Environmental groups are angered by Tokyo's intent to ignore a ruling by International Court of Justice and to use its "scientific whaling" program to justify a return to commercial whaling.
Restaurants across Japan are taking part in a "whale week" campaign to promote the domestic consumption of whale meat, with organizers and the government insisting that eating the by-product of Japan's "scientific whaling" program is not illegal and is actually an important part of the national culture.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went as far as to say that whaling is so important to Japan that he intends to step up a campaign to win over international opponents and to restart commercial whaling in the Antarctic Ocean.
That declaration has put the Japanese prime minister on a collision course with environmental groups, who have been quick to demand that he abide by the ruling in March of the International Court of Justice that Tokyo must halt the killing of whales in the Antarctic, in part because the hunt provided little scientific data that couldn't be determined through non-lethal research.
Four-year legal battle
The four-year legal case had been brought up by the governments of Australia and New Zealand on the grounds that Japan's slaughter of hundreds of whales every year was little more than disguised commercial whaling as the by-product later found its way to supermarkets and restaurants in Japan.
They were also angered that Tokyo refused to recognize an otherwise internationally accepted whale sanctuary in the Antarctic Ocean. Yet, Abe is apparently undeterred by the court's ruling, the opposition of other governments, and the anger of environmental groups.
Speaking before a parliamentary commission in Tokyo on June 9, Abe said, "I want to aim for the resumption of commercial whaling by conducting whaling research in order to obtain scientific data indispensable for the management of whale resources. To that end, I will step up efforts further to get understanding from the international community," he said.
'Religious service' for whales
The prime minister added that foreigners frequently misunderstand Japanese culture and insisted that the whalers demonstrate their respect for the creatures they kill by holding a "religious service" every year.
New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully said Abe's comments were "worrying", while Australia's Environment Minister Greg Hunt reiterated his country's opposition to commercial and lethal scientific whaling. "While is it not clear precisely what Prime Minister Abe is proposing in the short term, the fact that he has told a Parliamentary Committee that he wants to aim towards the resumption of commercial whaling is both unfortunate and unhelpful," McCully said in a statement.
In Japan, however, Abe's comments were backed up by Yoshimasa Hayashi, the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, who took part in one of the whale week events and was photographed enthusiastically tucking in to a bowl of whale meat.
"Whaling and whale meat cuisine is an important Japanese culture," he said. "I would like to proactively provide information about it to the public widely and deepen the understanding for the whaling."
And Japan has set in motion the procedures to win approval from the International Whaling Committee (IWC) to restart scientific whaling in the Antarctic Ocean as soon as next year, Joji Morishita, Japan's commissioner to the IWC, told DW. "For fiscal 2015, we will submit a new research project for the Antarctic Ocean that will reflect the court's ruling," he said, adding that while Tokyo does not agree with the court's decision, "Japan is a law-abiding country."
The new plan must be submitted to the scientific commission of the IWC six months ahead of the next scheduled meeting of the organization, which is scheduled for May of next year.
Morishita suggested that a loophole in the court's ruling - which reaffirmed that one of the purposes of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling is the "sustainable exploitation of whale resources" - means that it does not rule out an eventual return to commercial whaling.
Resuming scientific whaling
For now, Morishita said, Tokyo will simply put forward a plan to resume scaled-down research whaling that will demonstrate the importance of sustained exploitation of a natural resource. ´
The reaction from environmental groups has been predictable and swift. "If Prime Minister Abe genuinely seeks understanding from the international community, complying with the judgment of the World Court would be a good start," Patrick Ramage, head of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's whale programme, told DW.
"What is 'regrettable' is that the respected leader of a great nation would suggest, in 2014, that Japan's cultural relationship with whales is defined solely by eating them," he said. "Claiming an attack on one's culture in an attempt to preserve the narrow interests of a small cadre of government bureaucrats is beneath the stature of a world leader such as Prime Minister Abe.”
'Embarrassment' to Japan
"In fact, it is an embarrassment for the Japanese people and friends of Japan around the world who appreciate the true beauty and aesthetic sensibilities that infuse Japanese culture to see Prime Minister Abe equate that beauty with the killing of whales and the eating of whale meat."
Ramage suggested that the "zeal" with which the fisheries ministry is now promoting the consumption of whale is little more than "a cheap political stunt" designed to draw attention away from "his failure to adequately address the needs of Japan's agricultural and fisheries sectors."