In light of the entrenched positions involved, the whaling issue appears hopelessly deadlocked as the prowhaling nations led by Japan, Iceland and Norway demand the right to return to commercial whaling from countries equally determined to resist them.

Inside Japan, the government’s Fisheries Agency (FA) runs its own campaign almost completely free of critical scrutiny by the media or influence from the Foreign Office or other bodies that might urge compromise. Meanwhile, lawmakers back them at zero political cost and the tiny whaling industry happily survives on subsidies. The International Whaling Commission is impotent. Such is the strength of this collective lobby in Japan — and the IWC’s impotence — that some wonder whether the deadlock may continue forever.

“Japan is not really serious about lifting the moratorium because the current situation is not bad for the prowhalers,” says Nagano University’s Tetsu Sato. “They are widely supported by the public, lawmakers and industry. If the moratorium is lifted they will find it hard to sustain the commercial industry and impossible to revive it.”

For many environmentalists, the loss of the whaling ban — one of the movement’s few lasting achievements — would spell disaster. But oddly, they may be helping to sustain the campaign by adding rhetorical fuel to the FA’s arguments that the rest of the world “doesn’t understand” whaling culture.

“People in Japan are not really prowhaling,” says Atsushi Ishii of Tohoku University — they’re just anti-anti- whaling. They believe the FA when it says the world is stopping them eating whale.”

Protests by Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain will not diminish the strength of prowhaling feeling in Japan, and may even add to it. Only the prospect of a strong antiwhaling campaign in America, it seems, might rattle Japan’s confidence — which is one reason why environmentalists may this year concentrate their campaign there against Japan’s killing of humpbacks.

Even this does not cause the FA’s deputy director general Akira Nakamae much distress. “Will the rest of the world understand our hunting for humpback whales?” he asks. “Probably not; we would prefer if it did, but then whatever we hunt is misunderstood. Nobody understands minke either.”

So some conservationists are beginning to ask, is it time to call Japan’s bluff?

At its early 1960s peak, Japan’s whaling industry boasted eight big fleets yielding more than 200,000 tons of meat annually. It currently has just one fleet with one mother vessel and three catcher boats.

Although Parliamentary Whaling League member Yoshimasa Hayashi and some other prowhalers claim that “60 percent” of the Japanese population could be persuaded to eat whalemeat again, most neutral observers believe that with the current figure at just 1 percent, this is wildly optimistic. In addition, Japan’s health ministry, known to be worried about levels of PCBs, mercury and dioxins in whalemeat, would likely have considerable clout against the FA — as might the Foreign Ministry, which is a reluctant partner at best in the whaling mission. And with the FA unable to claim that Western “cultural imperialists” were blocking their legitimate claims, one of the ideological pillars of the campaign would collapse.

“The whole whaling issue is just a sort of parlor game in which petty nationalism flourishes,” says Keiji Takeuchi, veteran science writer for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “The Japanese side loves going to the IWC conferences. It’s an excursion for them, like a boxing bout. And the environmentalists have been going for 20 or 25 years. But there’s no real discussion. They all love the debate, but this is a relatively minor problem and it should be easy to solve.”

See related stories:
Siege mentality fuels ‘sustainability’ claims
Vitriol vies with science
Resentments sustain a moribund meat trade
The price of stalemate
From the inside looking out . . .

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