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Resolving Whaling Conflicts

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For Resolving

Whaling Conflicts

Involving Japan


Despite the best efforts of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and broader international community, numerous disputes over Japanese and Norwegian whaling remain unresolved.

As an environmental specialist with a Japan and international focus, I would like to recommend steps that might be taken (or revisited) to resolve these disputes, especially with regard to Japan.



Fully utilize deep knowledge of Japanese politics and culture to ensure that discussions proceed as smoothly as possible.

            It is easy for such conflicts to become emotional, or about “face-saving.” Utilize all available knowledge of the current Japanese political situation and political culture to create non-threatening settings where rancor is avoided and trust developed.  Devote sufficient time and care to improvement of communication.  Make every effort to involve those who have authority to rethink positions.  Make full, innovative use of intercultural bridge personnel.  Though some of this has surely been done, it is important to revisit these elements amidst the current impasse.


Take utmost care to ensure that all negotiators and publics see that their cultures and views are appreciated.

            It is vital that the Japanese negotiators and general public see that non-Japanese parties understand the historical importance of whaling to Japan.  Non-Japanese participants may consider expressing such appreciation more clearly, even if they disagree with Japanese positions, and even if such expressions are not reciprocal.  A “perception gap” exists—research shows that many Japanese believe that Westerners do not understand well the historical importance of whaling in their culture.  Thus, there may be a need to consider how to improve the overall framing of disagreements about whaling.  (If this has been done, it has not been reflected well in the international media.)


 Ensure that an accurate, comprehensive history of the conflict is available to participants in talks.

            It is vital that non-Japanese participants understand deeply how and why whaling has become the emotional, controversial topic that it is in 2002.  How did the conflict begin?  How and to what extent has “losing face” become an issue?  To what extent is there now a possibility for a face-saving solution?  

            The politics of whaling run deep.  Fresh expert analysis of stakeholder interests is indicated.  Recent positions and actions of Japanese governmental, quasi-governmental, and nongovernmental organizations (both whaling advocates and opponents) should be analyzed in depth;  fresh background research into behind-the-scenes Japanese political dealings could prove pivotal, providing the contextual information upon which to base creative compromise.


Scrupulously avoid language “gaps.”

This may seem obvious, but the difficulty involved is frequently overlooked.  Thoughts need to be translated at the highest level.  Even in relaxed settings, first-quality interpreters and intercultural bridge specialists must do yeoman work to facilitate candid, useful discussion.  Avoid using English more than Japanese, as happens too often in such settings.  Utilize written statements to allow deep probing of the most difficult issues.  Employ multilingual discussion variants, and other innovative techniques, to encourage the Japanese to express themselves to the fullest extent.


To the greatest possible extent, maintain an atmosphere of impartiality and “new, concerted push toward resolution.”  Utilize first-rate scientists to appraise positions of all sides, and utilize first-rate mediators to facilitate discussions using the methods described above.

            Ensure that participating natural and social scientists are seen by the Japanese as impartial and at the top of their fields.  Research teams should evaluate data on crucial issues--e.g., threats of extinction, current states of whale and fish populations, economic and cultural importance of whaling—in the most even-handed way.  Next, using the techniques described above, areas of disagreement should be discussed candidly and thoroughly. 

            Provided such steps are taken, interpreters, bridge persons, and mediators can engage the Japanese in candid discussion of compromise alternatives, including political constraints.  This could lead to fresh exploration of creative solutions.  The equivalent of “summits” and “shuttle diplomacy,” perhaps with big-name, celebrity mediators (akin to Jimmy Carter), could be employed to develop innovative, win-win initiatives.


The results of such a new round of discussions could be publicized widely, even-handedly, and in a spirit of conflict resolution–after enlisting the cooperation of the international mass media.

Surely the IWC and its member governments have attempted like-minded steps in the past.  However, it appears that this kind of tone has not reached many observers, particularly in Japan.  As the stalemate continues, and disagreements multiply, there is a need to revisit media strategy.  


In closing, let me emphasize a few key points:

Value conflicts and conflicts of interest exist; some stakeholders have financial concerns, while others wish to save face.  To understand how best to work around these kinds of constraints, and smooth the negotiation process, there is a need to understand deeply recent “behind-the-scenes” developments in Japan. 

Even as controversy rages in the media, implementing these kinds of recommendations can cultivate mutual understanding and respect, identify barriers to compromise and how to remove them, and, ultimately, lead to more satisfactory outcomes.

Copyright 2002-2006;  Dr. Steven M. Hoffman and Associates;  All Rights Reserved.