The Institute of Cetacean Research can be found in a nondescript white brick office building in Tokyo’s port district. Down a hallway and through an unmarked door is a small lobby with a model ship, a poster showing various whale species, and a sign that reads “Keep Out.”
Japan says the research that goes on behind the locked security door is crucial for the study of whale populations, but critics slam the practice as a loophole to bypass an international ban on commercial whaling. Captured whales are studied by the institute, which refers to its work as lethal research, before the meat is sold across the nation, including at restaurants in the nearby Tsukiji market.
An AFP-Jiji reporter who visited the office recently was confronted by two men who did not identify themselves. “What are you doing here? You are not supposed to be here. You have to leave,” one said in English.
When told that the taxpayer-funded institute had not responded to interview requests, he said: “That means no. It means we’re not interested.”
Norway and Iceland are the only other nations that hunt whales in open defiance of the 1986 global moratorium, and Japan’s annual hunt has drawn criticism from both activists and foreign governments. But the institute insists “antiwhaling is not ‘world opinion.’ ”
“Rather, it is a predominantly Western phenomenon in developed countries amplified by antiwhaling fundraising NGOs and the Western media,” it says on its website, pointing to hundreds of whaling research papers. “The purpose of Japan’s research is science — science that will ensure that when commercial whaling is resumed, it will be sustainable.”
What Japan sees as research is at the heart of a bitter grudge match between militant activists intent on ending its annual whaling expeditions and an equally determined government that dismisses the campaigners as “terrorists.”
The whaling fleet left port in December aiming to catch about 1,000 whales in the icy waters of the Antarctic Ocean, where they are regularly pursued by the militant environmentalist group Sea Shepherd. Activists said this year’s hunt ended in March with no more than 75 whales culled.
The two sides have clashed violently in exchanges that in the past have seen stink bombs hurled at crew aboard the whaling vessels, water jets trained on the protesters and a protest boat being cut in two. The bitter fight has also reached the legal arena, with both sides launching lawsuits.
Tokyo argues that researching the mammals is “perfectly legal” under international whaling rules, and that it is selling meat by-products. Organs including ovaries and stomach contents are crucial for research, the institute says.
“Some indispensable data have to be collected by lethal means, which simply cannot be obtained by nonlethal means,” it said, adding that death “is as rapid as possible. A large proportion of the whales taken are killed instantly by an explosive harpoon.”
Critics question what could possibly remain for the institute to conclude about sustainable whale populations after carrying out its research for nearly three decades since the moratorium on international whaling was established.
“They (the institute) don’t really have an argument to justify themselves anymore,” said Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan. “If they can’t get enough data by killing thousands of whales, then that is a failure of the science.”
“It’s about pride. Japan has been claiming this is part of Japanese culture. Once you raise that issue, it’s very difficult to back down,” Sato said.
Questions remain about the economic viability of whaling, given the decades-long decline in domestic consumption of the meat. A report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare recently said the nation’s whaling operations are costing taxpayers ¥970 million a year. There was little appetite among private firms to restart commercial whaling given the prohibitive expense, Sato said.
However, fisheries minister Yoshimasa Hayashi recently said in an interview that the hunts will continue, dismissing antiwhaling voices as “a cultural attack, a kind of prejudice against Japanese culture.”
In the narrow streets around Tsukiji market, billed as the world’s biggest fish emporium, that view was echoed by some who defended whaling as an important tradition, albeit a fading one. Others feared job losses in the whaling sector if the hunt ended and criticized activists’ in-your-face approach — even if they had little affection for whale meat itself.
“It is Japanese food culture,” said Miuka Arita, 45. “People who decide they want to eat it should be allowed to do so. Just because (activists) didn’t grow up eating it does not justify the aggressive actions they take.”
Tamie Sawai doesn’t think much of the “dangerous actions” of conservationists either. But the 83-year-old added that she had not eaten whale meat in years.
“Its bacon was quite good, but I don’t have any strong sense of nostalgia for whale meat,” she said. “I don’t miss it at all.”
Correction: In the original caption, the Baird’s beaked whale was mistakenly identified as a bottle-nose whale.