So why, exactly, is Tokyo so keen on whale hunting?

By David McNeill
In Tokyo
Published: 17 April 2006

Ask a Japanese person under 40 how much whale they consume and you're likely to get a blank look. Most would no more go out of their way to eat whale than a Londoner would to eat jellied eel.

Consumption was falling even before the 1986 moratorium on commercial hunting. Today, the Japanese eat 40 times more beef-burger than whale, says Greenpeace; only 1 per cent of Japanese eat whale meat regularly.

For most Japanese, the debate provokes more yawns than table-thumping, although some middle-aged Japanese wax nostalgic about eating whale after the war, when other protein was scarce.

Why, then, has Tokyo spent two decades pushing for an end to the ban in the face of resistance from conservationists and at huge cost to its international standing? The answer has more to do with politics than culture or economics. Many Japanese are bewildered by what they consider Western sentimentality, and hypocrisy, about whale-eating.

Kiyoshi Okawa, the boss of a company that makes pet snacks from whale meat, recently said: "I can't understand how people can consider whales cute. Lambs are much cuter than whales." Argue that lambs are not going extinct and you will be told that neither are all species of whale. Japan claims it can hunt Antarctic minke, which number close to a million, at a "scientifically sustainable" level.

"It is possible to use these resources in a sustainable way," says Hideki Moronuki of Japan's Fisheries Agency. "We don't have much land, we have the sea. Japan has lost so much of its own culture already. The consumption of rice has decreased because we were forced to consume bread in school since the Second World War in order to import huge amounts of flour from the US."

But conservationists dispute those figures and say the same arguments about sustainability were heard when other species were being hunted to extinction.

Mr Moronuki's tone of wounded national pride hints at the real engine behind the whale campaign. After decades in the diplomatic and military shadow of the US, Japan's nationalists feel this is one area where they can make some noise. Besides, if they back down on whales, restrictions on other marine resources may follow, including that beloved staple, tuna.

Japan's whaling "research fleet" is supported by nationalist politicians, mainly within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. This lobby champions the tradition of whale hunting in a handful of fishing communities, and has spent billions of yen in an effort to reverse the 1986 ban.

But with whale cuisine confined to a handful of specialist outlets, the pro-whalers have struggled to dispose of Japan's growing stocks - almost 5,000 tons, says one recent report. Schoolchildren in rural Wakayama prefecture found deep-fried whale in their lunchboxes last year, and similar schemes are afoot.

Without the nationalists' support, there is little prospect that whale hunting would be economically viable: the sale of whale meat barely covers the cost of sending Japan's eight whaling ships out of harbour.

© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited


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