On June 4, in the lead up to World Oceans Day, more than a hundred Japanese whale enthusiasts, local and international conservation groups, media and interested public crowded into a room in downtown Tokyo for a one-day symposium to mark a special announcement: the formation of the Japan Whale Dolphin Watching Council (JWDC).

The new group aims to promote whale and dolphin watching in remote coastal communities where tourism and fresh ideas for economic development are being welcomed. The JWDC has put together a facebook page, website, and made links with local and national tourism departments. In time, the group hopes to attract travellers from other parts of Asia, North America and Europe.

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Overwhelming Popularity of Whale Watching

Six of the main whale watching communities launched the initiative, and it is hoped others will join. There are at least a dozen active whale watching communities in Japan and more than 200 operators. As of 2008, the last year for which figures are available, an estimated 200,000 people a year, almost all from within Japan, took whale watching trips, spending at least $22 million USD in total expenditure. There is evidence that whale watching has expanded since 2008.

Whale watching in Japan is surprisingly diverse and far flung.  Some 1935 miles (3115 km) separate the northernmost whale watching community on Hokkaido Island where minke and killer whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, and Dall’s porpoises can be seen to the tropical Zamami Island in the Okinawa Prefecture, home of wintering humpback whales.

At the day-long event, each community gave a presentation showing the local marvels of their region. I was honoured to be asked to be the keynote speaker, the only non-Japanese on the podium. I have charted global whale watching since writing The Whale Watcher’s Handbook for Penguin Books in 1984 and researching various whale watching reports over the years. I began coming to Japan in early 1990s, at the invitation of communities across Japan that were trying to start whale watching businesses.

Humane Tourism Admist Controversy

Since whale watching started in the Ogasawara Islands in far southern Japan in 1988, a few outside groups (including Whale and Dolphin Conservation) have lent their expertise and advice to local whale watchers trying to make a go of it, sometimes against tough obstacles. The hard work to create successful businesses, marketing to Japanese domestic tourists, has come from the operators and communities themselves.

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Of course, it is not easy to market whale and dolphin watching in a country where whaling still occurs and where dolphins are hunted in drive fisheries such as at Taiji. For the most part, the operators have stayed away from politics. They are simply trying to show Japanese a way to appreciate whales. Some of the Japanese naturalist guides I have met are among the best in the world. However, in other communities, there are no guides. But mainly the standards are high because customer care in every type of business is a given.

Recently, the International Court of Justice (the UN’s highest court)  ruled that Japan’s Antarctic “scientific” whaling should stop on the grounds that it was research masquerading as commercial whaling. Some thought that this would see the end of all whaling. Japan has agreed to withdraw from whaling in the southern ocean for the 2014-2015 season but have indicated that they will look at the court ruling and make new plans for whaling in the region. Meanwhile coastal whaling continues along parts of the Japanese coast, mainly off the Boso peninsula, east of Tokyo, off the northeast coast of the main island of Honshu and around Hokkaido. Dolphin drive-hunting also continues every year; most are killed but some captured dolphins end up in aquariums both within Japan and sent to other countries. The aquarium sales in effect help fund the slaughter.

Hope for the Future

Still, whale meat consumption has declined dramatically within Japan and it’s fair to say that young people in Tokyo have little or no exposure to whaling and dolphin hunting and do not see its place in modern Japanese society. At the same time, the younger generations have no particular affinity for whales and dolphins and the ocean, so whale watching could perform a valuable role in terms of marine education and conservation.

When it comes to whales and dolphins, Japan is changing, and the JWDC is good news. The change is not like a bullet train, but more like a slow boat to the Orient.

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Image source: Whit Welles/Wikimedia

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