Tokyo Notes

What the Greenpeace Case Says

The case of two Japanese Greenpeace activists should be about a lot more than just trespassing and theft.

Following is the first entry by new Tokyo Notes blogger David McNeill. David is the Japan/Korea correspondent for The Chronicle of Higher Education and writes regularly for The Irish Times and The Independent. 


For the well over two years since being arrested for trespassing and theft in June 2008, Greenpeace activists Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki have argued that they performed a public service. Japan’s Fisheries Agency may soon be forced to agree.

In case you missed it, the FA admitted in December that five of its officials are guilty of accepting about $3000 worth of free whale meat harvested in Japan’s ‘scientific’ whaling hunts. That’s very likely a fraction of the product embezzled from the publicly funded programme.

Within the broad scheme of things, $3000 is a piddling amount of money, but the implications of the FA admission are much more profound than that bald figure.

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Suzuki and Sato intercepted a box of whale meat from a transportation warehouse in April 2008. They said the box—and 47 others like it—proved that whaling officials and crew members of the Nisshin Maru whaling ship had been skimming off choice cuts, which they sold on the black market. A whistleblower told the environmental watchdog that the crew sometimes took dozens of boxes at a time, going back years. The meat was shown to journalists then taken to the police with a request that they investigate.

How did the authorities react?  By assigning a total of 38 local policemen to investigate the ‘theft’ case, plus a large squad of cops and special detectives from Tokyo. Greenpeace phone records were intercepted, its Tokyo office was raided, computers were confiscated and the homes of several members were searched. TV crews tipped off and waiting outside the office to record the search later filed reports claiming that Greenpeace members were being detained under ‘antiterrorist laws.’

FA officials branded the two men ‘criminals’ and demanded convictions and jail time.  The two were arrested, held for weeks and interrogated without lawyers in defiance of criticism by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Public prosecutors then spent millions of yen convicting the two men of trespass and theft, for which they received one year of jail time, suspended for three years. The FA officials got their wish: Sato and Suzuki are now criminals.

Even if you didn’t buy their argument that Greenpeace had an obligation to break the law to expose a bigger crime, this was a case brimming with important legal and moral questions. What are the rights of NGOs, journalists and others claiming to operate in the public interest? To what extent is the judiciary and court system independent of political influence? Should public policy be more transparent? And what of the embezzlement allegations?

Those questions were ignored by the Aomori court, which bizarrely (if predictably) treated this as a simple criminal case, and not a highly-charged political one. Its judgment follows similar convictions against anti-war activists, following Japan’s decision to support the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The courts also treated Toshiyuki Obora, Nobuhiro Onishi, Sachimi Takada and Yousei Arakawa as criminals, ignoring all the evidence that said otherwise.

Unlike those four activists, Sato and Suzuki may get another bite of the cherry. Their Tokyo High Court appeal has been set for May 24, and it will be held with the FA admission ringing loudly in everyone’s ears. That admission, and apology, is likely to have a major bearing on the Aomori judgment. If the conviction is overturned, Greenpeace will demand an investigation into the entire whaling programme. In many ways, however, whaling is the least interesting part of this whole affair.

Setting aside your opinions on the whaling campaign, the much more disturbing issue for Japanese citizens is how it’s done. Year after year, bureaucrats and scientists say that the hunts are done to further scientific research, though they clearly aren’t. For two decades, journalists have been fed the line, which many faithfully report, that Japan will one day overturn the anti-whaling majority at the International Whaling Commission, though it has no chance of doing so. Few if any journalists write about the thousands of diplomatic hours and billions of yen wasted in a doomed bureaucratic bid to turn the anti-whaling tide. And the case of Sato and Suzuki seems to prove that the same bureaucrats will ruin lives to protect their own patch, and the courts will back them up. 

It’s probably too soon to say whether overturning their conviction will upend this whole can of worms. But we can hope.