AYUKAWAHAMA, Japan – This small harbour on Japan’s northern coast, where whaling boats sit docked with harpoon guns proudly displayed, and shops sell carvings made from the ivory like teeth of sperm whales, might seem to be an unlikely place to find opponents of the nation’s contested Antarctic whaling.
Yet, local residents are breaking long-held taboos to speak out against the government-run Antarctic hunts, which they say invite international criticism that threatens the much more limited coastal hunts by people in this traditional whaling town.
“The research whaling in the Antarctic is not about protecting culture,” said Ichio Ishimori, a city councilman in Ishinomaki, of which Ayukawahama is a part.
The Japanese govern-ment is facing renewed pressures at home and abroad to drastically scale back its so-called research whaling. Yet, Tokyo seems paralyzed by the same combination of nationalist passions and entrenched bureaucratic interests that have previously blocked any action to limit the three-decade-old whaling program.
“We’re entering a new period on the whaling issue, but we don’t know what it means yet,” said Shohei Yonemoto, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Tokyo.
Clearly, the pressures for change are stronger than ever. The United States and other anti-whaling countries are currently working on a deal that would close loopholes in the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling in exchange for allowing the main whaling nations – Japan, Norway and Iceland – to resume much more limited commercial hunts. They hope for an agreement during the next meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the global body that oversees whaling, in Morocco in June.
Whaling experts and environmentalists were also encouraged when the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took charge last year determined to eradicate exactly the sort of outdated, bu-reaucratic programs that whaling represents.
Tokyo seemed to hint at a compromise in March when the agriculture minister, Hirotaka Akamatsu, whose ministry oversees research whaling, said that Japan was willing to kill fewer whales. But whaling’s opponents and supporters alike in Japan say that it remains politically difficult for Tokyo to accept large reductions in its whale hunts.
While few Japanese these days actually eat whale, criticism of the whale hunts has long been resented here as a form of Western cultural imperialism. During the long tenure of the Liberal Democratic Party, whaling was one of the sacred cows of Japanese politics, em-braced by a group of na-tionalist lawmakers within the party who saw it as a rare issue where Tokyo could appeal to conservatives by waving the flag and saying no to Washing-ton.
The question now is whether Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan, which swept aside the Liberal Democratic Party in last summer’s elections, will include whaling in its promised housecleaning of Japan’s post-war order. While there is also a group of pro-whaling lawmakers in the new governing party, it is much smaller, with just a few active members.
However, the leader of the group, Tadamasa Kodaira, said in an interview that the Democratic Party was firmly committed to research whaling. Last summer, the party’s election platform included promises to seek a resumption of commercial whaling, though it did not specifi-cally mention the government-run research program.
In an interview, Kodaira said he recognized that Japan’s whaling industry had shrunk to just a few hundred jobs, mostly paid for by the government. However, he said that the recent aggressive actions of foreign environmental groups like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has clashed with Japanese whaling ships near the Antarctic, had fanned popular ire, making it impossible for Tokyo to compromise now.
“We can’t change now because it would look like giving in,” said Kodaira, a lawmaker from the northern island of Hokkaido. “Will we have to give up tuna next?”
So far, the Democratic Party has left the program untouched. In November, Japan’s whaling fleet left for the Antarctic as scheduled, returning this month with a catch of 507 minke and fin whales, well below the planned take of up to 985 whales, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The ministry blamed the shortfall on the Sea Shepherd Society’s obstructions.
Officials said that one reason the program re-mained hard to cut was that its budget was so small: only $86 million, of which only $17 million is paid for by the government in cash or zero-interest loans, according to a freelance journalist, Junko Sakuma, who has written extensively about whaling. The rest comes from the sale of whale meat, mostly that of the non-endangered minke whales.
That means anyone trying to cut the program would risk a huge political outcry from nationalists for only marginal budget savings, all of which creates a huge incentive to do nothing.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, one of the most secretive ministries in Japan’s powerful central bureaucracy, has also fiercely resisted any efforts to shrink the program. Among its crucial weapons have been Japanese journalists, who enjoy close ties with the ministry and have tended to dutifully report its claims that research whaling defends Japan’s tradi-tional culture.
Whaling experts say the real reason the ministry wants to keep the program alive is to secure cushy retirement jobs for ministry officials, a common practice that is widely criticized. A study last year by the Democratic Party showed that the Institute of Cetacean Research, a ministry-controlled agency that oversees the research whaling program, reserves jobs for at least five former ministry officials, including one earning an annual salary of more than $130,000. Kyodo Senpaku, a government-owned company that operates the whaling fleet, hires another one.
“Research whaling claims to be protecting science and culture, but it is really just protecting bureaucratic self-interest,” said Atsushi Ishii, a professor of environmental politics at Tohoku University in Sendai. The ministry declined repeated interview requests.
Even its proponents concede that the only real purpose of research whaling is to sustain the shrinking whaling industry, even though much of the meat piles up uneaten in freezers, and the last private company dropped out of the Antarctic hunt four years ago. That, in turn, has led to a new round of criticism over the program’s failure to fulfil its own goals of preserving Japan’s whaling industry and traditional whaling culture.
Japan’s coastal whaling is based in four small ports where whale has long been a traditional food item, unlike much of the rest of Japan, where it was added to the menu only after World War II. One of the four is Ayukawahama, in Miyagi Prefecture, a sleepy port of some 4,600 mostly greying residents.
On a recent morning, crews prepared the two identical blue-and-white whaling ships for an an-nual month long hunt in nearby waters, where they are allowed to kill 60 whales, mainly minke. Local residents said Tokyo should negotiate with the International Whaling Commission to allow them to double the size of the coastal hunt, even if it meant giving up the Antarctic program.
“Antarctic whaling does nothing to help this town,” said Yukitaka Chijimatsu, 82, who owns a small shop along the docks where he sells brooches and cell phone straps made from the teeth of sperm whales.
Other local residents said that with fewer people eating whale, the days were numbered for all kinds of whaling and that the government should just let it naturally disappear.
“Japan doesn’t like being told what to do,” said Isao Kondo, 83, who retired near here after a career as a manager at Japan Whaling Co., now defunct. “But like it or not, whaling is dying.”