Whaling and Japan

Back to Contents of Issue: June 2003

Japan persists in its quest for whalers' rights, despite fierce opposition and even demonization by foreign media. Is Japan being treated fairly? This summer's International Whaling Commission meeting in Berlin promises to heat up the great whaling debate.

by Debbi Gardiner

IN MID-MARCH, ON the Polynesian island Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific, Japanese aid officials from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) found themselves in a stew. According to local reports, delegates from the inter-governmental organization offered to help Tonga rebuild a hospital in the island of Nuku'alofa. Theoretically, there should be nothing wrong with the gesture. But what rankles officials is the condition of the loan: In exchange, Japan wants the island Kingdom to support its bid (along with Norway's and other whaling nations') to overturn the IWC's moratorium on commercial whaling.

Nobody mentioned in the local articles could confirm allegations of Japanese vote buying. But because of similar previous allegations and the knowledge that Japan wants the ban lifted, the mere mention of the incident makes environmental groups and journalists seethe. NGOs like Greenpeace say that despite the 1986 moratorium, Japan is illegally killing hundreds of the endangered mammals each year. Natalie Brandon, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace in the US, says: "There are still several threats to whales, including ship collisions and toxic chemicals in the ocean. Commercial whaling is just one that shouldn't be there."

Environmentalists are annoyed
that the Japanese are daring
to try whaling again

The Tonga incident has added salt to the open wound of the more than 30 year-old whaling debate. With this month's annual IWC meeting in Berlin, the finger-pointing and mud-slinging between NGOs, whalers and anti-whalers is intensifying. Japan and other whaling communities in Norway, Iceland and the US state of Alaska would like to resume sustainable whaling this year, citing cultural, nutritional and economic factors. To achieve that goal, they need three-quarters of IWC members to vote for change. At last year's IWC meeting in Shimonsoseki, Japan's bid to resume commercial whaling was rejected by 25 votes to 16. While resumption is blocked by countries such as New Zealand, Australia, the US, UK, France and Germany, environmentalists are annoyed that the Japanese are daring to try again.

The environmental debate
The whaling debate is extremely emotional. Spokespeople for the Japan camp interviewed by J@pan Inc all claim to have been harassed by environmental groups for their views. One scientist says he has received death threats. For Japan's part, efforts to remove the ban invite a tirade of criticism and rage. And yet the nation clearly wants the right to whale again.

Mike Donohue is the senior international relationship Officer for the Department of Conservation in New Zealand and its principal spokesman on the whaling issue. Donohue says the major problem environmentalists have with Japan and other whaling countries is a concern that the world's whale stock is depleting. Commercial whaling, he says, is from a time that has already passed. The New Zealand government does support indigenous whaling -- people who have a nutritional and cultural reliance on whaling, says Donohue. "But Japan is into commercial, not nutritional, whaling."

Also riling the environmentalists is the belief that by exploiting the guise of "scientific" whaling, Japan is selling whale meat on the market for profit. Using the scientific clause of the IWC, Donohue says, Japan has killed more than 6,000 minke whales in the Antarctic. "And yet everything Japan purports to be demonstrating or researching they could find out through non-lethal means," he says.

While whaling communities in Norway, Iceland and Alaska claim to need or at least strongly desire whale meat in their diet, environmentalists say Japan overrates the demand. A survey by the Asahi Shimbun showed that only 47 percent of Japanese support whaling. Only 6 percent of those wanting to resume whaling gave eating whale meat as their reason.

Greenpeace and other NGOs
argue that whalers want to whale
for simple profit

The whaling argument
Experts and many Japanese and researchers outside of Japan question whether whale populations are depleted at all. Milton Freeman is a whaling expert at the University of Alberta in Canada. He has attended several IWC meetings, including one in Japan where he saw how local communities were affected by the ban. Freeman says there are three times as many minke whales as there were 30 years ago, and humpbacks are increasing by 17 percent a year.

Greenpeace and other NGOs argue that whalers want to whale for simple profit. The Cetacean Research Institute, a government group which markets whale meat in Japan, says raw whale meat sells for up to $100 per pound in Tokyo supermarkets and whale meat sales are estimated at $36 million a year. Even so, experts now say that since whale oil is no longer used, the real money-making days of whaling are over.

Some communities are doing fine despite the moratorium. In Wakayama prefecture, Taiji, which has been at the center of Japanese whaling since the 1600s, has hardly suffered. Thanks to tourist interest, the town has accumulated enough funds to give welfare services to the townfolk after the ban on minke whaling was administered.

But a book by researchers at the Cetacean Research Institute explains that communities located in rocky areas where agriculture cannot be developed have experienced severe disruption.

