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A clash of views on whale-loving

Japanese demand for whale meat generates photogenic high-seas confrontations between whaling vessels and eco-activists while severely straining relations between Australia and Japan, longtime allies and major trading partners.
Image: A Greenpeace inflatable boat is seen next to Japan's whaling fleet
A Greenpeace inflatable boat is seen next to Japan's whaling fleet's factory ship Nisshin Maru and hunter vessel Yushin Maru No 2 in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, Jan. 18.Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

At Ohana, a restaurant not far from the Japanese parliament in central Tokyo, a small plate of chilled raw whale costs $17.50. Grilled whale is $9, while whale in a hot pot goes for $29.

The mammalian flesh for these dishes -- available year-round and served mostly to businessmen older than 40 -- comes from Japan's annual whale hunt, carried out, the government here declares, to advance "scientific" knowledge of cetaceans.

An international ban on whaling grants an exception for scientific hunts, and Japan's whaling fleet uses it nearly every year to harpoon several hundred whales -- killing and dissecting the animals is the best way to study their physiology and learn how to safeguard them, Japanese officials contend. The fleet then brings home thousands of tons of whale meat for sale to grocery stores and restaurants such as Ohana.

The hunt is on again this year in Antarctica's Southern Ocean. It's generating photogenic high-seas confrontations between whaling vessels and eco-activists while severely straining relations between Australia and Japan, longtime allies and major trading partners.

Culture clash
The hunt also seems to be widening a cultural chasm between Japan and the Western world. Many people here regard whale as merely seafood. But in much of the West, the whale is special. It is not a creature to be sliced thin and served on a plate with ginger and grated garlic.

(Ohana serves minke whale sashimi. It has a dark red color, a soft texture and a delicate taste, not fishy, a bit like carpaccio.)

Courts and political leaders in Australia are trying and, so far, failing to stop the Japanese from whaling in Antarctic waters over which Australia claims jurisdiction. The claim to those waters is not generally recognized by other countries, and certainly not by Japan.

"This is not scientific whaling," Kevin Rudd, Australia's new Labor prime minister, said recently. "This is commercial whaling."

Using language that seemed to mark a shift in Australian foreign policy, Rudd said his government intends to "accumulate an evidence base" for a legal challenge that would "end commercial whaling, period."

An Australian federal court order demanding that Japan abandon its hunt was hand-delivered this week by the Humane Society International to a Japanese whaling firm in Tokyo. The firm refused to accept it.

In the Southern Ocean earlier this month, two activists from the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd boarded a Japanese whaler on the high seas by jumping onto a low deck from a speedboat. They were promptly grabbed by crewmen as other activists videotaped the stunt from the speedboat.

Rhetoric on both sides quickly escalated, with Sea Shepherd officials accusing the Japanese of assault and kidnapping and Japanese officials in Tokyo calling Sea Shepherd a "terrorist group."

After generating headlines around the world, the two activists were removed from the Japanese whaler three days later by an Australian customs boat that was in the vicinity to collect information for a legal challenge to Japan's whaling operation.

Several days after that, Greenpeace whaling opponents maneuvered a small inflatable boat between a Japanese whaling ship and a tanker in a bid to block a refueling.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government is expressing increasing impatience with international rules that ban commercial whaling. "As far as the whale issue is concerned, our position is rigid," said Hideki Moronuki, chief of the whaling section of Japan's Fisheries Agency. "We have made so many compromises already."

The Japanese originally announced that they would take up to 50 humpback whales in the current hunt in addition to 800 minke and 50 fin whales. The humpback kill would have been the first in more than 40 years for a recovering species whose numbers had been reduced by about 90 percent by industrial whaling.

Under pressure from the United States and the European Union, where the humpback holds a special place in environmentalists' hearts, Japan backed away from that hunt. But the fleet is proceeding against the rest of the prey.

Japan: Time for 'normalization'
The 78-member International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed the global ban in 1986 and has since declined to lift it, despite repeated demands to do so from Japan and other countries that support whaling.

Citing the language of the IWC charter, Japan notes that the organization was created in 1946 not only to conserve whales but also to "make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry."

The world's whale population has substantially recovered since the ban on commercial hunting, Japan argues, so it is now time for "normalization" -- sustainable hunting of species whose numbers have bounced back. "The anti-whaling camp has been insisting only on conservation," said Moronuki, the Fisheries Agency official. "This contradicts the spirit of the commission."

He said that unless the IWC moves this year to allow commercial whaling, the organization "will collapse," as far as Japan is concerned. "We consider whales as one of our fishing resources," Moronuki said. "If we compromise about whales, we may have to compromise about all our fishing."

Japan's much-criticized whale hunt is underway at a time when the country's leader, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, is trying to market Japan as an environmental role model.

"By using such 'environmental power' to the fullest," Fukuda said this month, "I will promote a shift to a low-carbon society, which will serve as a precedent for the world." Aboard the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, which has been dogging the Japanese whaling fleet since Jan. 12, environmental activists scoff.

"If you say you want to be a world leader in environmental issues, then you send ships out to hunt whales, you lose credibility," Sara Holden, coordinator of the Greenpeace whales campaign, said in a telephone interview. "Of course this is hurting their image."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.