As David McNeill of The Economist magazine introduced our panel in Tokyo to a packed room at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan earlier this month, he noted that most present were well familiar with the yearly “whale wars” once again playing out in the waters of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.
That annual dance plays out even as I type, as news begins to break that Japan's factory ship has slammed into Sea Shepherd vessels over the past several hours.
Supported by the Institute for Cetacean Research or ICR – a quasi-governmental agency American environmental icon RFK Jr. has termed a “pirate organization masquerading as a scientific research group” -- Japan’s aging whaling fleet again attempts to end-run a global whaling ban, sailing Southward to slaughter whales in the name of “scientific research” in an internationally recognized whale sanctuary.
En route to their illegal take, the Japanese fleet is met, pursued and harassed by a growing flotilla of vessels deployed by the buccaneering hardys of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, self-appointed enforcers of international regulations most sovereign countries seem not to take sufficiently seriously.
Meanwhile, back in Edo, bleating bureaucrats from Japan’s Fisheries Agency beat the Shepherds and their controversial Captain Paul Watson like political piñatas, skillfully spinning a narrative in which the Shepherds are cast as set pieces in the Agency’s scramble to dismiss any critique of whaling – whether on grounds of cruelty or conservation -- as Japan bashing.
Few in the foreign media buy this familiar shibboleth; but many quietly confess they are fed up with the annual fracas, and insist that but for insistent editors they would quit covering it.
Enter the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s new report on the failing economics of Japan’s whaling. While nowhere near as dramatic as direct confrontation in the whale sanctuary, this campaign salvo has received copious copy in print, online and broadcast outlets ‘round the planet over the past weeks.
In addition to generous coverage from the fourth estate, first-rate environmentalists -- including longtime Australian Green Party leader Bob Brown, himself now head Shepherd -- have been unstinting with their praise.
Our launch event in Tokyo was the culmination of 18 months of work with leading Japan-based contractors to unearth new information and identify the true bottom line for Japan’s failing whaling industry.
The resulting report, made possible only by the generosity of IFAW’s donors, finally proves that Japan’s ongoing whaling, off its coast, in the Southern Ocean and in the North Pacific, stays afloat only due to the generosity of Japanese taxpayers who are forced to foot the bill.
And they aren’t buying the old nationalist arguments for whaling any more than they are the stockpiled whale meat slowly rotting in massive freezers they are also subsidizing.
That is the reality beneath the hue and cry of the seasonal whale wars and the duplicitous claims of Japan’s Fisheries Agency.
But there is hope on the horizon.
Far from the confrontations playing out down South, a sustainable, profit-making whale-focused industry is taking off in coastal communities around Japan: responsible whale watching.
This fledgling ecotourism activity is making an increasing contribution to local economies from Hokkaido to Okinawa US$22 million in 2008 alone – all without a Yen of taxpayer subsidy.
This is the way forward, and the good people of Japan, who comprise more than 90 percent of paying customers for this nascent industry, are pointing the way.
Their government will ultimately follow.
And, as we’ve assured the many Japanese decision-makers we’ve briefed in Tokyo over the past several months, IFAW is going to help.
Check back later this week for more on IFAW’s next steps as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes his way to Washington, DC.
Until then, let’s celebrate some good news for whales, and all those who care about them.
Banzai! Domo Arigato! and Sayonara.