One of the most controversial elements of Japan’s campaign to overturn the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 commercial whaling ban is the alleged use of official Overseas Development Aid to “buy” the votes of poorer IWC member-countries. That is an allegation vehemently denied by fisheries bureaucrats. Here, for example, is Joji Morishita, the Fisheries Agency’s director for international negotiations:

“We reject that accusation. We send overseas aid to more than 160 countries, including many antiwhaling countries in the developed world. This is government money and is not connected to political issues.”

So what explains the stunning switch in the IWC’s balance of forces: from being overwhelmingly conservationist at the time of the moratorium in 1986 (31:10) to last year’s historic majority (32:33) in the prowhalers’ favor at St. Kitts?

Many of the commission’s 21 newest members, such as the Marshall Islands and St. Kitts & Nevis, have no history of whaling, while several, including Mongolia and Mali, have no coastlines. All the newer members are developing countries in desperate need of foreign investment, and nearly half are from West Africa.

This power shift could clearly only have been achieved by a sustained campaign to win the support of so-called neutral nations in the IWC — a fact acknowledged by leading prowhaling lawmakers such as the LDP’s high-flying Yoshimasa Hayashi.

Because foreign aid was already used, in Hayashi’s words, “with certain conditions,” and was “even given to antiwhaling countries,” he and other supporters of the Parliamentary Whaling League insisted that whaling — a matter of “important national interest” — should be shoved near the top of the list of conditions.

Indeed, the Foreign Office’s own records show officials from the prime minister down raising the whaling issue in meeting after meeting with foreign dignitaries. As prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, for example, expressed his gratitude to the president of Nicaragua, Enrique Bolanas Geyer, at a summit meeting in June 2004. One month later, Japan canceled Nicaraguan debt to the tune of $118.4 million. Japan’s whaling diplomacy has been built on hundreds of similar approaches.

Hayashi explains the impact of this strategy:

“I think most of the countries that have newly joined [the IWC], including the Caribbean, African and Central American countries like Nicaragua, have joined as the result of joint efforts by the prowhaling camp. We cooperate and recruit new countries. You know, nobody joins without an invitation or lobbying (laughs). When the moratorium was passed we were less than one quarter, so now we finally have a majority.”

Accusations that rich countries, including Japan, tie ODA spending to their strategic interests are hardly new. As the refreshingly honest prowhaling Australian journalist Padraic P. McGuinness puts it: “It is standard practice in world politics for wealthy countries to bribe poor countries.”

But will this strategy succeed in winning Japan, Iceland and Norway the 75 percent IWC majority needed to overturn the moratorium? Oddly, the answer acknowledged by almost everyone is that it will not.

Japan’s campaign to overturn the ban is tied closely to one specific category of aid — Grant Aid for Fisheries and its related Technical Cooperation — a tool for negotiating mainly with developing Pacific island states for access to marine resources. However, this has been gradually eclipsed by the need to secure diplomatic support in international forums, amid a growing wave of marine protectionism. One estimate is that Japan disbursed $750 million in fisheries grant aid to its new whaling allies between 1994 and 2005.

That, though, does not exhaust Japan’s largesse.

Over the last decade, Foreign Office and other officials have logged hundreds of trips abroad to discuss whaling issues with foreign diplomats. Estimating the total cost of wooing Japan’s 21 newest IWC allies, and the ongoing effort to recruit more, is therefore clouded in mystery. Certainly, though, it runs into billions of yen. Remarkably, in a climate of severe public budget cuts, there is little apparent media interest in this expensive exercise in whaling diplomacy, despite the fact that most experts agree it has no hope of success.

“It is absolutely impossible [for Japan] to get 60 prowhaling votes, and even if they persuade more allies, more antiwhaling countries will join the IWC,” says Atsushi Ishii, a political-science scholar at the Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University.

Even the FA’s Deputy Director General Akira Nakamae admits there is little chance of recruiting 60 countries: “Given the current situation with two sides operating at opposite ends, it will be terribly difficult to realize three-quarters of the IWC.” (Bear in mind here a useful rule-of-thumb when dealing with Japanese bureaucracy: “Yes” means “maybe”; “maybe” means “difficult”; “terribly difficult” means “impossible.”)

So why does Japan spend all this money on an apparently doomed exercise? Prowhalers hope that changing the composition of the IWC will swing the debate back toward sustainable whaling, says Hideki Moronuki, the FA’s spokesman.

“We don’t have a timetable for overturning the moratorium, but we’re hoping the atmosphere of the IWC will change drastically,” he said.

Given that all agree IWC conservationists will react with equal force, the stalemate can go on for years.

See related stories:
Siege mentality fuels ‘sustainability’ claims
Vitriol vies with science
Resentments sustain a moribund meat trade
Deadlock is dominant in whaling’s ‘petty parlor game’
From the inside looking out . . .

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