Japanese open about being part of Sea Shepherd crew

Sustaining ecology, animal rights key to opposition to whaling

by Minoru Matsutani

For Kuniko Oyakawa, that cetaceans may be more intelligent than, say, cows, pigs or chickens is not why she opposes whaling — she is against eating any wild creature.

Oyakawa is one of the first two Japanese to fully identify themselves as crew members of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s vessels, which next month will try to block Japan’s whale hunt. She is motivated by the belief that the human population has grown so large that people must stop eating wild animals to minimize the disruption to ecosystems.

“I realize meat-eating people do not plan to stop eating meat. But we should at least live a humble life and (not plunder) the Earth,” the 58-year-old vegetarian told The Japan Times from Brussels. “My answer is, ‘Do not eat wild animals.’ “

Eating crops and domesticated animals is OK because they are raised for this purpose and are not endangered, she said.

Creatures in the wild could never be an adequate source of food for the human masses, no matter how responsibly they are harvested, and thus humankind must resolve to abstain from killing them, she said.

Oyakawa, who was married to a Belgian, told her 27-year-old son that she will be part of the crew of the Steve Irwin, the Sea Shepherd mother ship named in honor of the late Australian conservationist, in December, but did not tell relatives in Japan.

“I don’t understand why we should hide our identity, as we are only seeking justice,” she said. “I don’t think my relatives would be surprised. They already know I am pro-Sea Shepherd.”

Past Japanese crew members on Sea Shepherd vessels wore masks to avoid being identified if they were videotaped during confrontations with whalers, including incidents in which the activists hurled rancid butter at their boats, Oyakawa said.

During the last whaling season, from December 2009 to last March, Sea Shepherd crew members numbered 77 from 16 nationalities, including Japanese. There were 30 aboard the Bob Barker, 41 on the Steve Irwin and six in the Ady Gil, Sea Shepherd said on its website.

The Ady Gil sank after the Japanese whaling fleet security ship the Shonan Maru No. 2 sheared off her bow in January.

Oyakawa said she wants Japan to improve its international reputation, which she said was tarnished in part by last year’s Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” which focused on the annual dolphin slaughter in the small whaling port of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture.

“During the Edo Period, Japan was the most ecological place on Earth, and the least abusive toward animals. Why has Japan become like this?” she said.

Born in 1952 and raised in Yokohama until graduating from high school, Oyakawa went to Germany and Britain to attend college, and gained exposure to the human rights, environmental and animal protection movements.

Instead of completing college, she went trekking in the Middle East, India and Nepal.

After a brief return home, she landed a job with a Belgian airline, moved to the country and lived with her husband and two sons, one of whom died in an accident.

In 1999, Oyakawa returned to Yokohama to run her mother’s “izakaya” pub in the Noge district after her mom died. She stayed until last June.

Back in Japan, she said, she underwent culture shock, noting her compatriots were living “amazingly antienvironmental lives.”

“There were ¥100 shops all over the place. Japanese believe in mass production and consumption,” Oyakawa said. “That is the exact opposite of how Europeans live.”

She was also shocked to see a huge increase in pet shops in Japan, calling them an infringement on animal rights. Oyakawa claims that in the 20 years she has lived in Belgium, she never saw a pet shop.

Zoos in Europe are also decreasing amid concerns over animal rights, but in Japan they are on the rise, she said.

Animal abuse does take place in Europe, Oyakawa acknowledged, citing her deep opposition to the production of foie gras, a French delicacy for which farmers force-feed geese to make their livers swell with fat before slaughter.

Oyakawa said she left Japan in June after feeling “betrayed” by the people with whom she worked.

She initiated the campaign “Nombei (Boozer) Rally” to promote bars in the Noge district. She said she worked really hard to gather campaign participants. But the district association announced a plan to combine Nombei Rally with its “Whale Street” campaign to lure drinkers fancying whale meat, even though Oyakawa’s opposition to whaling was well-known.

“I was deceived. The Noge (bar and restaurant) association only wanted to steal my (Nombei Rally) idea. I realized I couldn’t stay in Japan. I had to go back to Europe,” she said.

Masanobu Tai, chairman of the Noge Bar and Restaurant Association, said he is sorry she left because she “had a very good idea and worked hard,” adding that her opposition to the promotion of whale meat was unexpected because she was aware Noge bars and restaurants served such fare.

The district flourished by selling whale cutlets and other black-market whale products during the early postwar chaos, when food was scarce.

The Noge whale street opened in June last year.

Oyakawa moved back to Brussels in June and contacted Sea Shepherd about signing on as a crew member.

“I learned afterward that tens of thousands of people want to become members of Sea Shepherd and it is difficult to be accepted. I feel very honored to be selected,” she said.

The other Japanese joining a Sea Shepherd crew is Izumi Stephens, 49, a resident of Washington state. Stephens will be on the Bob Barker, named after the American TV host who donated $5 million to Sea Shepherd, according to its website.

Oyakawa and Stephens will be in the Antarctic Ocean with their Sea Shepherd colleagues in December, awaiting the whaling fleet of Kyodo Senpaku, a company indirectly contracted by the government to catch whales and sell their meat. The company usually dispatches its fleet in November or December for the month’s voyage to the Antarctic Ocean. It hunts until February or March and returns to Japan around April.

A Kyodo Senpaku official declined to say when the whalers plan to set sail.

Japan has conducted what it calls research whaling since 1987 after the International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. Japan and other whaling countries argue research whaling is legal. Antiwhaling countries argue otherwise.

In May, Australia began legal action before the International Court of Justice in the Hague to stop Japanese research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean.

The court said in July it has set the deadline for Australia to submit a written complaint by next May 9 and for Japan to submit a counterargument in writing by March 9, 2012.