Why are anti- and pro-whaling coalitions still engaged in morally heated confrontations over whales tracing back to the 1970s? Revisiting the global whaling controversy, this article applies insights from the political sociology of social movements to highlight the importance of the politics of identity embedded in an elite-driven pro-whaling countermovement in Japan. As is well documented, Japan has proven a most difficult context for the emerging “global” anti-whaling norm. Rather than simply reflecting material interests or cultural values, however, this sustained resistance should be approached from a processual and symbolic interactionist perspective as the construction of a pro-whaling moral universe integrated around strong and inflexible claims of collective identity. Empirically, the article analyzes the major discursive master frames constituting this pro-whaling identity. Arguing for the centrality of symbolic-moral framing, it further suggests three competing normative frameworks for making sense of the controversy in the wider context of global environmental norms-in-the-making.

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Author notes

The author would like to acknowledge the generous contribution of the Japanese pro- and anti-whaling protagonists, who enabled this research by participating in interviews. He also thanks Hasegawa Koichi and Ishii Atsushi for vital support during his stay in Sendai, Japan, and three anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of this article.