Six months ago Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki were ordinary men looking after young families. But in June they were arrested by a large group of uniformed police, taken to a detention center in Aomori Prefecture, northern Japan, and held for 26 days.

They were granted bail on July 15 after paying ¥4 million each, but their release, after an unusual decision by an Aomori judge to hear their case, is highly conditional. Neither is allowed to freely meet or talk to work colleagues, leave home for extended periods or travel abroad. Both are watched by detectives and followed. They can only talk to journalists, separately, in their lawyer’s office. Any violation of these conditions will land them back in jail.

Their crime? Taking a 23-kg box of whale meat from a delivery company warehouse. If, as looks very likely, they are found guilty of trespassing and theft, they face a maximum 10 years in prison.

“Sometimes there are three policemen watching my house,” says Sato, 32, who was interrogated for hours every day while in custody and admits the ordeal has been hard on his family. “They’re quite conservative and of course they’re very worried.”

Suzuki, 41, shunned visits from his wife because he didn’t want his 2-year-old child to see him in a police cell. “It has been difficult but I don’t regret what we did at all,” he says.

The arrest of Greenpeace activists Sato and Suzuki is the latest salvo in the bitter war of words and tactics between antiwhaling campaigners and Japan’s authorities. Tensions between the two sides have ratcheted up since Japan announced last year that its fleet would add 50 humpback whales to its disputed annual cull in the Southern Ocean.

International protests forced the cancellation of the humpback kill but no letup in the stinging rhetoric of Japan’s Fisheries Agency, who denounced Greenpeace and the more aggressive Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as environmental “terrorists.”

For its part, Greenpeace upped the ante in the campaign this year with an investigation into what they said was large-scale fraud aboard Japan’s main whaling ship, the Nisshin Maru. The investigation culminated in the decision to intercept the box of whale meat from Seino Transportation in mid-April, one of 47 parcels allegedly sent by Nisshin Maru crew members to addresses across Japan.

According to Greenpeace, whalers aboard the ship have long had the right to choice cuts from the government- subsidized whaling catch, which they sell on the black market, bypassing virtually all controls. “According to our informants, some men were taking up to 20 or 30 boxes of the high-value ‘uneso’ whale meat, with each box worth up to $3,000,” says the group’s international spokesman, Dave Walsh. “That means they were skimming huge sums of money from a taxpayer-funded program. It’s a scandal that needs to be investigated.”

Sato and Suzuki took these allegations to journalists at a press conference that won worldwide attention, before handing the meat over to the police in May and demanding an investigation. The authorities responded by ignoring the claims against the Nisshin Maru and its operator Kyodo Senpaku, and launching a ferocious campaign against Greenpeace.

A total of 38 policemen were reportedly assigned from Aomori to investigate the “theft” case, plus a large squad of cops and special detectives from Tokyo, who rejected Sato and Suzuki’s argument that the meat was borrowed to prove a point, not stolen.

Greenpeace phone records were intercepted, its Tokyo office was raided in June, computers were confiscated and the homes of several members were searched. TV crews tipped off and waiting outside the office to record the search later filed reports claiming that Greenpeace members were being detained under “antiterrorist laws.”

Would a relatively small incident of property theft worth perhaps $3,000 normally warrant such an elaborate, expensive and carefully calibrated investigation? Neither the Aomori Prosecutors Office nor the Aomori police responded to questions about the case, or what might have provoked it. Hironori Masuyama, the Japan’s Fisheries Agency high seas spokesman, also declined to go on the record, though an agency official, speaking anonymously, rejected claims that the arrests were politically motivated.

“Western-style demonstrations (are not) accepted by many Japanese,” he said in an e-mail. “The attitude (of Greenpeace) is considered very irresponsible and arrogant by many.” The official branded the two men “criminals” who had forced the authorities to take action.

“Note that what they have done are not simple crimes but . . . challenges not only to the police and to the government, but also the public.” Given the level of general anger against what the two did, says the official, “I believe, the police have decided to treat this issue seriously, even though what they did is not as serious as injury or murder.”

But Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer for the two men, calls the charges overblown. “They didn’t eat or sell the meat; they were trying to expose embezzlement and misuse of tax money. What they did might merit say a fine or a warning, not arresting and imprisoning them.” He says the Japanese media has, in effect, already convicted the men.

Greenpeace Japan Director Jun Hoshikawa insisted that Sato and Suzuki were motivated by democratic ideals, not personal gain. “A basic principle of a democracy is that we are responsible for our own government to use taxpayers’ money properly,” he said. “What Junichi and Toru did was to act as responsible Japanese taxpayers and voters, by holding their government accountable.” Hoshikawa admits that negative coverage of the case has been very bad for Greenpeace Japan, but the arrest of the so-called Tokyo Two has sparked a global campaign to clear their names and expose what activists call a witch hunt. “Apparently, we’re heroes in Denmark,” laughs Suzuki.

Greenpeace supporters have bombarded the Aomori prosecutors with over a quarter of a million e-mails demanding that charges against the two be dropped, and a delegation from the organization’s international office was to hand a letter of protest to Prime Minister Taro Aso in Tokyo on Tuesday. Demonstrations are planned this week outside Japanese embassies around the world, including in Britain and the U.S.

The protests come as Japan’s whaling fleet again heads for the Southern Ocean in search of 935 minke and 50 fin whales, part of its annual “scientific whaling” expedition.

Fleet operator Kyodo Senpaku has denied rumors that the Nisshin Maru, whose November departure was shrouded in secrecy to avoid protests, is operating with a stripped down crew following a decision by some members to quit in the wake of the whale meat scandal.

The firm has also rejected claims that its recently announced plan to shut a showcase whale restaurant in Tokyo’s upscale Asakusa district was another sign of weakening demand. Greenpeace and other antiwhaling groups say there is now virtually no market for whale meat in Japan and that the industry is kept on life support by government subsidies.

Sato and Suzuki face a series of pretrial sessions before the public trial begins, probably sometime next March. In the meantime, they are planning their defense. Although few believe the court will impose the maximum sentence, they say they are taking nothing for granted. “We can’t underestimate what might happen because the case has become so political,” points out Suzuki.

He remains upbeat, but Sato, the more experienced activist, has lost weight and looks tired from the pressure of the looming trial. Still, he calls his arrest “positive” because it has allowed people to see what he calls the problems in Japanese society. “There is a lack of democracy and a lot of pressure on citizen activism. This is clearly an overreaction by the authorities.”

As evidence, he says when the police raided his home, they seemed delighted to find the T-shirt he wore to the April press conference where they made the embezzlement claims, “proving” that he was there. “I wasn’t denying I was there. But they needed something to show the media waiting in front of my house.”

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