Nearly a quarter of a century since Japan began its controversial “research whaling” cull off Antarctica, there was a major development this year in the annual contest of wills between whalers and conservationists.

In mid-February, Japan’s whaling fleet was recalled home, with the government blaming harassment from the U.S.-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Having departed on Dec. 2, some two weeks later than usual, the fleet reportedly harpooned around 160 whales, a small fraction of its 945 target.

“We’ve shut them down, basically,” Sea Shepherd’s leader, Paul Watson, crowed from the group’s “flagship” in Antarctic waters, the Steve Irwin.

Japan’s Antarctic retreat suggested a general withdrawal from the field of battle after years of diplomatic, legal and direct-action challenges. The International Fund for Animal Welfare was one of many organizations to speculate that this signaled the beginning of the end for Japanese whaling.

Conservationists have for years been obstructing the Antarctic cull, which exploits a loophole in the IWC’s 1986 whaling moratorium to target roughly 1,000 minke, fin and other species of the marine mammals for what are claimed to be research purposes. Japan blamed its reduced catch of 507 animals during its 2009-10 Antarctic hunt on the harrying of its fleet.

However, in his new book (in Japanese), titled “Kaitai Shinso: Hogei Ronso” (“Anatomy of the Whaling Debate”; Shinhyoron), Atsushi Ishii warns conservationists that it is much too early to declare victory.

“Japan is using Sea Shepherd as an excuse to stop,” argues the political scientist at Tohoku University’s Center for Northeast Asian Studies. With the budget deficit for the campaign growing annually, Japan had to find a way to back out without losing face — and now they have it, Ishii said.

“Sea Shepherd’s victory is very good for the Fisheries Agency” (the governmental body that controls Japan’s whaling). “The main whaling ship (Nisshin Maru) is old and the whale meat doesn’t sell anyway. They’ll continue whaling, but in the Northwest Pacific, and they’ll continue to negotiate for subsidies and for the right to whale more around the coast.

“What Sea Shepherd calls a victory means more Pacific and coastal whaling.”

Ishii has been doling out this kind of counter-intuitive advice for years now, and is a veteran of four IWC conferences — the notoriously windy, vitriolic and unproductive annual meetings of both warring sides. He has emerged battle-scarred with a simple conclusion: “There is so much lying and propaganda in the debate, so you have to criticize all the arguments.”

“Japan maintains that (the annual cull) contributes to science, but it doesn’t at all. It says that whaling is legal, but it’s not. It says there are 750,000 minke whales in the Antarctic, but that’s not true at all. That figure comes from a tentative IWC assessment conducted between 1978-84.”

Nationalist-tinged arguments that Japanese whaling methods are less wasteful, or that it was the West — not Japan — that pushed many species to the brink of extinction are “illogical,” he adds. “They imply that there is a Japanese way and a Western way, but Japan imported its whaling methods from Norway.

“And Japanese whaling operations were also wasteful, especially in the Antarctic, where they killed for whale oil. There’s no logic to these arguments; they don’t provide any enlightenment. Even the Japanese take on Western countries quitting whaling, as though they are hypocritical (after more than 200 years of large-scale hunting): What’s the problem with quitting if something is bad?”

Faced with such a morass of arguments and counter-claims, Ishii says the purpose of his book is to explain the debate in reasonable, non-polarized terms. “I’m criticizing all the important actors in the debate: the Fisheries Agency, the Japan Whaling Association, academia, the media, Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd. I don’t praise anyone,” he says with a laugh.

Ishii believes that Sea Shepherd and other conservation groups should simply stop their anti-whaling campaigns, which he says fuel nationalism and increase the demand for whale meat. “It makes whale-eating a native Japanese thing — ‘We can protect our culture and protest against foreigners by eating it.’ “

Where does he stand? Although he says his position on eating whale meat is “irrelevant,” he is happy to admit to having eaten it. “I don’t like the taste, but I support perfectly legal whaling and the right of some people to eat whale meat. The problem lies in defining ‘legal whaling.’ The key fact is that the whale swims in the high seas so it belongs to everyone. It’s not easy to draw a line between the high seas and coastal areas. So if someone says, ‘Don’t kill whales on the high seas,’ that should be respected.

“What is most important is to hold the Japanese government accountable to the people of Japan, because it is now betraying them and telling lies. The budget details of the campaign are kept secret, despite the fact that it is our money.”

As an example, he cites the growing annual deficit for the whaling expeditions, the cost of what he terms “bribes” (money paid as Official Development Assistance) to countries that agree to support Japan’s position, and the diplomacy needed to smooth ruffled international feathers and fight militant environmentalism.

Cables made public this year by WikiLeaks revealed that Japan had pressed the U.S. government to target Sea Shepherd as part of a secret deal that could have reduced the cull. The four cables showed an apparent U.S. willingness to investigate the NGO status of Sea Shepherd. Indeed, Washington’s senior whaling negotiator, Monica Medina, is reported as saying about this: “(Sea Shepherd) does not deserve tax-exempt status based on their aggressive and harmful actions.”

A U.S. cable dated Nov. 2, 2009, records Shuji Yamada, Japan’s then Vice Minister for International Affairs, calling for “action” against Sea Shepherd’s tax status, which, he said, “created a very dangerous situation on the seas.”

Ishii also points to what he calls the government’s ¥800 million “anti-Sea Shepherd” fund, and notes: “They don’t say this will be used to attack Sea Shepherd; they say it will ‘smooth the way for whaling operations.’ “

He adds that the whaling fleet’s annual cull of between 800 and 1,000 whales is deliberately set too high. The real figure is 600, meaning the fleet has been on or near target for years. Hence his conviction that Japan’s “defeat” this year was self-inflicted. “I don’t think the anti-whalers were more aggressive this year than last. So why didn’t they catch 600 this year? Because they didn’t want to … “

So how is this farrago to be ended?

Ishii rejects direct action. The revelation that whale-meat was taken from a transport company depot by the so-called Greenpeace Tokyo Two, who are fighting a conviction last year for theft and trespass, “made the situation worse,” he argues.

“It didn’t create any debate on whaling, but it did create debate about the integrity of Greenpeace and some people within the whaling industry.”

Similarly, he says Sea Shepherd made a mistake when it became involved in a clash with Japan’s whaling fleet that ended with activist Peter Bethune standing trial in Tokyo for boarding a whaling ship and assaulting a Japanese crew member. Bethune was convicted last year and deported to his native New Zealand. The drama created discussion on who was at fault in the incident, says Ishii, but no debate about whaling itself. “What’s good or bad for whales got lost.”

Ishii’s solution to the interminable whaling tit-for-tat is not new: Allow Japan to hunt more whales around its own coastal waters in exchange for abandoning all (Antarctic and Pacific) high-seas whaling. “Coastal whaling must be subject to very strict monitoring and compliance, and the catch quota must be calculated by the IWC,” he says — adding that the government must be forced to open up the debate and engage in deliberative democracy about the whaling issue.

The 2011 IWC meeting looms next month in Britain’s Channel Islands. It’s possible, he says, that the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which is currently deliberating its approach, may be preparing a historic compromise incorporating some or most of those suggestions. But experience suggests otherwise. “Let’s see what happens,” Ishii says.

David McNeill is a Tokyo-based freelance journalist and broadcaster. He is Japan correspondent for the London-based national newspaper, The Independent.

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