Japan's few remaining whalers stick to their harpoons

Whale meat, raw and grilled, is still eaten with relish in a few small restaurants tucked away in smoke-laden back alleys of Tokyo's Shibuya district. In the older parts of town, housewives can still find a few shops selling the traditional delicacy.

A middle-aged Japanese journalist recalls: "When I was a boy we ate a lot of whale meat at school. It was just after the war when you couldn't get beef or pork."

But that is a fading memory.

Japan now has a single whaling fleet limited to a strict quota of tiny minke whales in the Antarctic. Among whales, the minke is a veritable sprat -- the sort any self-respecting fisherman would toss back into the sea in disgust.

But that is all there is. And later this month an attempt will be made to take even that away from the Japanese.

Meeting in the English south coast town of Brighton July 20-25, the 26-nation International Whaling Commission (IWC) will hear repeated demands for a global ban on all commercial whaling.

Japan, therefore, is currently engaged in preparing a last-ditch defense of the remnants of its once-proud whaling industry.

In fact, the Japan Whaling Association is fairly confident it can muster the necessary votes against the prohibition of all killing, which would require the support from three- quarters of the IWC membership.

But there is growing anger at the way the commission is being dominated by non-whaling countries which would be unaffected by the blobal ban they seek. Japan clings to a 1946 IWC regulating convention designed to prevent overexploitation of diminishing herds at a time when countries like the United States and Britain maintained large fleets (both have adopted an antiwhaling position).

The Japan Whaling Association has issued a statement demanding that IWC members "honor the essential purpose of the convention designed to preserve whale stocks and promote their effective utilization, and rationally operate the IWC on its basic spirit."

The association also regretted that some countries seem to be retaining their IWC membership "merely to cast antiwhaling votes." The Japanese are particularly incensed by what appears to be a deliberate attempt to "pack" the IWC with nonwhaling countries in a bid to achieve the three-quarters majority for the total ban on killing.

They cite the recent admission of China, India, and the former British Caribbean island of St. Lucia as an example.

Only nine IWC members still actively hunt whales. But Japan and the Soviet Union together account for 75 percent of the world's annual catch.

Their activities have been eroded in recent years by strict catch quotas. A US proposal to ban commercial whaling submitted to last year's IWC conference in Brighton gained 13 votes, but was opposed by nine countries. There were two abstentions. Yet one of the nine opponents, Canada, has since withdrawn from the organization.

The Japanese began mother ship operations in the late 1930s, and resumed after a wartime break, with large fleets sent annually to the Antarctic to hunt alongside whalers primarily from Norway, Britain, the Soviet Union, and South Africa.

At one time, there were 10 large fleets maintained by different companies operating in the freezing southern climes, as well as in the northern Pacific. The activity peaked in the early 1960s when about 20,000 whales were being caught annually.

But with the IWC enforcing regular reductions only one fleet remains, consisting of a mother (factory) ship and four catcher boats.

Last year's IWC quota allowed Japan to take a maximum of 3,120 minke whales in the Antarctic during the season lasting from last October until March this year. The minke is only about 25 to 30 feet long, compared to the 90-foot blue whales.

The Russians were allotted the same catch, with Brazil the next largest (832 ).

Only three fisheries companies remain in the whaling business, and they have banded together in a joint operation known as the Nihon Kyodo Hogei.

Shigeru Hasui, its managing director, believes it is grossly unfair for "countries who have stopped whaling to preach to another that still needs whales , to follow suit."

Japan is not insensitive to worldwide criticism of its activities. But, he feels the world doesn't understand the Japanese need.

The Japanese traditionally have caught whales for their meat as much as to extract their oil, as other countries did or still do.

Until about a century ago, religious prohibitions against the meat of four-legged animals meant that the people relied heavily on the sea for their protein needs.

Despite postwar advances made in meat consumption it is still insignificant compared to American levels. At least 50 percent of the Japanese protein intake still comes from fish, shellfish and seaweed.

Very little of it, however, is provided by whales. Many of Japan's young hamburger- eaters, in fact, would not be able to identify a slice of whale meat from the taste.

The meat from the mammals caught by Japan currently amounts to 15,000 tons, supplemented by another 25,000 tons imported from other IWC members. (Conservationists, however, claim Japan is also importing significant quantities of whalemeat from "pirate ship" operations.)

Apart from a limited restaurant and shop trade, much of the meat goes into fishmeal products.

Annual production by the Japanese whaling industry in cash terms is now little over $50 million, while it provides a living for about 50,000 people (compared to 1 million just two decades ago).

So, the disappearance of whaling operations wouldn't have much economic impact.

Nihon Kyodo Hogei, however, insists that whales are still important to Japan as a food source. In addition, there is concern that if the IWC did manage to impose a total ban, it would be very difficult to reverse in the future because the catching techniques would have been virtually lost.

"Contrary to the claims by some people, minke whale herds in the Antarctic are increasing and are in no danger of disappearing," a spokesman said.

Japanese whalers, he insisted, are not really the "bad guys" they have been made out to be by international conservation groups like Greenpeace and the Friends of the Earth.

Whales are honored and admired, particularly in southern Japan. And for the past few years, the whaling companies have held an annual memorial service in may for the repose of whale souls.

Buddhist priests in colorful robes chant prayers to express appreciation to the mammals for sacrificing their lives as part of Japan's food resources.

The Japanese are not content to stay on the defensive at the forthcoming IWC conference. They plan to submit a resolution calling on member states to "restrict the obstructive activities" of private antiwhaling organizations.

A spokesman for the Japan Whaling Association cited the ramming of a Spanish whaler by a Greenpeace boat, and the boarding of a Japanese catching ship earlier this year by an American woman who tied herself to the harpoon gun.

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