In the US movie Groundhog Day, protagonist Bill Murray finds himself condemned to relive the same day over and over again, until finally managing to break the time loop. 

 For Japan whaling watchers, it has been a familiar feeling. In recent years, the nation's 'research' whaling expedition has conducted an annual, ritualistic battle in the Antarctic against environmentalists led by Sea Shepherd, with seemingly little scope for a breakthrough.

All that apparently changed on 31 March, when after nearly four years of deliberations, an International Court of Justice (ICJ) panel voted 12 votes to four in favour of Australia's argument that Japan's JARPA II research whaling program was illegal, as it failed to constitute scientific research. Has Japanese whaling finally broken the 'groundhog day' cycle?

The answer appears to be in the affirmative, despite claims to the contrary from Sea Shepherd and apparent bravado from the whalers.

According to a Fairfax report, Japan's whalers plan on returning to the Antarctic for a renewed 'research program' in 2015-16, and in compliance with the ICJ decision. Sea Shepherd's Paul Watson said the alleged plan by Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which contradicted Japan's official statements after the decision, showed the nation's 'history of duplicity with regard to whaling'.

Yet the evidence suggests Japan's whalers have been politically harpooned, at least for the time being.

On Monday, news agency AFP-Jiji reported that Tokyo had yet to make a decision on resuming whaling in the Southern Ocean next year, despite the environmentalists' claim. As the Japan Times reported:

The ICR refused Monday to comment on the report, while an official at the (Japanese) Fisheries Agency said "there has been no decision yet" on what to do in the 2015-16 season and beyond.

According to Japan watchers Justin McCurry and David McNeill, Tokyo based correspondents for the Guardian and the Economist respectively, the ICJ ruling has left little way out for the embattled Japanese whalers. Here's what McCurry had to say:

I don't think Japan is going to be ready to go back to the Southern Ocean in the winter of 2015-16, which is what they seem to be suggesting. I think it's a clear case of wishful thinking which you hear quite a lot of in Japan — they set these ridiculously ambitious targets which no one thinks they're going to meet and it's probably just a bit of bravado.

McNeill agreed, saying that despite the Fisheries Agency's wishes, the future appeared bleak for 'research' whaling. 'It's very difficult to see how Japan can restart scientific whaling in the Antarctica after this,' he said, adding: 

Because of this legal ruling by one of the most authoritative courts in the world, everyone now will be on Sea Shepherd's side and that makes it much harder for Japan to engage in scientific whaling.

McNeill cited whaling analyst Atsushi Ishii of Japan's Tohoku University, who has said a genuine research whaling program could involve catching as few as 10 whales, a prohibitively small number for the money-losing expeditions. 

According to AP, the recent Antarctic hunt could cost the cash strapped Japanese Government up to US$50 million, and with an estimated 5000 tonnes of whale meat stockpiled in freezers, the Japanese public appears to have little appetite to eat its way through the losses.

Despite attempts by the Japanese whaling industry to boost consumption, including putting whale meat back in school lunches, demand remains small in a nation renowned for its love of seafood. 

A 2006 survey by the Nippon Research Centre found that 95% of Japanese had never or rarely eaten whale meat. Only a few coastal towns maintain a genuine attachment to the 'cultural' cuisine that saw its heyday in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when protein was in short supply. Ishii said in a previous interview that:

The reported stockpile of whale meat is a record, and there's probably even more stored elsewhere which isn't subject to data collection. If the whaling industry loses the subsidies and loans, it would face bankruptcy as there's no demand.

Rising fuel costs and the added security needed to combat Sea Shepherd has raised the annual cost of the Antarctic expeditions, while the mother ship, the Nisshin Maru, is reportedly in need of a major refit, costing potentially millions of dollars to taxpayers.

While the ICJ decision does not prevent Japan from continuing its 'scientific' program in the North Pacific, the cull there yields fewer whales and is now at risk of legal challenge, McNeill said. Japan's whalers may also seek an increased quota for coastal whaling as a quid pro quo.

Both McNeill and McCurry said the other option of withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission was not viable for Japan either. 'Japan is involved in a dispute with China over the Senkaku islands, and it's always pointing out how China is wrong to attempt to change the status quo in the region and that it must obey international law,' McCurry said:

This dispute is just going to get more complicated as the years pass, and Japan is going to need the support of the international community to take the high legal and moral ground. So it can't say that in one instance and in the next say because it hasn't got its way on whaling it's going to pull out of the IWC.

'It may not have been the ICJ and the environmental campaigns that did for Japanese whaling, but Japan's relations with its neighbours,' McCurry said. Perhaps not coincidentally, Australia and Japan announced a free trade deal just days after the whaling ruling, with both nations committing to a broader relationship across the economic and defence spheres. 

Finally, the international court has helped break the loop on Japan's Groundhog Day for whaling, and not before time.

Photo by Flickr user Dirk Kitchner.