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Japan's First Whaling Mothership in 73 Years Sets Sail

Hoping to preserve Japan's whaling traditions, the Kangei Maru set sail on its inaugural hunt on May 25. The new vessel is equipped to carry 70-ton whales.

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The whaling ship Kangei Maru departs port, seen off by local kindergarten children in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on May 21. (©Kyodo)

The whaling mothership Kangei Maru set sail on May 25 from its home port of Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture on its inaugural hunt. After passing through the Port of Tokyo, the mothership embarked on its inaugural hunt in the waters off Tohoku and Hokkaido. This newly constructed vessel marks the first of its kind in 73 years. It boasts cutting-edge technology, enabling voyages to the Antarctic.

Japan's whaling fishery operates within the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and adheres to limited catch quotas. Meanwhile, commercial whaling overall grapples with challenges like dwindling whale meat consumption. Nonetheless, Kangei Maru's endeavor signifies a crucial step towards preserving the nation's whale-eating culture and traditions and bolstering food security.

Kangei Maru, constructed by Tokyo-based Kyodo Senpaku Co, Ltd, is the replacement for its aging predecessor, Nisshin Maru. The ship was completed in March 2024 with an investment of approximately ¥7.5 billion JPY ($47.6 million USD). Notably, Shimonoseki, its home port, is renowned as the birthplace of modern whaling.

Whaling practices are broadly categorized into two methods: land-based and mothership-based. Land-based whaling occurs in locations like Taiji Town in Wakayama Prefecture. It takes place primarily along coastal regions, and whales are processed onshore. Conversely, Kangei Maru serves as the principal vessel for mothership-based whaling. It ventures into open waters for prolonged periods and also processes whale catch onboard.

The new whaling mothership Kangei Maru by Kyodo Senpaku, on the morning of May 21, at Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture. (©Kyodo)

Advancing the Industry

The introduction of Kangei Maru presents potential advancements for Japan's whaling industry, a tradition tracing back to the Jomon period. Spanning 113 meters in length with a gross tonnage of 9,299 tn, it possesses the capacity to navigate Antarctic waters. Its stern features a retrieval opening tailored to accommodate catch such as the 70 tn fin whales. This species is a prime target for government capture initiatives.

In addition, the vessel bridges the transition from a conventional diesel to an electric propulsion system. This change aims to decrease operational expenses and reduce noise levels during fishing operations. Moreover, it is equipped with 40 refrigerated containers, allowing the storage of catch and individual parts under optimal refrigeration conditions.

There are also enhancements in crew facilities, including private accommodations for its 100-member crew. The changes facilitate indoor dismantling work and eliminate the necessity for outdoor labor under intense sunlight, which was previously the norm.

During the April commissioning ceremony for the Kangei Maru, Hideki Tokoro, President of Kyodo Senpaku, expressed confidence in the ship's task. "We are ready to fulfill our supply responsibility for the next 30 years," he emphasized, adding, "And we aim to perpetuate mothership whaling for many generations to come."

However, despite these innovative endeavors, challenges persist, including the declining consumption of whale meat.

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Declining Consumption

In November of 2023, onomi meat, a rare part of the Sei whale's tail, fetched a record price of ¥800,000 ($5,100 ) per kilogram. Professor Mitsuhiro Kishimoto of Shimonoseki University, an expert in whaling industry history, expressed concern. "There may be a need to consider depreciating our investment in the Kangei Maru," he said. "Occasional instances of high prices are insufficient to meet the challenge of sustaining whaling."

Furthermore, he emphasized, "Nostalgia for post-war school lunches is not enough. Many young people are unfamiliar with the taste of whale meat and think it's expensive." He underscored, "The utilization of every part of the whale, including its skin and bones, is an inherent part of Japanese culture. As whale meat remains a vital protein source for Japanese people, the government should do more to effectively communicate this."

