A recent issue of Diplomatic History published an article by Masaru Nishikawa, "The Origin of the U.S.–Japan Dispute over the Whaling Moratorium". The article begins (footnotes omitted):
On December 26, 2018, the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced it would end its participation in the International Whaling Commission (IWC). While Japanese national parliamentarians who belonged to the pro-whaling caucus welcomed the decision to resume commercial whaling, the decision faced condemnation. For example, the New York Times noted that Japanese authorities ought to reconsider the decision as “[w]ithdrawing from the whaling commission for short-term political gain is a dangerous and foolish move, especially for an advanced country like Japan that has generally supported multilateral efforts on the environment.” Kumao Kaneko, a retired Japanese diplomat who had dealt with the whaling issue as a delegate to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in 1972, regarded the decision with displeasure: “Japan has not learned anything from the shock it experienced at the UNCHE, which I still cannot forget.”
The conference... marked a crucial dividing point in the history of whaling. At the UNCHE, Recommendation 86 was proposed by the secretariat. Recommendation 86 called for all involved governments to strengthen the IWC, to increase international research efforts on whales, and an international agreement under the auspices of the IWC for a 10-year moratorium on commercial whaling. The United States, much to the consternation of Japan, would play a key role in moving Recommendation 86 forward.
Before 1970, whaling moratoria were not a matter of legal or legislative concern for the U.S. government. However, the Nixon administration “initiated and strongly supported” Recommendation 86 against vigorous opposition by whaling nations in 1972. Since then, the United States pursued a whaling moratorium, which aimed to encourage the remaining whaling nations—Norway, Iceland, the Soviet Union, and Japan—to outlaw commercial whaling.
Several policy scholars have argued that nascent environmental NGOs made the campaign against whaling a powerful symbol of modern environmentalism. Those scholars have further argued that the rise of an environmentalist consciousness among the American electorate in general, and the lobbying efforts of environmental NGOs in particular, produced the Nixon administration’s sudden strong support for the 1972 anti-whaling agenda. As the scholar Kurkpatrick Dorsey wrote, “Save the Whales!” became the rallying cry for environmentalists around the world. According to environmentalist rhetoric, whales were essentially humans, only perhaps slightly better. The Nixon administration, these environmental policy scholars argue, came to co-opt this powerful message.
Japanese journalists and pundits see things quite differently. They argue that the Nixon administration changed its policy for a very different reason: they point to a “conspiracy.” For instance, in a book titled (in translation) Whaling and Conspiracy, Yoshito Umezaki insists that Nixon’s dramatic turn toward the moratorium was in fact merely an effort to misdirect attention away from the United States’ own environmental sins—in particular its massive use of defoliants in Vietnam. Umezaki claims that the moratorium was a kind of cover-up that would serve to both keep the international community from pointing a finger at the United States, and its voters from recognizing Nixon’s environmental faults, thus helping Nixon to gain re-election in 1972. Umezaki concludes that Japan was used as a “scapegoat” by the Nixon administration. Japanese government officials, such as Kazuo Shima, an IWC commissioner from Japan, and others also support the conspiracy theory argument. Shima described the U.S. environmental groups as an “ecological cult” and the UNCHE as a well-planned form of “international bullying” of Japan. Shima believed that the United States was motivated by enmity and wariness against Japan when it proposed a moratorium. More directly, Shima argues that the moratorium led by the United States was simply another aspect of its campaign to attack Japan’s growing economic power. However, this author regards the conspiracy theory as basically untenable, as it contains many insufficiently substantiated claims.
Credit: Jeremy Sutton Hibbert