It is the darkest secret of Japan’s whaling industry. In the 1930s, when Japan invaded Korea, Manchuria, and later the rest of China, Japan’s pelagic whaling industry was owned by the Japanese Imperial Army. Six huge whaling fleets ruthlessly plundered the world’s whales for the sole purpose of raising funds to finance the invasions.
Japan’s occupation force in Manchuria, the Kwantung Army, exploited the vast natural resources of the northern China region through the Manchurian Heavy Industries Corporation, which was set up by the army in 1931 after the invasion of Manchuria. Korea became a virtual colony of Japan.
“All of the pelagic fleets sent to the Antarctic were owned and operated by Nippon Suisan Kabushiki Kaisha Company, the main shareholder of which was the Manchurian Heavy Industries Corporation,” according to Prof. George Small in his history of the modern whaling industry, The Blue Whale. “This corporation was the principal economic and industrial arm of the Japanese army in Manchuria. The objective of the Nippon Suisan Company, as stated in the 1941 Mainichi Yearbook, was the acquisition of foreign currency and food supplies for the Japanese armed forces.”
Tens of thousands of blue, fin, sei, humpback, and right whales were slaughtered by the Japanese fleets in Antarctic waters and the Pacific for their edible oil, which was sold in Europe (largely to Unilever, which had developed the process of creating margarine through hydrogenation of whale oil) for hard currency. The funds were used to buy British and German arms, machine tools, and other war materiel for the expansion of the Japanese empire.
Nippon Suisan purchased Japan’s first factory ship from Norway in 1934 at a time when modern fleets from a dozen nations were invading the whale-rich waters of the Southern Ocean. By 1940, Japan’s six fleets dominated the global whaling industry. Hundreds of millions of dollars in profits poured into its coffers—and into the Japanese war machine. In 1937, when Japan began to ally itself with Nazi Germany, most of Japan’s whale oil production was being sold to the German government, according to The History of Modern Whaling, produced by the Norwegian Whaling Association.
After just three years in business, Japan accounted for more than eleven percent of pelagic whaling. “Foreign whalers were seized with panic at Japan’s rapid progress: that the whale oil should have ended up in Germany was part and parcel of the extensive trade connections between the two countries, ushering in the military-political alliance of the Tokyo-Berlin Axis,” commented the Norwegian history.
In 1940, after war had broken out in Europe and shipping to Germany was too dangerous, thousands of tons of whale oil were stockpiled in Manchuria; efforts were made to ship some of it by rail to Germany through the Soviet Union. During the 1940-1941 Antarctic whaling season, Japan’s six fleets deployed 51 catcher boats. They produced 622,413 barrels of whale oil. “In that season, Japan actually accounted for 59 percent of the pelagic Antarctic production.”
Taking advantage of an expired ban on hunting humpback whales, the Japanese Antarctic fleets in 1941 harpooned 2,394 of the endangered species—the same stock that Japan has proposed to target in its “research” whaling scheme.
Under orders from the Kwantung Army, Nippon Suisan openly defied attempts to regulate the whaling industry in the 1930s. “During those years several international agreements, designed to prevent overexploitation of stocks of whales, were reached under the aegis of the League of Nations,” Prof. Small wrote. “The agreements included standard prohibitions such as the killing of the nearly extinct Right whales, suckling calves of all species, and females accompanied by a calf. Japan refused to sign or abide by any of the agreements even when for her benefit the North Pacific, her oldest whaling area, was specifically excluded. The reason for the refusal to adopt even rudimentary conservation practices was the urgent demand placed on the Japanese economy by the country’s war in Manchuria and China.”
Japan’s Kwantung Army plundered not just the whales. Gold, artworks and other valuables were looted from Manchuria and Korea, and resources such as iron, coal and timber were stripped for shipment to Japan. The most ardent Japanese imperialists seized control of Manchuria’s and Koreas’ riches to finance the conquest of Asia.
“Real power in Manchuria was in the hands of the Kwantung Army and its underworld allies, overseen by General Tojo Hideki, head of the secret police,” reported Sterling Seagrave in his remarkable history of Japan’s royal family, The Yamato Dynasty. “Its economy was managed top to bottom by the newly formed Nissan zaibatsu. The Kwantung Army became financially independent of Tokyo, able to act without budgetary restraint, peer review or government interference. Tojo became its chief of staff, on his way to becoming prime minister of Japan.”
“Such extraordinary success stimulated the Kwantung Army’s appetite to seize more territory. China was certainly more tempting than Siberia,” Seagrave explained. On 7 July 1937, the Kwantung Army set off a phony incident at the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peking. “An unidentified man shot at Japanese soldiers, allowing them to open fire on the Chinese defenders. The incident quickly escalated to full invasion and a China War that bogged down nearly a million Japanese troops for eight years.”
The Japanese Imperial Army pillaged and plundered as it moved through China, with the December 1937 Rape of Nanking, the capital of the Chinese Nationalist government, reflecting the army’s Three Alls policy: “Burn All, Kill All, Seize All.” More than 250,000 noncombatants were brutally murdered in Nanking; much of the undefended city was torched.
General Tojo, the power behind the Imperial Army, ordered the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was hanged as a war criminal in 1948.
The New York Times cites Japan’s “atrocity amnesia” in a story headlined “Japan Rewrites Its Manchuria Story” in 2005. “Today, historians and novelists in Japan who want to rebuild pride in their history are reviving fantasies that the conquest was a just and noble mission to modernize Manchuria. For China, this retelling of history by its centuries-old rival has stirred a powerful resurgence of memories of atrocities and subjugation.”
For 75 years, Japan has attempted to cover up its record of rapacious whaling. As George Santayana noted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”