Why Japan won’t back down on whaling


LONDON — “They do not allow them free for a moment — not even at cocktail parties,” said Atherton Martin, former Environment and Fisheries Minister of Dominica, describing how the Japanese ride herd on the representatives of countries whose votes they have bought at International Whaling Commission meetings. “It’s disgusting, it’s appalling. It’s beyond colonial.” And they’ll doubtless be doing it again at the IWC meeting that opened in London July 24.

There are no whalers in Dominica. Japan just paid for its IWC membership and bought its vote, as it has done with other small, poor countries including Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada, Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The payment is disguised as overseas development aid, but an indiscreet Japanese government official recently admitted what everybody already knew: it is straight bribery.

Speaking to Australian television, Masayuki Komatsu, head of the international division of Japan’s Fisheries Agency, explained that “Japan does not have military power. The means (to gain support on the IWC) is simply diplomatic communication and ODA. . . . It is natural that we must rely on those two major tools, so I think there is nothing wrong.”

Others think there is a lot wrong with Tokyo using its financial clout to buy support on such a contentious issue as whaling, especially when Japan and its only major ally, Norway, are trying to roll back the controls that have been placed on commercial whaling.

Last year, Japan went beyond the 100 minke whales it has been killing annually on the pretext of “scientific research” and started killing Bryde’s and sperm whales as well. Last month Norway, which has also been hunting minkes, announced that it would breach the 15-year ban on international trade in whale products and start exporting to Japan (because its freezers were full of whale blubber that Norwegians do not eat). Both countries make it clear that their goal is to resume commercial whaling.

Before we wallow in indignation, however, we should recall that the IWC was originally set up to manage whaling, not to end it. The antiwhaling coalition achieved the current moratorium in 1986 by exactly the same tactic of packing the membership with poor non-whaling countries like Belize, Costa Rica and Senegal who would vote the right way in return for foreign aid. Japan’s conduct toward its vassals is ugly and demeaning, but it didn’t start this game.

More importantly, we should ask why Japan is putting so much effort into such a marginal issue? This is a country famous for keeping its head down and shunning leadership roles; yet it is courting global opprobrium with a campaign to bring back commercial whaling.

It makes neither political nor economic sense. Japan’s annual revenues from a revived whale “fishery” would barely match the money it pours into diplomatic bribes each year, let alone the costs of the international unpopularity it incurs.

So why is Japan doing this? Because the governing elite see this as a crucial issue of Western cultural imperialism. You can hear their impatience with Western sentimentalism in Komatsu’s reference to minke whales as “the cockroach of the seas” in his recent TV interview, and in sarcastic queries about how Westerners would like it if Hindus tried to stop them from eating beef.

The West’s unstated but real position is that whales should never be hunted again, even if it were a biologically sustainable activity, because they are too intelligent, too much like ourselves in fact, to be treated as food. Like the great apes and the dolphins, they are acquiring a quasi-human moral standing in the Western popular imagination. This new perception of whales has not yet made much headway in Japan.

The struggle at the IWC is being waged for unadmitted goals, with underhanded means, by opponents who cannot understand each other. But in the end, it is likely to be the new generation of Japanese who settle the argument — and they will choose to protect the whales.