August 2006


Big sushi

By Justin McCurry
Big sushi
The world’s most politically sensitive lunch

The meal in front of me at Ganso Kujiraya in Tokyo is enough to turn the stomach of even casual conservationists. They would find little to trouble the conscience in the bowls of steaming rice and miso soup, or the side dishes of mitsuba leaves and radish pickles. But the centrepiece, seven perfectly rectangular slices of glistening ruby-red whale flesh, transforms this otherwise unremarkable Japanese dish into what is arguably the world’s most politically sensitive lunch.

I was expecting to have to chew each piece of meat into submission before I could swallow it, along with my moral reservations, but raw whale flesh isn’t at all bad. The uninitiated might easily mistake it for one of the cheaper cuts of tuna, with which it shares a taut succulence and a faintly tinny aftertaste. More adventurous diners at Kujiraya – one of the premier whale-meat restaurants in Japan – tuck into just about every part of the animal, including the intestines, heart and fins.

For most of my fellow diners, who are predominantly middle-aged, a lunch of whale meat is an occasional treat. It’s now more than twenty years since an international agreement brought an end to Japanese schoolchildren being fed meals of rice balls containing lumps of fatty whale meat from the Antarctic. In 1982 more than three-quarters of the members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), whaling’s governing body, banned commercial whaling in an attempt to prevent the decimation of the world’s whale stocks. Hundreds of years of unregulated hunting had left many whale species on the brink of extinction: during the twentieth century Antarctic whalers killed two million whales in the area that, since 1994, has been known as the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary; in 1965, at the height of their domination of the high seas, whalers hauled aboard the carcasses of more than 72,000 whales across the world.

For years after 1986, when the IWC ban came into effect, it seemed that the world’s whale populations would be left alone to recover. When the moratorium was passed, Japan, Norway and other whaling nations had been outnumbered 29–8 by repentant former whale-hunting countries such as the UK and the US. But the tide has now turned in Japan’s favour: last month, on the island of St Kitts, representatives from 66 countries attended the annual IWC meeting and voted, by the slimmest of margins, to disown the ban that has kept whales largely safe from harpoon guns and factory ships.

Having seen motions to resume limited coastal whaling and to remove dolphins and porpoises from IWC discussions defeated by a handful of votes on the first two days of the meeting, the Japanese delegation prepared for a third day of disappointment. Instead, they carried off a stunning coup. By 33 votes to 32 – China abstained – a motion was passed that declared the moratorium on whaling unnecessary and described the IWC as dysfunctional for losing sight of its original mandate, that of “managing whaling to ensure whale stocks are not over-harvested, rather than protecting all whales irrespective of their abundance”. While supporters of the motion broke into applause – the Norwegian delegation later hailed it “a historic victory” – members of non-government organisations that campaign against whaling wept, believing they were witnessing the first move towards a resumption of wholesale slaughter.

Countries that oppose whaling immediately distanced themselves from the motion, pointing out that it carries no legal weight. “This is simply a declaration of the views of pro-whaling nations, nothing more,” said the Australian environment minister, Ian Campbell. He was right: overturning the ban on whaling requires a 75% majority, which could take decades to realise. But Campbell, and others who have positioned themselves at the forefront of the anti-whaling movement, ignore the powerful symbolism of the St Kitts coup at their peril.

Japan had gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent a repeat of the 2005 IWC meeting in Ulsan, South Korea, when it narrowly failed to seize control of the body because a handful of its smaller, poorer allies either failed to show up or did not pay their membership fees on time. Since 1998 Japan has recruited 19 such countries to its cause through generous offers of overseas development assistance (ODA) for their local fishing industries – although the Japanese government strenuously denies this. “Our aid activities are not designed to buy votes,” says Ryotaro Suzuki, director of the fisheries division of Japan’s foreign ministry. “It is no secret that we granted ODA assistance to St Kitts and Nicaragua, for example, so that people there can have a decent standard of living. It is not designed to buy votes and it is irresponsible and discourteous to those countries to suggest that their votes have been bought.”

More than 150 countries routinely receive Japanese aid, yet Japan struggles to shake off the accusation that it engages in chequebook diplomacy to further its chances of resuming commercial whaling. In the past ten years it has extended billions of yen to some of the world’s poorest countries, many of which have never hunted whales or are landlocked, such as Mali and Cambodia. Nationalist politicians in Tokyo, for whom resistance to the international conservation movement has become a cause célèbre, have, over the past six years, spent almost 11.5 billion yen (around A$130 million) persuading six Caribbean countries to agree to take a pro-whaling stance.