The hardest hit by the moratorium is the whaling community in Ayukawa, in Oshika Peninsula, a coastal region on the Pacific in far northeastern Honshu. Shigeko Masaki is an advisor to the Japanese Whaling Commission and the author of Whaling and the Japanese. Masaki says that since the ban was enforced, Ayukawa has seen massive emigration of its workforce to other areas. There's a 75 percent increase in people over 65 years old, and a 60 percent decrease in men aged 20 to 50. With few young people staying at home, the local high school was forced to close.

Town planners are trying to help. Some offer former whaling communities alternatives such as nuclear power plants and factories, even if these options are ultimately damaging to the environment. When Tokyo planners trekked 60 miles southwest of the city to the small town of Wada on the Izu Peninsula, they suggested a golf course as a brilliant way to bring in tourists. While Wada needed the money, it turned the plan down out of fear that the fertilizer from the greens would run into the sea and ruin things they rely on, such as seaweed and shellfish.

Culture bashing?
That little of this information makes its way into the Western media is a concern for the Japanese. What is really going on, they say, is a severe case of culture bashing by non-whaling delegates at the IWC targeting Japanese whalers.

"The Japanese seem to take the blame for all the whaling in the world," says Kathy Happynook, secretary for the Canada-based World Council of Whalers (WCW), an international NGO which advocates whalers' rights and the perpetuation of whaling. "Conspiracy theories seem to be the fuel the antis run on. Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Canada take twice as many whales as Japan. Yet the Japanese are seen as taking more than everyone." While the IWC has hosted commissions studying the cultural impact the ban has had on Japan, experts say the general understanding of Japan's side of the debate remains minimal. Freeman cites the 1997 IWC meeting in Ayukawa as a good example. At the end of the luncheon, a British anthropologist suggested delegates visit the local shrine devoted to whaling and its whalers. Nobody went. "This was a cultural icon and a symbol of the community's long devotion to whaling," Freeman says. "But the delegates weren't interested."

"The Japanese seem to take
the blame for all the whaling
in the world"

Some say environmental NGOs are keen to cast Japan in the worst possible light because media coverage is guaranteed (thereby aiding their fundraising efforts). Macnow notes that while it is true Japan might make $36 million a year from whale meat, that's nothing compared with the $135 million a year US Greenpeace earns from their anti-whaling campaign alone. "These anti-whaling campaigns are probably the most profitable of all the animal funds," he says.

Martin Cawthorn is a scientist, writer and member of the IWC scientific committee in Plimmerton, a seaside village just outside New Zealand's capital city. While some New Zealanders argue that the Japanese can do their scientific research from genetic sampling, he says, they "would change or modify their opinion" if they had any idea how difficult it is to gather such information in the Antarctic region.

And while Japan was accused again last month of buying votes, advisors for the Japan Whale Commission firmly believe Greenpeace buys its share of support on the IWC as well.

"The reason anti-whaling people have more than the majority is because of their recruiting of all these supporters," Macnow says from New York. "Greenpeace will say, 'Join up, and we will fund you or provide you with nice vacations and you can travel all over the world to these meetings.'" Brandon, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace US, strenuously denies these claims.

Many articles written on whaling in major Western magazines seem to have an anti-Japanese bias. Do an Internet search for "Japan" and "whaling" on the Google search engine and the first 10 links that come up are NGO-hosted attacks on Japan. Glenn Hemma Inwood, a New Zealand spokesman for the Japan Whaling Commission, says that in the last 10 years there has been no opposition message to counter those NGOs. "NGOs have a hold on the media, and they have manipulated various governments over the years into believing that the majority of New Zealanders oppose whaling because it is somehow morally wrong." The appeal to sentiment through imagery and narrative makes such arguments effective.

When Sean Kerins, a New Zealand land council worker in Darwin, posted a whale meat recipe on the WCW's Web site, the Green Party, an environmental government group, demanded the recipe be removed because it "did not look good" for New Zealand. The incident made headlines. The recipes (for pilot whale and ginger, minke sashimi and whale curry luksa) remain on the site.

The pros and cons
Sentiment against whaling countries like Japan is relentless, and those wanting an end to the ban aren't hopeful it will be lifted after this month's meeting. But attempts to enlighten the public about the whalers' side of the debate are surprisingly fruitful, experts say. For instance, this March, Ray Gambell, former secretary of the IWC, toured New Zealand and Australian campuses giving talks from his paper entitled: "Whaling: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow." Inwood, Japan's Whaling Commission spokesman in Wellington, organized the tour and says the talks (which did not include Greenpeace delegates) were packed. "People felt enlightened," he says, adding that his talk in Sydney to biology students was especially successful. "It went 45 minutes overtime." Inwood believes his job is to bring the debate back to the center and away from the extreme positions, and he thinks the Gambell talks are a good start. "It's been this way since the mid-70s: Those who want to go whaling under a regulated and monitored regime versus those who want to prevent whaling at all costs. The gap between them is just too wide." @

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