whaling in 1986 but, crucially, left a loophole that permitted nations to carry out scientific whaling. Five years later, Japan launched a research program that enabled the government to declare all of the hundreds of whales harpooned every year to be declared part of that research program.

Commercial whaling

Despite international pressure for Japan to admit that as the whale meat was then packaged and sold that the program was thinly disguised commercial whaling, it took until May 2010 for the legal procedures to begin. Public hearings began in June 2013 and the court announced its conclusions on Monday, March 31.

Embarrassingly for Tokyo, the court ruled that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing of whales in the Antarctic are not for scientific research. It then ordered Japan to revoke any existing permits and refrain from granting any new licenses.

In conclusion, it said that Japan has violated the moratorium on commercial whaling.

Environmental organizations were quick to hail the decision, with Willie MacKenzie, of Greenpeace UK, declaring, "We welcome this verdict, which will hopefully mark the end of whaling in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

"The myth that this hunt was in any way scientific can now be dismissed once and for all," he added. "We urge Japan to abide by this decision and not attempt to continue whaling through any newly invented loopholes."

More loopholes exist

And there are loopholes that campaigners say still need to be addressed.

The "scientific whaling" carried out by Japanese fleets in the northeast Pacific between April and October is not covered by the court's decision and permits the whalers to land 1,564 tons of minke whales, Bryde's whales, sei whales and sperm whales.

Domestic legislation still also permits coastal whalers to land 431 tons every year. Similarly, the annual cull of hundreds of dolphins in coastal communities such as Taiji, central Japan, is unaffected by the decision as they are not subject to the control of the IWC.

An alternative - and more radical - move by Tokyo would be for Japan to withdraw from the IWC and declare itself not bound by its statutes, although its whaling fleet would probably be largely limited to operating within its own Exclusive Economic Zone.

Three dead, protected Minke Whales on the deck of the Nisshin Maru, 05 January 2014.

Some Japanese have protested the ruling, saying whale meat is part of traditional cuisine

Public feeling in Japan has always run high over the issue of whaling, with most people here endorsing the nation's right to hunt whale on the grounds that it is an integral part of the Japanese diet and therefore important to the nation's food culture. Some also accuse Western nations of hypocrisy for opposing whaling while at the same time slaughtering millions of cattle, sheep and pigs to feed their populations.

"It's not really fair, is it?" asked Kanako Hosomura, a 31-year-old housewife from Yokohama. "I don't actually eat whale and I never buy it for my family, but I look at it as just another resource from the ocean that should be available to be used.

"The government tells us there are plenty of whales in the ocean, so why should we not make the best use of them?"