In the days after its victory in St Kitts the Japanese government revealed that it had donated 617 million yen (around A$7 million) to the Caribbean nation last year, along with over a billion yen (around A$11.5 million) to Nicaragua and 568 million yen (around A$6.5 million) to the Pacific island of Palau. All three countries voted with Japan at the IWC meeting. And the list of beneficiaries of Japanese largesse is expected to grow as Japan seeks to build the grand coalition required to ensure a return to commercial whaling. Samoa and Algeria are thought to be the next targets of its recruitment drive.

The 1982 IWC ban stopped commercial whaling, but whales are still being killed in large numbers – hence the appearance of whale meat in Japanese supermarkets and on the menus of Japanese restaurants such as Ganso Kujiray. Article VIII of the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling allows member states to kill more than 2000 whales each year for scientific research; whale meat from such hunts is later sold as food. The sale of all whale meat in Japan generates 6.5 billion yen (around A$74 million) a year, with the profits used to fund scientific hunts in the Antarctic and North Pacific.

The research provision has allowed whalers to slaughter more than 25,000 whales since 1986, according to the Sydney-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the quotas are rising each year. This year Norway plans to kill 1052 minke whales – the highest number since the ban was introduced – and in April a Japanese fleet returned from the Southern Ocean with more than 860 whales, double last year’s total. In the next two years Japan will go after fifty humpback whales, which are considered a vulnerable species, as well as fifty fin whales, which are listed as endangered.

Japan insists it needs to kill whales to study their age structure and mortality rates, their migratory and eating habits. “We need ear plugs to determine their age and ovaries to establish their reproductive rates,” the country’s IWC delegation said in a statement. “Similarly … we need to know what, how much, where and when they are eating. This is done by examining stomach contents.” But conservationists denounce Japan’s research as little more than commercial whaling by stealth, arguing that advances in science in the past sixty-odd years enable researchers to learn about whales without needing to kill them. Australian experts recently completed a ten-year study of whales’ place in the ecosystem without killing a single animal, and they insist that Japan could cease using their current methods and still be able to collect all the data they need. “Our research demonstrates, once and for all, that the so-called scientific programmes of countries like Japan, Norway and Iceland are a sham,” Ian Campbell said of the Australian researchers’ findings.

Nothing rankles the pro-whaling lobby more than to hear the convention’s scientific permits referred to as loopholes. “The environmentalists’ biggest lie is that Japan is acting illegally by conducting scientific research,” says Gabriel Gomez Diaz, head of public relations at the Institute for Cetacean Research, a non-government organisation based in Tokyo that is affiliated with the Japanese government’s fisheries agency. “It isn’t a loophole; it’s perfectly legal and acceptable.”

Pro-whaling countries have adopted a two-pronged approach in their attempts to persuade other nations to their point of view. Stocks of certain species, such as minke whales, have, they say, recovered sufficiently to be hunted in relatively modest numbers. They argue that reducing the whale population would also give the world’s depleted fish stocks a chance to recover – a rationale that conservationists liken to blaming woodpeckers for deforestation. Few marine biologists support Japanese claims that whales are depleting the world’s fish, but as long as shoppers in Tokyo find themselves paying up to 1000 yen (around A$11.50) for a lowly sardine, the image of whales guzzling thousands of fish at a time – to the detriment of human consumption – will remain a potent weapon.

Science, though, has played only a marginal role in debates at recent IWC meetings. Every year the body’s scientific committee spends weeks poring over the latest data, but once the bureaucrats arrive for the decisive finale to the meeting, rational debate quickly gives way to posturing, accusation and recrimination. Pro-whaling nations accuse environmental organisations of sending threatening emails, splattering IWC delegates with paint, and browbeating smaller countries into voting to keep the 1982 ban in place. The intimidation would end, they say, with the introduction of secret ballots.

In St Kitts, Japan narrowly lost a vote to make voting private, to the relief of environmental campaigners, who fear that the Japanese would use secret ballots to pressure smaller countries into voting to eliminate the role of groups such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, who have observer status in the IWC. What appears, superficially, to be a minor procedural change also carries enormous implications for the prospect of a return to commercial whaling. Critics say that secret ballots would enable Japan to exert unseen pressure on smaller states, particularly those in the Caribbean that currently vote against Japan, apparently for fear of angering other major aid-donors such as the UK and the US.

The issue is certain to dominate next year’s IWC meeting in Alaska. Campaigners admit that a move to private voting – a measure that requires only a simple majority – would be disastrous for them. “It would certainly lead to more votes for Japan,” says Junichi Sato, a campaign director for Greenpeace Japan. But Japan maintains that its IWC allies live in fear of alienating powerful environmental groups and denies that its enthusiasm for secret ballots is politically motivated. “The secret ballots are a procedural issue and not a matter of substance,” Ryotaro Suzuki says. “It is no surprise that small nations feel very vulnerable to NGO [non-government organisation] pressure.”

