TOKYO — Environmentalists in the icy seas, risking life and limb to save whales from the harpoons of Japanese hunters — it makes for good headlines in the West and has even spawned a TV series, "Whale Wars."
But such efforts by environmental groups like Greenpeace have done nothing to slow Japan's annual whale hunt, which kills about 1,000 a year.
So the organization is taking a softer approach to its anti-whaling campaign in Japan, where many don't approve of protests and civil disruption.
Japan's whaling fleet left last month for its annual hunt in the Antarctic Ocean, but for the first time in years no Greenpeace vessels were in pursuit.
At a subdued event in Tokyo on Tuesday, directors from Greenpeace offices worldwide gathered to protest Japan's continued whale hunts and the treatment of two of its anti-whaling activists who were arrested for stealing whale meat.
They delivered a letter to Prime Minister Taro Aso and held a brief, silent protest in front of Parliament.
"About three years ago, Greenpeace began to realize that the way to win the campaign, by that I mean the way to stop whaling in the southern ocean, was to gain support inside Japan," said Steve Shallhorn, the director of Greenpeace Australia.
The group's clashes with whalers at sea received largely negative press in Japan.
"Compared to the U.S. and Western Europe, Japan is less tolerant of deviant behavior. Anything that's a little out of the ordinary is a little bit disturbing," said Robert Dujarric, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University Japan.
Heritage and pride
These days whale meat is considered a delicacy that few can afford to eat regularly, but it holds a special place in the hearts of many older Japanese because it was widely served during the lean postwar years when other meats were more rare and expensive.
"When I was a poor student in university, we all ate deep-fried whale cutlets, because we couldn't afford pork," said Kazuo Hirano, 67, a public relations consultant in Tokyo.
The Japanese have hunted whales for centuries, and many consider it an honorable profession and a proud part of Japanese heritage.
Although Hirano said he rarely eats whale meat any more, he's not alone in thinking the hunts are important and that the foreign environmentalists are meddling in Japanese affairs.
"It's not right when such groups interrupt. Each country has its own food culture, and whale is part of ours."
Indeed, Japan has maintained its whaling program despite heavy criticism from abroad. The government hunts whales under a scientific study program allowed by international rules, and sells most of the meat as food.
Greenpeace has slowly began to cultivate political allies in the Japanese parliament, such as Ryuhei Kawada, a lawmaker in the upper house. Kawada has battled the government and won before, in a lawsuit after he and others were infected with HIV from contaminated blood products.
"Whaling needs to be reconsidered, from an environmental perspective," he said.
Other environmental organizations have not followed Greenpeace's lead.
Sea Shepherd, a combative marine conservation group, has long pursued a strategy of direct intervention, even ramming and boarding whaling boats. Their ship was tracking the Japanese fleet on this season's hunt.
Activist Kim McCoy, reached onboard their vessel by satellite phone, said Sea Shepherd members were disappointed that an organization with the size and funding of Greenpeace had pulled out.
"But we'll keep going down every year until whaling is stopped," she said.
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