Fri, Feb 01, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Japan’s whalers back withdrawal


Workers dissect a Baird’s beaked whale at Wada port in Minamiboso, Japan, on July 12, 2004.

Photo: AFP

Neatly lining up sliced whale meat to make “jerky” in the wintry sea breeze, Tetsuya Masaki said whaling is just part of daily life in his tiny Japanese community of Minamiboso.

Japan sparked outrage in December last year when it decided to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission, saying it would return to commercial whaling as part of its cultural heritage.

Rarely is that heritage more in evidence that in Minamiboso, a town on the Pacific coast about 70km south of Tokyo that is home to Gaibo Hogei, one of a handful of remaining local whaling companies.

Masaki, 32, a processing factory worker for Gaibo Hogei, admitted that the local whaling industry has shrunk, but said it is still an “indispensable” part of the town — especially during the summer whaling season.

The firm allows local residents and tourists to watch whales being dismembered at its slaughterhouse as part of efforts to keep alive the region’s 400-year-old whaling history.

Local schoolchildren also visit the seaside facility where they can get a closer look at the rare sight of workers stripping the flesh from the thick skin of whales with special choppers.

Gaibo Hogei president Yoshinori Shoji, 57, said Japan’s decision to withdraw from the commission was “far too late, but the right answer,” adding that he backed it “100 percent.”

Shoji’s firm annually harpoons 26 giant beaked whales — a type not covered by the commission, but subject to domestic Japanese quotas — and lands them at Wada port, one of the nation’s five bases for coastal whaling.

He said he was gearing up “as a matter of course” to resume commercial whaling of minke whales — protected under the treaty — once Tokyo formally leaves the commission in June.

The decision sparked a firestorm of criticism from environmentalists and anti-whaling nations.

It was a rare piece of provocative diplomacy by Japan, which has generally pursued an uncontroversial foreign policy since its World War II defeat.

However, a poll last month by public broadcaster NHK suggested that a majority (53 percent) of Japanese backed the withdrawal decision, compared with 37 percent opposed.

Japan vowed to forge ahead with commercial whaling of minke and other whales off its coast, but said it was stopping its most provocative whaling — annual Antarctic expeditions that used a commission provision permitting hunting for scientific research.

The nation makes little secret of the fact that much of the meat from the research ends up on the dinner plate and Minamiboso resident Kazuo Tachikawa is proud that whale meat is a “regional specialty.”

“You can buy whale meat at all supermarkets and seafood shops here,” the 70-year-old said at a roadside station, where a huge model of a blue whale skeleton stands alongside harpoon guns.

However, other locals appeared unmoved by the controversy.

“I would be concerned if it were tuna or other fish,” said Sadae Nakamura, a 67-year-old housewife.

“I even don’t know the difference between research whaling and commercial whaling,” she said. “It’s all politics that is beyond people like me.”

In terms of politics, many members of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party are supporters of whaling and he himself comes from a constituency where whale hunting remains popular.

Japan has hunted whales for centuries and the meat was a key source of protein in the immediate post-World War II years when the nation was desperately poor, but consumption has declined significantly, with much of the population saying they rarely or never eat whale meat.

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