It isn’t only rows over procedure and science that have so polarised the IWC, though, and the prospect of even slight compromise will remain dim as long as both sides choose to use arguments based on cultural difference to enhance their claims. In this part of the debate, the language used by both sides is loaded and frequently spiteful: Japan and its allies are denounced as “barbaric,” while non-government organisations are dismissed as “whale-huggers” and the countries that do their bidding at the IWC as “goblins”. “There is a degree of emotion in what we are saying, but we are trying to argue in a rational manner that stocks of certain species are actually increasing and can be caught in a sustainable manner,” says Suzuki, before unleashing some hyperbole of his own: “We should put humans ahead of whales, but some conservationists suggest that whales’ lives should come before those of human beings.”

In traditional whaling towns such as Taiji, in western Japan, the IWC moratorium is viewed with disgust, a victory for the politically correct West that has ruined communities whose economic and cultural attachment to whaling can be traced back hundreds of years. The Japanese first started harpooning whales off their coast in the sixteenth century, when the nobility considered the animals’ meat a delicacy. By the mid-nineteenth century, whale meat had found its way onto the tables of ordinary people. Kujira Niku Chomigata, a whale-meat recipe book from the 1820s, lists dishes that together contain no fewer than 70 different parts of the animal (the most popular combination is blubber and skin). Advocates of whaling make much, too, of the role whale meat played in supposedly saving as many as a million Japanese from starvation in the impoverished postwar years.

Yet Japan’s government may be deluding itself if it believes that an end to the IWC’s whaling moratorium would be followed by a wave of demand for whale meat.

It will be encouraged by evidence that, since the St Kitts vote, public insouciance appears to have given way to a newfound enthusiasm for whaling: according to a survey in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper in June, about three-quarters of people support a return to limited commercial whaling. But whether the Japanese still have the stomach for whale meat is another matter. Younger Japanese are far more likely to eat a hamburger than a whale steak – forty times more likely, in fact. Whale-meat consumption had started to drop before the IWC ban came into effect in 1986; now, only about 1% of Japan’s 127 million people say they eat it regularly. A 2002 survey by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that only 4% of respondents ate whale meat “sometimes”, and 9% ate it “infrequently”. By contrast, 86% said they had never eaten it, or had stopped doing so in childhood.

Earlier this year the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in Britain caused a furore when it revealed that a Japanese firm was turning unwanted whale meat into pet food. And in one of the few Japanese-language broadsides against whaling, Junko Sakuma, an environmental journalist, pointed out that stockpiles of whale meat had continued to rise since the late 1980s, despite falling prices. “The only time one hears news of whale meat selling out is when it is given away for free in whale soup at some event,” she wrote in a widely read study. “Despite this, there are plans to substantially increase production. Really? Will the meat actually sell?” Sakuma estimates that Japan’s whale-meat inventory from research hunts could reach 8600 tons from 2008 onwards, which is almost double the current level.

Japanese officials acknowledge that the shrinking domestic market for whale meat has dented the whaling industry’s commercial prospects. “I agree that even if we resume commercial whaling, it’s not going to produce a lot of money,” Suzuki says. So, having seen consumption plummet among adults, the government is directing its efforts at a new generation of potential whale-eaters. In May last year the Institute for Cetacean Research launched Geishoku Lab, a distribution company that aims to sell 1000 tonnes of whale meat to schools, hospitals and family-friendly restaurants a year, in a desperate attempt to reduce the existing stockpile of meat. In 2005 pupils at 270 schools in Wakayama Prefecture found child-friendly whale dishes on the school menu, including whale-meatballs, whale-burgers and spaghetti bolognaise (with whale meat). Colourful pamphlets distributed to schools describe whaling as part of Japan’s national heritage. “Is it OK to eat whale meat?” the pamphlet asks, with the sensibilities of picky ten-year-olds clearly in mind. “Of course it is,” comes the answer.

The government-sanctioned feeding of whale meat to schoolchildren is an act of desperation, argues Nanami Kurasawa, director-general of the Dolphin and Whale Action Network, one of a handful of small anti-whaling organisations in Japan. “Young people don’t want to eat whale meat because they think it’s tough and smelly,” she says.

Pro-whalers, though, stick to the line that better distribution, coupled with an eventual return to commercial whaling, will reunite the Japanese with their culinary roots. “If you ask your neighbours in Tokyo if they want to eat whale meat, then maybe the answer is no, but if you go to the countryside – to Kyushu [in the south-west], for example – there are people who have to eat it every day. Not huge chunks, but small amounts of different kinds, like salted meat or whale-bacon,” says Gabriel Gomez Diaz. “But people outside Japan don’t want to accept that. They base their opinions on misconceptions peddled by environmental organisations and the press. Whales are not the problem: rather, it is the lack of ethics and professionalism among the media in countries like the UK, New Zealand and Australia.”

