Magazine article Newsweek International

Ecopolitics: Why Japan Risks Its Place in the World to Hunt Whales

Magazine article Newsweek International

Ecopolitics: Why Japan Risks Its Place in the World to Hunt Whales

Article excerpt

Byline: Christian Caryl ; Kevin Peraino ; Joseph Contreras ; Tracy McNicoll ; Adam B. Kushner ; Brian Braiker

Japan's grim determination to keep hunting whales long after most states gave it up drives environmentalists round the bend. But never has it threatened relations with a key ally--or, arguably, the core of Japan's current foreign policy--till now.

In recent weeks, Australia's new pro-green Labor government has demanded that Tokyo call off a current whaling expedition in Antarctica, has ordered an armed customs ship to monitor the operation; it's even considered sending in Air Force surveillance planes. An Australian court also recently ruled that Japan's whale hunt defied a 1986 international moratorium. Should the Japanese continue whaling, there's a chance they could face detention and other sanctions if they put into Australian ports.

Why would Tokyo, which has been anxiously building a regional alliance of democracies to counter China, risk offending a key linchpin in that coalition in order to kill a few endangered animals? Especially when recent polls suggest that most Japanese don't actually care about the issue? It's especially baffling when you remember how hard Japan worked to seal a security pact with Australia just last year. The answer, like most of Japan's perplexing behavior, probably involves tradition. Though most Japanese don't care much for whale meat, a hard-core minority does, and defends the hunt as a traditional practice they're loath to give up. This has led the blogosphere to erupt over the controversy, with environmentalists calling the Japanese war criminals and Japanese Netizens blasting the Aussies as bigots and hypocrites.

Tokyo doesn't recognize Canberra's jurisdiction in the matter and insists the whales are being slain for scientific purposes only; Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda recently defended the hunt on these grounds. But whaling opponents argue you don't need to kill the giant mammals in order to study them, and note that blubber, which some Japanese regard as a delicacy, continues to turn up on sushi menus and in Japanese school cafeterias.

What happens next? Tokyo's already stopped hunting endangered humpback whales, so it might give up on the rest as well. But with some defining the whale hunt as a touchstone of Japanese identity, it's becoming hard for the government to compromise. That's part of a worrisome trend in Japanese diplomacy: the willingness to let overheated rhetoric about ostensibly hallowed traditions get in the way of its vital national interests. Not the best idea in a world where Japan's already seeming increasingly marginal.

--Christian Caryl

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