Japan’s Emperor Akihito, the country’s 125th, is to abdicate the Chrysanthemum Throne in April, which will make him the first emperor to do so in over two centuries. He will be succeeded by his eldest son Crown Prince Naruhito. The abdication will bring the Heisei era to an end. Initiated in January 1989 when Akihito ascended to the throne, it was intended to encourage a philosophy of “peace everywhere”.
Yesterday’s announcement that Japan will resume commercial whaling from July, just months after Naruhito becomes emperor, suggests that Heisei era may not have had its intended impact, especially for whales unfortunate enough to be found in Japanese waters. The country said that it would end its controversial whaling in the Antarctic. In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled Japan should end Antarctic whaling. Japan simultaneously announced its withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
Japan points out that most whale species are not endangered and that eating whale meat is a central, if expensive, part of their culture. The country has long campaigned at the IWC to have commercial whaling resume but yesterday’s go-it-alone announcement underlines how unsuccessful that campaign was. Reflecting a reality as influential in the Sea of Japan as it is in South-West Ireland, where salmon is the target species, some powerful politicians’ constituencies include whaling communities. Prime minister Shinzo Abe’s election district is home to the whaling port of Shimonoseki.
In an age of accelerating reliance on robots, of almost unlimited communication in countries where the options have not been limited by autocrats, even in an age of resurgent nativism and strong-arm political leaders, it is difficult to decide which is more of an anachronism: A newly-crowned emperor or the resumption of whaling. It is as fantastic as the idea of Kokaku, the last emperor to abdicate in 1817, setting sail from Shimonoseki in Herman Melville’s Pequod.
The Asahi newspaper has reported that most Japanese no longer eat whale meat and that it accounts for only 0.1% of all meat consumed in the country — just 35g a year for each of the emperor’s 127m subjects.
Japan will pay, in terms of its international image, what might seem a heavy price for this decision. It will be, as it already has been, excoriated by those stridently opposed to headline exploitations of our natural world. However, it can deflect those accusations by pointing to what might rightly be described as our gross, ongoing hypocrisy. Japan’s whalers can point to animal population collapses all around the world — 80% of insect life in parts of Germany’s cereal growing regions — because of commercial activities. They can argue with considerable validity that those whose conservationist sensitivities are shaped by, say, episode after episode of Attenborough’s The Blue Planet, might be better off looking out their own window than at the television before they reach these conclusions. In a country now routinely graded as one of Europe’s worst performers on climate change aversion, those arguments, sadly, ring all too true. Maybe we need an Emperor of All the Gaels to force real change.