The change in tack is an acknowledgment that years of watching reports of foreign activists targeting whaling ships, as well as a steady stream of official claims that outsiders are attacking a traditional cultural practice, have hardened the attitudes of some Japanese - even those who have no interest in eating whale meat.
Many people here do, however, have fond memories of eating whale meat in school lunches, and see little difference between consuming it and other types of flesh. And few people know the relatively small whaling industry receives about 500 million yen ($5.5 million) annually in public subsidies, at a time when wasting tax money is a hot topic.
Greenpeace has chosen to pin its hopes on changing public opinion in Japan by focusing on the issue of wasted taxes and allegations of corruption among whalers, despite official hostility and a mostly unsympathetic domestic media.
Jun Morikawa, a professor at Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaido, and author of “Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics and Diplomacy,” says Greenpeace’s approach may be more effective in changing Japanese minds then the aggressive tactics of Sea Shepherd, which has demonized Japan and its whalers on the reality TV show Whale Wars.
“It’s very important for the Japanese authorities to have public support on this issue,” says Professor Morikawa. “The Sea Shepherd’s tactics make it easy to claim they are eco-terrorists, and portray Japan as the victim.”
Activists headed to trial
But the strategy is not without its dangers: two Japanese Greenpeace activists are facing the possibility of 10 years in prison for their part in trying to expose alleged corruption in the whaling industry.
In 2008, a former whaler turned whistleblower became disillusioned with what he had seen working on Japan’s “research” whaling ships. He reported that, among other dubious practices, high-end whale meat was being secretly sold by crew for personal profit. Between 120 to 130 crew members were involved, and “everyone takes home about 200 or 300 kilos,” according to the whistleblower.
The salted meat was reportedly sent to the crew’s homes by Seino Transportation Company, a major delivery service. On April 15th 2008, the Nishin Maru - the ship involved in the recent Ady Gil collision - docked in Tokyo on its return from the Southern Ocean.
Acting on the whistleblower’s information, two Greenpeace activists - Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki – followed the Seino truck carrying 90 boxes of “personal possessions” and “cardboard” that had been unloaded from the ship. When the boxes were taken to a nearby Seino depot, the activists entered the site and checked the names on the packages against a list of employees at the whaling company.
Having matched the names, they decided to track one of the suspiciously heavy parcels to Aomori in northern Japan. Once the box was delivered to a Seino depot in Aomori, Mr. Suzuki entered the premises and removed the parcel.
Having established the box contained 23.5kg (about 50 lbs.) of whale meat, the two activists presented the contents and documentation of their operation – including the whistleblower’s testimony – to the Tokyo Prosecutors’ Office in May 2008 and reported a case of embezzlement. But the embezzlement investigation was dropped the following month and the duo arrested for trespass and theft.
Greenpeace claims they were held for 26 days, and questioned for 200 hours without access to lawyers. A series of appeals for disclosure of information relating to the embezzlement allegations ended unsuccessfully at the Tokyo Supreme Court last November, clearing the way for a criminal trial.
Greenpeace stays focused on public opinion
Despite these setbacks, Greenpeace believes in its tactical shift to campaigning to change public opinion in Japan.
“We realized that confrontational activity in the Southern Ocean only galvanizes opinion in Japan behind the whalers,” says Greg McNevin, a Greenpeace spokesperson. “What we’re concentrating on now is showing the Japanese people what a waste of tax money it is subsidizing an industry that only employs a few hundred people, and the corruption that goes on with the industry and bureaucrats involved."
Some officials at the Institute of Cetacean Research – the quasi-governmental body that runs the whaling expeditions – are reported to be former Fisheries Agency bureaucrats given the positions as part of their retirement packages. This practice, known as amakudari – literally “descent from heaven” – is one the new Democratic Party of Japan government has pledged to stamp out.
Strategy: put industry in spotlight at trial
Greenpeace hope to expose some of the lesser known aspects of the industry at Sato and Suzuki’s trial – scheduled for Feb. 12 – after recently getting permission to call all the witnesses they’d requested.
“We’re optimistic: we get to call the original whistleblower, three whaling crew members, and Professor Dirk Voorhoof, an international expert on freedom of expression,” says Mr. McNevin, “This is our chance to put whaling on trial.”