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Known for Its Whaling History, Taiji Town Unveils New International Cetacean Center

The new center will house the Institute of Cetacean Research and serve as a major international hub for whaling research, scientific and cultural information.



The International Cetacean Center, housing the Taiji Office of the Institute of Cetacean Research, is located in Taiji Town, Wakayama Prefecture. (©Sankei by Kazutoshi Koizumi)

Taiji Town in Wakayama Prefecture is regarded as the birthplace of Japan's traditional whaling dating back to the 1600s. It is now home to the new International Cetacean Center, a pioneering research hub. 

In April, the Taiji office of the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) based in Tokyo was also inaugurated within the center. This facility will serve as a focal point for studies and research dedicated to the sustainable management of cetacean resources. 

The town's vision is to transform into an academic research town. It hopes to attract domestic and international whale researchers for collaborative studies and research initiatives. In short, Taiji aims to stimulate community revitalization centered around the International Cetacean Center.

A Building Resembling a Whale

A model of a minke whale greets visitors at the entrance. (©Sankei by Kazutoshi Koizumi)

Situated on a hill in the southern part of the town, the International Cetacean Center sits on approximately 23,840 square meters of space. The structure, a steel-framed, two-story design covering roughly 1,880 square meters, boasts an entrance adorned with a minke whale model. It is crafted with authentic whiskers. 

Observers have remarked on the building's pillars, likening them to whale whiskers. Some have also drawn comparisons suggesting the entire structure resembles a whale. Taiji allocated approximately ¥1.8 billion JPY ($11.5 million USD) for its development.

The Center's seminar hall has 90 seats. (©Sankei by Kazutoshi Koizumi)
The Center's library holds 30,000 books as well as other documents. (©Sankei by Kazutoshi Koizumi)

The central hub of the facility houses the Taiji office of the ICR, widely known for its research whaling activities. When the Ayukawa Experimental Station of the institute in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, was damaged during the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Taiji Town accepted responsibility for storing whale skeleton specimens. That collaboration paved the way for the establishment of the current initiative.

The facility is further equipped with offices and research rooms for the Taiji office of the ICR. These can accommodate a total of 11 staff members, including eight researchers. Additionally, it features amenities such as a seminar hall with 90 seats and other meeting rooms. The library, accessible to those with prior reservations, houses approximately 30,000 items, including books related to cetaceans and materials from the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Cetacean Breeding in Taiji Town's Bay

Taiji Town is regarded as the birthplace of traditional whaling in Japan, dating to around 400 years ago. Moreover, the practice of drive-hunting small cetaceans like dolphins continues to this day. The town's way of life has also evolved over time. Nevertheless, its people and communities have lived with whales and dolphins as an integral part of their lives and culture.

Alongside whaling activities, the Taiji Whale Museum was established in 1969 to promote tourism and cetacean education. In 2006, Taiji Town announced plans to also construct an aquatic park in part of Moriura Bay. This area is designated for breeding, conservation, and interactive experiences with whales. It further underscored the town's commitment to becoming an academic research hub specializing in the study of cetaceans.

The International Cetacean Center, which houses the Taiji office of the Institute of Cetacean Research, as seen from its entrance. (©Sankei by Kazutoshi Koizumi)

After nearly two decades of planning, the International Cetacean Center has finally been built. "The facility represents a crucial step toward achieving the town's goals," said Masaki Wada of Taiji Town's General Affairs Division. "We hope to leverage various synergies resulting from having the ICR office in the town."

The town eagerly welcomed the ICR. It was established in 1987, five years after the International Whaling Commission (IWC) implemented a commercial whaling moratorium in 1982 (enacted in 1986).  Since then, the ICR has been actively involved in resource surveys, including conducting whale research in the Antarctic Ocean and other regions. Despite Japan's withdrawal from the IWC in 2019 and the resumption of commercial whaling, the ICR continues its resource surveys.

Contributing to Increased Whale Meat Consumption

With the establishment of the Taiji office, the ICR now operates from two bases, including its headquarters in Tokyo. The Taiji office also conducts a range of activities. Those include DNA analysis for cetacean lineage classification, as well as organ analysis. These help scientists assess health, and research into diet and contamination levels in whales.

Thre is also research laboratory space at the Institute for Cetatean Research. (©Sankei by Kazutoshi Koizumi)

Leveraging its expertise, the ICR further aims to support dolphin drive hunts and other small cetacean hunting practices in Taiji. Meanwhile, whale meat consumption has experienced a significant decline in recent years. However, the institute has been conducting nutritional analyses of whale meat to help bolster its consumption. Additionally, the ICR is exploring using unmanned aerial vehicles developed by the institute to locate whale and dolphin pods more efficiently.

Genta Yasunaga, Research Director of the ICR, expressed gratitude for the well-equipped research facility. He highlighted that researchers from both domestic and international communities have already visited the International Cetacean Center. "Many whale researchers worldwide aspire to visit Taiji," he said. "If the Center becomes their destination, it would be truly remarkable," he added.


(Read the report in Japanese.)

Author: Kazutoshi Koizumi