whalers are at sea again, harvesting meat that few will eat By April,
another 900 whales will have died for little profit. So what drives the
Japanese to go on defying world opinion?
David McNeill in Tokyo
The 'Yushin Maru'
captures a whale in the Southern Ocean
an annual ritual as seemingly unstoppable as the tides, Japan's whaling
fleet is again ploughing the Southern Ocean hunting and killing whales.
criticised, harried by eco-warriors on Sea Shepherd's ships and tracked
by the world's media, the fleet may be slowed but it won't be stopped.
On its return to port in April, the refrigerated holds are likely to be
stuffed with the meat from 850 minkes and 50 fin whales. Next year, 50
endangered humpbacks could be added to the list. Japan has so far been
largely inoculated from debate on the annual cull, but that may be about
to change. Next month sees the first public hearing in the trial of Greenpeace
activists Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, accused of trespass and theft
in their attempt to expose the embezzlement of whale meat by crew members
on board the fleet, who sold it for personal gain. Activists believe the
so-called Tokyo Two case could put the entire whaling programme in Japan
stubbornness on whaling is one of the mysteries of world diplomacy. Why
does the country turn angry and unyielding when it comes to whaling? Why
does it continue to snub one of the environmental movement's few lasting
triumphs: the 1986 moratorium on commercial hunts? Oddly, very little
is known about the dynamics of whaling in Japan, probably because foreign
media do such an awful job of reporting it. Without an explanation, Japan's
taste for "whale blood" (as The Independent once put it) seems
irrational and barbaric, fuelling racist stereotypes that the Japanese
do not deserve.
it is not because Japan's citizens love whale meat. A 2006 Greenpeace
survey concluded that 95 per cent of Japanese had "never or very
rarely eaten" it. Outside of a handful of local ports, fresh whale
is as rare as, say, veal, in the UK. Pro-whalers respond that it is so
only because foreign pressure has made the meat so expensive to harvest.
But even after the 1986 international whaling moratorium and the start
of Japan's "scientific" whaling, 70 tons of whale meat was left
unsold from a catch of 1,873 tons after the fleet returned to port in
spring 2001 - a fraction of the 230,000 metric tons consumed in the peak
whaling year of 1962. Although some middle-aged citizens remain fond of
it, most youngsters would rather eat almost anything else. The mass consumption
of whale meat, and the industry that supports it, was essentially forced
on Japan by a lack of alternative resources half a century ago.
boring as it sounds, Tokyo's relentless drive to reverse the whaling ban
is essentially political, and understanding why means casting our minds
back to how the ban came into being. The Japanese Fisheries Agency (JFA),
which controls the nation's whaling policy, feels that it was bamboozled
and blackmailed into abandoning commercial hunts by the US-led West.
date, in particular, is for ever burned into the JFA's collective consciousness.
On 30 June 1979, anti-whaling protester Richard Jones, who later became
an Australian senator, dumped red paint over Japanese delegates at the
International Whaling Commission's (IWC) conference in London. Caught
up in the growing environmental movement, the bureaucrats professed no
idea why they were being blamed for the destruction of whale stocks, when
historically the US and Europe had hunted far more whales.
the 1980s, as a bitter trade war raged between Japan and the West, Washington
came under pressure to limit access to its coastal waters, which yielded
nearly a million tonnes of fish per year to Japanese boats. In a deal
struck in the middle of the decade, Japan agreed to withdraw its objections
to the IWC whaling moratorium in return for a US pledge to keep this access
open. But months after Japan formally agreed to the ban in July 1986,
its US fishing quota was halved. Two years later, it had fallen to zero
and an angry JFA responded by kick-starting the now infamous practice
of "scientific whaling".
JFA knows it has zero chance of winning a two-thirds majority to overturn
the IWC ban. It also knows there is no chance of reviving the commercial
industry, which is kept alive on government life-support. What the agency
can do is fight for the symbolic right to whale sustainably, and occasionally
skewer Western hypocrisy, which it does quite well. Why do American hunters
kill five million "beautiful, Bambi-eyed deer" annually, wondered
Japan's top whaling diplomat Joji Morishita at a January press conference.
"I've no problem with that, as long as it is sustainable." For
some Japanese politicians, the appeal of the pro-whaling campaign is quite
clear: Japan can let off steam in the foreign political arena.
what is basically a case of wounded national pride should be straightforward,
but after two decades the pro- and anti-whaling camps are deeply dug in
and have little reason to compromise. Western politicians lose nothing
domestically by not budging an inch on Japanese whaling. Their Tokyo counterparts
can condemn Western "cultural imperialism" and bask in the reputation
as defenders of Japan's right to the "sea commons".
what to do? One solution has been around for at least two decades: allow
Japan the right to hunt more whales around its own exclusive fishing waters
in exchange for scaling down or pulling out of the high seas. This essentially
is the so-called "compromise package" that has been discussed
for the past two years behind the scenes at the IWC. The details are forbidding.
How many whales would Japan catch? How would the hunts be monitored? Would
such a deal not be simply rewarding Japan for a decade of brinkmanship,
during which it gradually scaled up its Antarctic hunts to the current
1,000 whales a year?
one reason Norway, which hunts almost as many whales as Japan, gets far
less attention, is because it doesn't send its trawlers outside its own
waters. Some Japanese diplomats have taken note, and are growing tired
of the battering Japan takes every time its fleet leaves port. If Tokyo
can be persuaded to abandon its Southern Ocean cull, limit or stop expeditions
to the North Pacific and submit to monitoring of its coastal catch, shouldn't
this initiative be given a chance?
Sato Tetsu, professor of ecology and environmental sciences at Nagano
University, says. "It is not really a problem of reviving the whaling
industry now; it is a problem of national pride, or at least government
and bureaucratic pride. They basically need a symbolic victory."