The new whaling ship Kangei Maru anchors in the Port of Tokyo ahead of its first whaling operation. May 23, in the Port of Tokyo. (©Kyodo)

Obstacles to Deep Sea Whaling

The launch of the Kangei Maru has instilled hope in Japan for the preservation of whale meat consumption, culture, and food security. However, commercial whaling continues to encounter challenges stemming from regulations imposed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). In addition, it faces opposition from anti-whaling groups.

In December 2018, Japan, often known for its reserved stance on the international stage, surprised the global community. Citing the IWC's stance of "no compromise" and "no room for coexistence of differing opinions and positions," Japan boldly declared its intention to withdraw from the IWC.

Japan joined the IWC in 1951, just four years after its establishment. This timing coincided with food shortages following World War II, prompting the widespread embrace of whale consumption as a cultural norm across Japan. Notably, this was manifested through whale meat school lunches.

However, as rapid economic growth ensued, consumption preferences shifted towards beef, pork, and poultry. In 1982, amidst these changing trends, the IWC voted to temporarily halt commercial whaling. Under pressure from the United States, Japan withdrew its objections, resulting in the cessation of commercial whaling except for coastal areas from 1987 to 1988.

From that time, protests by anti-whaling groups became increasingly frequent. During meetings where Japan's delegation advocated for continued whaling, its members often faced demonstrations. Demonstraters splattered red ink on their faces, saying it symbolized "whale blood." In some cases, the Japanese national flag was burned. 

The first Bryde's whale was caught by the new whaling ship Kangei Maru off the coast of Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, on May 30. (©Kyodo)

Institutional Challenges

Whaling faces challenges in addition to declining domestic consumption. Research whaling conducted in the Antarctic Ocean has also proved economically unsustainable, leading to dire circumstances.

Japan made efforts to normalize discussions within the IWC. However, it struggled to bridge the gap with anti-whaling factions who regarded whales as "sacred beings" and condemned whaling as a "barbaric act unnecessary in modern society."

In 2014, Japan also faced a setback in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Australia, which argued that "the IWC was established to protect whales." The ICJ ruled in favor of Australia, ordering the cessation of research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean. Despite Japan's efforts to provide scientific evidence supporting whaling, including population data, its advocacy did not yield results. Ultimately, that decision led to Japan's withdrawal from the IWC.

The Kangei Maru possesses the capacity to capture large whales in distant waters like the Antarctic Ocean. However, given these significant challenges, it will not be operating outside of Japan's EEZ anytime soon.

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Expressions of Concern

Whale meat was a leading source of protein that helped alleviate food shortages after the war. It reached peak domestic consumption of around 230,000 tn in 1962. However, that era was followed by one dominated by research whaling, and consumption dwindled to just a few thousand tons. Moreover, even after the resumption of commercial whaling, figures have remained stagnant at around 2,000 tn, only one-tenth of peak consumption.

Reaction among those who remember the earlier years expressed some hope. One of those is Yoshio Imagawa, the 81-year-old owner of Murasaki, a whale cuisine restaurant in Nishi-ku, Osaka. About the commencement of operations by the Kangei Maru, he stated, "I've heard that there have been advancements in freezing, refrigeration, and navigation technologies." Yet, he also voiced concerns, adding, "Even if we have supply, business will be difficult if there is no demand."

Individuals in their 50s or older, often referred to as the "whale generation," have a developed taste for whale meat. However, Imagawa points out that the younger generation doesn't seem to find it as appealing. He expresses concern, noting, "At this rate, the culinary tradition of whale meat may vanish."

Yet, Imagawa isn't merely observing. He's actively targeting the growing inbound market of foreign visitors to Japan to showcase the allure of whale meat. Through initiatives like organizing events with foreign influencers, he aims to reshape the perception of overseas audiences, many of whom associate whale consumption with anti-whaling sentiments.

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(Read the report in Japanese.)

Author: Hajime Ikarashi, Yusuke Kizu, The Sankei Shimbun