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Japan's taste for whale meat is threatening to derail a new US trade deal

The culinary dispute comes just a week before the White House plans to host the Japanese PM

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The Beaked Whale, seen here being slaughtered in Chiba, is one of many species considered a delicacy by the Japanese government.
The Beaked Whale, seen here being slaughtered in Chiba, is one of many species considered a delicacy by the Japanese government.
Photo: Koichi Kamoshida (Getty Images)

The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF)—a sprawling trade agreement between the US and a dozen other countries—was put in jeopardy after Japanese officials told the US that a provision containing anti-whaling language was a deal-breaker.

While the Financial Times reports that the US plans to remove the language because of Japan’s opposition, the pushback comes just weeks before the leaders of South Korea and Japan—both major players in the trade deal—are due to visit the White House, setting up a potentially awkward situation for President Joe Biden.


Japan is one of only three nations that still allow whaling, with Iceland announcing that it will end the practice by 2024. In 2021, it set a maximum quota of 383 whales for capture and slaughter.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC), of which Japan was a longtime member, established an international whaling ban in 1986. However, despite its membership, for decades Japan utilized an international legal loophole by killing whales for scientific purposes, before selling the meat commercially.


Then, in 2018, after spurning pressure from conservationists, the Japanese government announced it was leaving the IWC, signaling its intention to further develop its whaling industry.

What is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework?

The landmark trade deal, first announced by the White House in Tokyo in May 2022, is a deal with more than a dozen countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. Biden has hailed the deal as a way to lower costs for consumers and tackle global inflation.

“IPEF will strengthen our ties in this critical region to define the coming decades for technological innovation and the global economy,” the White House wrote in an official statement.

There are 13 countries in the IPEF: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam. Put together, they represent 40% of the world’s GDP.


The deal demonstrates the US’s desire to forge stronger relations with East Asian countries, amid escalating economic tensions with China. Specifically, the trade deal defines its objectives as standardizing labor rights, prioritizing clean energy, and shoring up global supply chains.

Few Japanese actually eat whale, so why is whaling such an important issue for politicians?

Japanese whale consumption likely peaked in the decade after World War II, when American occupiers encouraged the recently-defeated archipelago to eat more whale as a cheap and plentiful source of protein. For the first decade after the war, whale meat made up as much as half of all protein in the average Japanese diet. Now, that number is far smaller, with the average Japanese person eating about 40 grams a year, or less than a single serving.


And yet, the government has doggedly supported the whaling community, through extreme subsidies and aggressive legal protection, like this week’s threat to pull out of a major trade deal. The consensus on the reasoning behind this stance seems to be upholding Japanese tradition, after decades of occupation in the twentieth century.

“In Japan, the whale-eating issue is a symbol of respect for different cultures. And many people in Japan think it’s not right for people from outside to impose food culture on other places,” Joji Morishita, the head negotiator for Japan’s exit from the International Whaling Commission in 2018, said in an interview with The World.


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