Whaling: Will Greenpeace trial in Japan put whalers on notice?

Two Greenpeace activists in Japan face up to 10 years in prison for tactics used in exposing black market sales of whale meat. Anti-whaling groups hope Monday's trial helps turn Japanese public opinion against the whale harvest.

Pat Roque/AP
Fillipino Greenpeace protesters wear mask of two Japanese anti-whaling activist arrested in Japan in 2008 as they display cut-out models of whale tail fins during a protest Friday, in front of the Japanese Embassy in suburban Pasay City south of Manila, Philippines.

The menu reads like a "save the whales" activist's nightmare.

There's "gristle of the whale upper jaw" (750 yen or about $8). "Sliced raw whale heart" (750 yen). The variety platter: "five kinds of whale dainty bits" (2,800 yen).

At this elegant restaurant in Tokyo's bustling Shibuya neighborhood, some 20 customers dine on whale (kujira) as soft jazz plays. In more casual kujira joints on Tokyo's outskirts, a small, more working-class clientele does the same.

Such meals are at the heart of a perennial debate over Japanese whaling, and recently made headlines again with the collision of a ship from antiwhaling group Sea Shepherd and a Japanese "research" vessel. Defenders of the practice here say whale hunting and consumption are part of a treasured heritage. Japanese antiwhaling activists dispute that, and join foreign critics, especially in the United States and Europe, who decry whaling as barbaric.

Now, Japan's antiwhaling forces are hoping to use a trial – that begins Monday – of two Greenpeace Japan activists to sway public opinion here against the practice.

Whaling as a cultural tradition

Konomu Kubo of the Japan Whaling Association – a nonprofit that promotes resumption of commercial whaling – says the controversy is stirred up by a few mostly foreign activists. "The Japanese people have used whale and whale meat as a valuable food source since ancient times," he says. "Such indigenous culture should be respected by other countries."

Commercial whaling was banned in the 1980s by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). But Norway still whales under a formal "objection." Iceland has also engaged in off-and-on whaling by that means and under the name of scientific research. Several indigenous groups are allowed limited catches, and non-IWC members Indonesia and the Philippines also catch whales in small numbers.

Japan's fleet has caught more than 500 whales per season in recent years in the Southern Ocean, and more than 350 in the North Pacific, according to Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research, which runs Japan's whaling program.

While the institute declined an interview request, Mr. Kobu of the Japan Whaling Association says the institute produces between 4,000 and 4,500 metric tons of whale meat per year from its research program. Most of that ends up on restaurant tables, likely including the Shibuya shop (the manager at the Shibuya restaurant declined a request for an interview).

Fried whale meat used to be served in school lunches, though that's now limited to a few coastal communities, Kubo says. He adds that Japan supports "sustainable" whaling, meaning it does not kill endangered or depleted species, but targets more abundant species like the minke whale. He says Japan has a low "food self-sufficiency," and must secure its own food resources. He complains that the IWC promised to review the moratorium by 1990, but did not.

"Public opinion strongly supports whaling," asserts Kubo, though he acknowledges less support from young Japanese. "What we are afraid of is that the whale meat diet culture will disappear."

Reliable polls are hard to come by. The whaling association points to a 2002 survey by the prime minister's office, and could not provide more recent numbers. That poll found 76 percent support for hunting minke whales, if such whaling were "based on scientific evidence so that there was no adverse impact on whale resources." Ten percent of those polled were opposed. The latest poll commissioned by Greenpeace Japan from 2008 found 44 percent of respondents were neither for nor against resuming commercial whaling; 31 percent were pro and 25 percent were against. But the poll, by the Nippon Research Center, only sampled those who signed up on a website.

Taxpayer money subsidizes 'research'

Greenpeace Japan says change is more likely under the new Democratic Party of Japan-led government, which has railed against wasteful spending.

Junichi Sato, an activist with Greenpeace Japan, says pro-whaling groups were "switching the argument" because their scientific research defense was not persuasive. Mr. Sato says Japan didn't begin large-scale whaling off Antarctica until after World War II, and used equipment and ships imported from Norway.

Sato argues that the government uses taxpayer money – 500 million yen per year (about $5.5 million), according to his group – to subsidize "research" whaling. He's one of two Greenpeace Japan activists who in 2008 alleged embezzlement of whale meat by research vessel crews.

The two were later charged with theft and trespassing over their obtaining of a package of whale meat at a transport depot, which they later turned over to prosecutors. They face 10 years' jail time, and their trial – with testimony from a "whistle-blower" inside the whaling industry and two whaling fleet crew members – is set to open Monday.

Sato and other activists hope to turn the event into a trial on Japanese whaling. "The protests have to come from the Japanese public, saying 'This is a waste of taxpayers' money,' " said Sato. "We as Japanese citizens are losing so much respect from the international community on this issue, and more Japanese are starting to realize that."


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