The number of whale watchers around Japan has more than doubled between 1998 and 2015, the latest year for which national data is available. To have an idea, just one company in Okinawa had 18,000 customers between January and March this year. Popular spots are located from the southern Okinawa islands up to Rausu, a fishing village on the island of Hokkaido. “Of the tourist boat business, 65 percent is whale watching,” said Ikuyo Wakabayashi, executive director of the Shiretoko Rausu Tourism Association. According to IFAW, Japan’s whale watching industry generated some eight million dollars in 2015, an amount the organization believes has been growing by 20 percent a year.
Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe however, the Japan left the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and returned to commercial whaling on July 1. Japan’s withdrawal from the IWC means that it can take whales from its coastal waters, which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines as extending 13.8 miles from a country’s coastline, without oversight. “Japan has so much to eat now that food is thrown out, so we don’t expect demand for whale will rise that fast,” said Kazuo Yamamura, president of the Japan Whaling Association. A 2012 poll by IFAW showed that 88 percent of Japanese hadn’t bought whale meat the year before, and in 2014, the Japan Times reported that consumption of whale meat amounted to no more than one ounce per person per year.