Konomu Kubo, of the Japan Whaling Association, agrees: “The commercial whaling ban means that the amount of meat on the market has decreased. Ordinary people can’t cook whale meat at home, no matter how much they would like to. That’s the main cause of the slump in consumption. If it were sold freely, I think people would start eating it much more often.”

Japan’s intransigence on whaling sits uneasily with its postwar policy of trying not to give offence – at least to the West – as part of its quest for the international approval it craves. As long as the whaling moratorium remained impregnable, the UK, Australia and other anti-whaling countries were willing to tolerate Japan’s occasional outbursts at the West for trampling on its cultural heritage. However, the shift in the balance of power at the IWC may be about to change that: after the meeting in St Kitts, New Zealand’s prime minister, Helen Clark, said she hoped Japan’s victory would provoke a diplomatic backlash among Japan’s friends, while others warned that pro-whaling nations could pay for their support for Japan in tourist dollars. “There can be a backlash by British consumers,” said Ben Bradshaw, Britain’s environment minister. But Japan is likely to escape an all-out diplomatic offensive – as long as it doesn’t carry out its long-standing threat to walk away from the IWC, and provided that Australia continues to avoid taking unilateral action against Japanese whaling fleets operating in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

Earlier in the year the Australian government ruled out sending its navy to intervene in the running battle between campaigners and whalers in the region, and it ignored campaigners’ requests to prevent whaling ships from using Australian ports. “Australia would have a very weak case against Japan, which, I think, explains why the government has continued to reject such proposals, and it is also mindful of the need to avoid damaging its more-important trade relations with Japan,” says Michael Heazle, who works at the Griffith Asia Institute in Queensland and is the author of the recently published book Scientific Uncertainty and the Politics of Whaling.

Heazle believes the IWC is likely to plot a steady course, giving its diametrically opposed members a wide enough berth to win smaller battles but never win the war. “The status quo is mostly to everyone’s satisfaction, and that is why nothing ever changes in the IWC. The anti-whaling countries are satisfied because the IWC meetings provide an annual opportunity for them to show they ‘really do care’ about the environment, and pro-whaling governments are satisfied enough because they are still able to hunt under the convention’s scientific-whaling provision.

“The only IWC members who are unhappy about the current situation are probably the middle countries, like Ireland and Switzerland, who have been working quite hard to break the stalemate and reach a compromise. The IWC meetings each year have become little more than political theatre, where the protagonists engage in mostly rhetorical debate, with no intention of reaching any kind of compromise.”

Heazle accuses the Australian government of “political expediency” in its vocal support for the 1982 whaling moratorium, and accuses his compatriots of being too easily swayed by the powerful propaganda machines of environmental groups such as Greenpeace. “There are no political costs in opposing any form of whaling – no job losses and no indigenous or cultural issues – but support for a measured return to whaling would create a political backlash at home,” he says.

“For Australian governments, the whaling debate is a no-brainer. Hardline opposition not only comes without political cost; it also provides valuable political benefits by allowing governments to shore up their often lacklustre ‘green’ credentials through their commitment to protecting whales. Compare, for example, the Australian government’s position on global warming and uranium mining and exports. I suspect that if Australians were exposed to more balanced reporting and coverage of the issues and debates in the IWC, most would accept a limited return to commercial whaling.”

Initial euphoria in Japan that the IWC might at last be about to shed its conservationist approach has given way to caution. Officials know it could take years, even decades, to build the coalition it needs to overturn the moratorium. “I’m not optimistic at all: there’s a long way to go,” says Suzuki. “If the number of countries who want to keep the moratorium permanently does not decrease, then we will have to triple the number of countries who support getting rid of it. It’s wrong for people to think that change will come in two or three years’ time.”

In the next few years the pro-whaling nations’ best chance lies in persuading the IWC to allow them to catch limited numbers of whales in coastal areas. A motion along this line was narrowly defeated in St Kitts, but Japan isn’t about to give up, saying a ban on hunting whales whose stocks have recovered is “irrational”. “What may change is that the IWC will allow limited coastal whaling of some sort by member countries in exceptional cases,” Suzuki says. “Aboriginal subsistence-whaling should be expanded to other places, such as Japan. We will keep insisting on that.”

Conservationists, meanwhile, are appealing to economic common sense in an attempt to prize away from their Japanese benefactors those island nations that now hold the balance of power at the IWC. Tourism data suggests that environmental campaigners could be on to something: according to Greenpeace, the global whale-watching industry is worth US$1 billion a year, and attracts nine million people to 87 countries. Australia alone draws about 1.6 million people annually to watch whales off its coastlines, earning its economy an estimated $300 million. Anti-whaling governments from Canberra to London can do little more than hope that Japan, too, comes to realise that there is far more money, not to mention international kudos, to be earned from watching the behemoths of the ocean than from killing them.

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