Japan's export titans often get their way with their government. Right now they want senior politicians to end their controversial visits to a Tokyo war memorial that also honors war criminals - the visits are bad for business in China. But they should add this request: Don't overturn a ban on commercial whaling.
Japan has spent heavily to influence poor countries that are members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). It just announced a fresh $410 million aid package to South Pacific nations. Its aim is to reverse a 1986 IWC ban that has allowed many whale species to begin a long, slow recovery. In mid-June, the 66 nations of the regulatory body will gather, and Japan is expected to succeed in winning the votes of many cash-poor IWC members. Overturning the ban requires a 75 percent vote, but Japan may first secure a 51 percent vote to conduct balloting in secret.
The prospect of the IWC allowing the slaughter of whale species not fully recovered has yet to raise much fuss in many antiwhaling nations. But it should, given the importance of whales in the health of oceans.
If the UN General Assembly or the US does not act soon, then a consumer boycott of Japanese products is needed. That will catch the attention of Japanese corporate leaders, who can then pressure politicians leading the pro-whaling campaign.
These politicians regard the ban as Western "culinary imperialism" aimed at Japan's tradition of eating whale meat. But the issue is conservation, not culture, and the Japanese data and arguments that many whale species are fully revived should remain suspect, and certainly not acted on in a secret IWC ballot.
It's not even clear if the Japanese people want to consume whale meat in large quantities. Less than 1 percent now eat the meat that is sold from the more than 1,000 whales Japan catches annually "for scientific research" (allowed under IWC rules). Some of the meat has ended up simply as doggie treats.
Emotions either against or in favor of whaling are usually strong. Many Japanese see hypocrisy in those who argue against the killing of such intelligent animals, but who also eat lamb or pig. Environmentalists see Japan as little concerned about nature's well-being beyond its shores. And the resurgence of nationalism in Japan - something its business chiefs sometimes oppose - may be behind this pro-whaling initiative.
Persuasion through facts and logic about the health of whale stocks are unlikely to prevail at the IWC, given Japan's long determination to overturn the ban for cultural reasons and its monied clout over weak members.
Some antiwhaling groups want the US to withhold support for a permanent Japanese seat on the UN Security Council. But that tactic is meaningless, given China's stance against Japan obtaining a seat.
Barring quick US or UN action, a temporary consumer boycott of Japanese products would carry the most certainty of saving the ban.
Forcing Japan to back down isn't a pleasant prospect. But neither is the risk of some whale species going extinct.
One side has to give, and for Japan, it's the easier give.