Comprehensive Ocean Governance

Promoting Comprehensive Ocean Management in Japan

The history of laws related to the sea is extremely old, dating back to the ancient Greeks. During the age of the Roman Empire (circa 30 BC to 330 AD), the seas were open to everyone and the principle of “open seas,” under which private ownership or partitioning of the ocean was prohibited, became established. There were efforts to demarcate the seas during the Age of Discovery in the sixteenth century, but in principle the concept of “freedom of the seas,” under which the open seas outside of narrow territorial waters could be freely developed and used by everyone, remained in place.

With scientific and technological development, however, the traditional definitions of territorial waters as extending to three nautical miles*1 and the continental shelf to a depth of 200 meters had become outdated. In addition, unregulated development and use of the “open seas” was creating problems like the pollution of marine environments and depletion of ocean resources.

The concept of management

By the second half of the twentieth century, this situation led to the emergence of a new concept of “managing” the oceans that had previously been “free” for anyone to use or develop. After nearly 50 years of negotiations on the advantages and disadvantages to individual countries and advice from numerous experts, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea took effect in 1994. The convention stipulates that “maritime issues need to be examined in their entirety and managed comprehensively,” and established an international legal framework through which all countries manage the oceans. A political framework for maritime management also took shape with the adoption of principles for sustainable development and the Agenda 21 action plan at the Earth Summit 1992. The creation of this common international framework for maritime development, use, and protection marked the beginning of international actions to pass on the riches of the oceans to future generations.

The island nation of Japan possesses the world’s sixth largest exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, and is a global leader in areas including maritime transport, shipbuilding, fisheries, and science and technology. Nevertheless, Japan has been slow to recognize this major shift in the maritime paradigm to “ocean management,” and has significantly lagged behind other countries in terms of comprehensively addressing maritime issues. Because of this lack of comprehensive maritime policies, Japan had no defined procedures for comprehensive coordination of the development, use, and protection of the oceans. Comprehensive ocean management was also complicated by the fact that maritime policymaking was divided among more than 10 government ministries and agencies. In addition, government policies had the effect of compartmentalizing activities and research by non-government institutions, further impeding comprehensive initiatives.

The Nippon Foundation’s activities

Operating from a perspective that was not constricted by government departmentalization or specialist fields, the Nippon Foundation worked for the enactment of the Basic Act on Ocean Policy to establish a basis for Japan’s ocean management. We established the Ocean Management Study Group in 2000 to promote greater in-depth discussion of Japan’s maritime policies by studying other countries’ maritime policies, consulting with maritime-related institutions inside and outside Japan, and holding research seminars with presentations by researchers, government officials, and members of the media. In late 2001 we carried out a survey on maritime policy with more than 400 researchers, policymakers, government officials, representatives of private-sector institutions, and members of the media. The results of this survey highlighted the fact that a law based on fundamental principles of maritime administration, incorporating and taking precedence over all of the individual laws related to Japan’s continental shelf, exclusive economic zone, territorial waters, and coastal regions, did not exist. In response, we issued “The Oceans and Japan: Proposal for Japan's 21st Century Maritime Policy” in 2001, and in 2005 the Nippon Foundation and the Ocean Policy Research Foundation jointly submitted the “Proposal for a 21st Century Ocean Policy” to the Japanese government, stressing the importance of enacting a basic law to govern maritime policy and of including Japan’s territorial waters in the country’s legal administration. Spurred by these proposals, the government quickly began to work on the Basic Act on Ocean Policy, which was enacted in 2007, and formulated the Basic Plan on Ocean Policy the following year.

Through these activities, the Nippon Foundation has been able to contribute to the establishment of a legal and policy framework for Japan’s management of its oceans. Nevertheless, this is only the first step toward the realization of the comprehensive maritime management called for under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and further specific measures will be required going forward. We will continue to work proactively to pass on the bounty of the earth’s oceans to future generations.


*1.  3 nautical miles is equivalent to approximately 5.6 kilometers; currently Japan’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles (roughly 22.2 kilometers).