THE few restaurants in Japan that still serve raw whale meat have lately offered a discount once a month. Their purpose: to persuade Japanese to continue their support of whaling.
The offer lasts only until May, however, because it is aimed at influencing the International Whaling Commission, which will hold its annual meeting from May 10-14 in Japan for the first time.
The IWC plans to take up a number of proposals that would provide more protection for whales beyond the ban that it set on commercial whaling in 1986.
The most immediate and troublesome issue for Japan is a French proposal to establish a sanctuary for whales below 40 degrees south latitude around Antarctica. Another threat is that the IWC might decide to protect dolphins.
But the IWC could also decide to allow one species, the minke whale, to be harpooned in limited numbers by Japan based on some scientists' view that the species is now more abundant.
"The Japanese will be watching this meeting closely, because they like to eat whale meat," says Noriyoshi Hattori, head of a whaling-industry task force that is spending about $80 million to shore up public opinion in favor of whaling and to lobby other nations.
The Japanese government and its powerful fisheries industry see a resumption of commercial whaling as a nationalist cause to protect a traditional aspect of Japanese culture. But they also want to stop the increasing assaults by international agencies to limit Japan's ability to exploit the high seas for food. Japan seeks to convert more of the 38 nations in the IWC to its side. Caribbean support
One example of its efforts is that two small Caribbean nations, St. Lucia and Dominica, have received foreign aid from Japan. Environmentalists say the money is blatant payment for votes.
Dominica, with a population of only 80,000, was given special praise last year by Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa for supporting Japan's pro-whaling stance and then promised aid for its fishing industry. St. Lucia was given a $6.4 million grant this year for its fishing industry, according to Japanese news reports.
Japan does not need many votes to get its way in the IWC. A vote on setting up an Antarctica sanctuary needs a three-quarters majority to pass. "Some countries cannot afford to offend Japan and will either abstain or vote with Japan," says Naoko Funahashi, a Greenpeace whale campaigner.
At home, the government is worried that anti-whaling publicity during the IWC gathering will erode Japanese support for whaling and eventually jeopardize its official position.
"We have made much propaganda this year," says Minoru Morimoto, the government director for deep-sea fisheries. "Most Japanese have missed all the arguments about whaling."
A recent survey of 2,000 Japanese by the Asahi newspaper found that 54 percent thought Japan should ignore the whaling ban, while 35 percent wanted it to continue to observe the ban.
Those favoring the ban tended to be younger, perhaps because many of them have turned to whale-watching in recent years during a small environmental boom. Many Japanese have not eaten whale meat since the IWC moratorium, which is one reason why roughly 14 whale restaurants decided to offer the once-a-month discounts. Whales, not just meat
"The trend is that more and more young Japanese are not so adamantly supporting whaling," says Cecilia Jung-sook Song, a spokeswoman for the World Wildlife Fund in Japan.
"People are starting to see whales as whales, and not meat," Ms. Funahashi says.
The industry task force set up for the IWC meeting has launched a signature drive in favor of whaling, but only collected about 400,000 names instead of the targeted 1 million. It sent a publicity van around Japan twice in February and March, and plans a whale feast at a Kyoto hotel where the IWC will meet.
Environmentalists also see a chance to influence Japanese opinion, but in subtler ways than in the past. Greenpeace, which once criticized Japan strongly, has taken a milder stance to avoid offending the common Japanese. "Unless we are successful in changing the ordinary person's viewpoint in Japan, it will be impossible to stop Japan's fisheries agency," Ms. Song says. "We can't afford to humiliate the Japanese. They might just become more nationalist and pull out of the IWC."
Japan's long-range strategy is to slowly erode the IWC ban, Mr. Morimoto says. At this meeting, it will ask for a limit of 50 minke whales to be caught within Japan's 200-mile economic zone.
Japan also will propose an international study of the blue whale, the biggest animal on earth and one of the most endangered. An estimated 700 survive today, having never recovered from a giant slaughter in the early 1930s.
Japanese officials contend that the blue whale's ecosystem was taken over by the minke whale as well as certain penguins and seals, and that the IWC could help the blue whale by allowing Japan to kill these contending species.