As so often in the past with whaling stories, the news that Japan has pulled its fleet out of the Antarctic, following harassment by conservationists, has been downplayed at home. The national networks here have largely ignored the story, even as much of the foreign media essentially celebrated this unexpected turn of events in the annual high seas showdown.
Even the nation’s primary public broadcasting organization, NHK, didn’t report the story until nearly two days after it broke elsewhere, and then offered up only the barest of bones.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Japanese journalists. Seen from a nation slowly asphyxiating in debt, old age and political gridlock, the fate of 1000 large animals thousands of miles away must seem like pretty small fry. Many editors here are mystified by the amount of coverage given to whaling in the British, Australian and New Zealand press. Their indifference, and the national media shaping of the whaling controversy largely in cultural and ethnocentric terms, helps most ordinary Japanese tune out of the debate raging elsewhere outside their borders.
But the foreign media doesn’t do a much better job of explaining why Japan keeps this campaign up. The editor of my newspaper once spiked a long piece attempting to explain why because he said it was ‘too pro-whaling.’ It subsequently ran in The Japan Times instead. Even informed conservationists often know little about why Japan continues to fight a campaign it has no chance of winning.
Clearly, it’s not because Japan's citizens love whale meat. Pro-whalers might snort disdainfully at Greenpeace survey’s claiming that 95 percent of Japanese had ‘never or very rarely eaten’ it, but that seems to tally with the experience of most people here—at least outside of a handful of local ports. Pro-whalers respond that it’s so only because foreign pressure has made the meat so expensive to harvest. But even after the 1986 international whaling moratorium and the start of Japan's ‘scientific’ whaling, 70 tonnes of whale meat was left unsold from a catch of 1,873 tonnes after the fleet returned to port in spring 2001—a fraction of the 230,000 metric tonnes consumed in the peak whaling year of 1962.
Tokyo's drive to reverse the moratorium should be seen in political and not cultural terms. It is, for one thing, one of the few issues where Japan can angrily stamp its feet on the world stage and sometimes espouse the sort of nationalist rhetoric long expunged from mainstream debate here—a pressure valve of sorts. And the Japanese Fisheries Agency (JFA), which controls the nation's whaling policy, has never shaken off the belief it was bamboozled and blackmailed into abandoning commercial hunts by the US-led West.
One event, in particular, is forever burned into the JFA's collective consciousness. In June 1979, anti-whaling protester Richard Jones, who later became an Australian senator, dumped red paint over Japanese delegates at the International Whaling Commission's conference in London. Caught up in the growing environmental movement, the bureaucrats professed no idea why they were being blamed for the destruction of whale stocks, when historically the United States and Europe had also widely hunted whales. As nationalists here seldom fail to point out, it was whaling and the need for ports by American ships that helped open up 19th Century Sakoku Japan.
One of the little known steps in the sequence to the whale wars came in the 1980s, when Washington was under political pressure to limit access to its coastal waters, which yielded nearly a million tonnes of fish per year to Japanese boats. Japan agreed to withdraw its objections to the IWC whaling moratorium in return for a US pledge to keep this access open. But months after Japan formally agreed to the ban in July 1986, its US fishing quota was halved. Two years later, it had fallen to zero. Japan, which had earlier formally withdrawn its objection to the whaling moratorium, stepped up the infamous practice of ‘scientific whaling.’
So much for the history, but what about now? The smarter bureaucrats at the Fishery Agency know it has no chance of winning a two-thirds majority to overturn the IWC ban. They also know there’s very little chance of reviving the commercial industry, which is kept alive on government life-support. What the agency can do is fight for the status quo, and the symbolic right to whale sustainably. They can also occasionally skewer Western hypocrisy. Why do American hunters kill five million ‘beautiful, Bambi-eyed deer’ annually, wondered Japan's top whaling diplomat Joji Morishita at a 2009 FCCJ press conference: ‘I've no problem with that, as long as it's sustainable.’
Fixing what’s basically a case of wounded national pride should be straightforward, but after two decades the pro- and anti-whaling camps are deeply dug in and have little reason to compromise. Western politicians lose nothing domestically by not budging an inch on Japanese whaling. Their Tokyo counterparts can condemn Western ‘cultural imperialism’ and bask in the reputation as defenders of Japan's right to the ‘sea commons.’
So can the latest spat give both sides a way out? Japan can plausibly blame the cancellation of the annual cull after a reported catch of just 30 whales on fears for the safety of its crew. The retreat, after years of being harried by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society will embolden the direct action environmentalists and their supporters. And a return to the high seas by Japanese whalers, particularly with the industry in such bad financial shape, will be tougher next year.
This might then be the time for the anti-whaling side to press the advantage for a solution that has been around for decades: allow Japan the right to hunt more whales around its own exclusive fishing waters in exchange for pulling out of the high seas. One reason Norway, which hunts almost as many whales as Japan, gets far less attention is because it doesn't send its trawlers outside its own waters. Some Japanese diplomats have taken note, and are growing tired of the battering Japan takes every time its fleet leaves port.
If Tokyo can be persuaded to abandon its Southern Ocean cull, limit or stop expeditions to the North Pacific and submit to monitoring of its coastal catch, this could be the way out of this annual diplomatic farrago. In the meantime, it would help enormously if the Fisheries Agency fessed up on scientific whaling, admitting what everyone knows: That it’s a con trick designed to keep the industry ticking over while Japan battles to overturn the moratorium.