Earlier this year I was commissioned by a British newspaper to research a Japanese company called Hakudai, which was reputed to be putting whale meat into dog food.

I found the company in Chikura, a sleepy fishing town in Chiba Prefecture with a long tradition of whale hunting; local supermarkets were selling fresh minke, and prowhaling advertisements decorated the walls. One poster showed a whale gobbling fish from an image of the earth with the top sliced off. The blurb, written by the Fisheries Agency, proclaimed that “whales eat five times more fish than humans” so they “must be caught within limits.”

Hakudai turned out to be a shop attached to a small plant employing about two dozen people, some of whom were cutting slivers of whale meat and drying them in the sun. The boss was 43-year-old Kiyoshi Okawa, who inherited the shop from his grandfather.

The shop sold small bags of whale jerky for 400 yen each. “People like to spoil their pets with treats,” explained Okawa.

Okawa was friendly and open, even though he acknowledged that whaling was unlikely to get a fair hearing in Britain. “I know how you people feel, but I honestly can’t understand how you can consider whales cute. Lambs are much cuter to me than whales, and I don’t eat them.”

When I pointed out that lambs are not going extinct, he said he was assured by the Fisheries Agency that there are “plenty of whales,” especially minke. “And I believe them,” he said.

I sent off the interview transcript, minus any editorializing, knowing that the eventual story written in London would likely play into the stereotype of the cruel, barbarous Japanese.

In the end, my story was trumped by a rival newspaper, which splashed the article prominently and helped make Hakudai the target of an e-mail campaign that forced its Web site to shut down.

Okawa thought I was the culprit and left angry messages on my answering machine: “You’ve ruined my business,” he said.

Last month, I got an even more angry letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — my first — after the newspaper I write for in the U.K. published a separate story on Japan’s push for an end to the 1986 whaling ban. The letter said our coverage was “illogical” and “discriminatory.”

Foreign journalists here have long struggled to bridge the cultural divide over whaling between this country and the readers they cater to abroad. But this job is about to become much more difficult.

Japan and the prowhaling nations of Iceland and Norway are likely to win control of regulatory body the International Whaling Commission (IWC) when it meets in the West Indies in June.

Led by Tokyo, which has tirelessly lobbied for the return of commercial hunting, the three countries hope to secure 51 percent of IWC votes, paving the way for the reversal of the whaling ban that the environmental movement counts as one of its biggest victories.

Although scrapping the ban requires a 75 percent majority, control of the commission will be a huge propaganda boost to Tokyo’s campaign and allow secret voting and other measures likely to help its cause.

The prospect of an end to the two-decade moratorium will make the conference the most vitriolic yet, after years of tension between the two bitterly opposed camps.

The IWC has failed to stop the three prowhaling nations from killing about 2,000 whales a year. Japan’s whaling fleet recently returned from a “scientific expedition” to an Antarctic whale sanctuary with a haul of almost 1,000 whales, in defiance of the whaling body.

Pictures of the harpooned, bloodied animals went all around the world and Australia was one of several countries that labeled the expedition “a sham.” But Japan has worked for years to win the support of over a dozen smaller nations, by buying their votes with foreign aid, claim critics.

Tokyo says the IWC has been hijacked by environmentalists and is “totally dysfunctional.” Armed with its own surveys on whaling stocks, the prowhaling lobby is relishing another skirmish with what it calls the West’s “culinary imperialists.”

“We think it’s possible to use whale resources in a sustainable way,” says Hideki Moronuki of the Fisheries Agency. “We don’t have much land, we have the sea. Japan has lost so much of its own culture already. Countries like the U.K. and America have their own resources. We don’t tell them what to eat.”

But strip away the rhetorical fog about “culture” and the issues become clearer. Sending factory ships thousands of kilometers from Japanese ports to hunt whales in sanctuaries is not the same as some idealized picture of locals engaged in sustainable fishing.

The agency claims there are close to a million Antarctic minkes and that it can hunt at a “scientifically sustainable” level, but so many other sources dispute those figures that it is simply impossible to take them at face value.

Moreover, “sustainability” arguments were heard when other species, such as gray whales, were being hunted to near extinction.

These issues, and the enormous damage that an end to the ban will likely cause to Japan’s international reputation, should be the topic of a national debate, but the media here has so far remained silent.

In the meantime, the terms of what little debate there is are being set by a small nationalist clique. Indeed, most foreign journalists are stuck by the tone of wounded national pride that emerges in discussions with whaling supporters.

“The consumption of rice has decreased because we were forced to consume bread in school after World War II in order to import huge amounts of flour from the U.S.,” argues Moronuki.

Japan’s whaling “research fleet” is backed by a lobby of nationalist politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party, including Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Shoichi Nakagawa The lobby has spent billions of yen in a tireless diplomatic offensive to reverse the 1986 ban. The same LDP politicians can be found behind other rightwing causes, such as revisionist history textbooks.

Without their 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 harbor.

One problem faced by this lobby is falling whale meat consumption. Even before 1986, when the moratorium on whaling began, whale eating was declining and about one percent of the population now eats it regularly, say most surveys.

With whale cuisine confined mostly to a handful of outlets, the prowhalers have struggled to dispose of Japan’s growing stocks of whale meat — almost 5,000 tons, according to one recent report.

This problem is being worked out by stealth. Last year, schoolchildren in rural Wakayama Prefecture found deep-fried whale in their lunchboxes, and similar schemes are afoot in government-related organizations that don’t have to struggle for the consumers’ pocket.

“It should be simple to work out our differences but things seem to get so emotional,” said Okawa.

Now the whaling discussion is about to get even more emotional.

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