Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

JAPAN: Charges of Vote-Buying on Whaling Causes Few Waves at Home

Edwin Karmiol

TOKYO, Jul 26 2001 (IPS) - Accusations that Japan is using its mammoth aid funds to get small nations to back its position on whaling may be creating ripples overseas, but here at home the subject has made very little waves.

There has been little comment on this in the local press, and replies from the government to media inquiries have not come easily.

“Very honest but a little stupid” is how an academic here described remarks made earlier this month by a Japanese official, who said Tokyo uses its influence with the promise of aid to developing countries to favour pro-whaling activities.

On Tuesday, small nations, including from the Caribbean, voted along with Japan, Norway, China, Denmark and South Korea to defeat, for the second year in a row, a proposal to create a whale sanctuary in the South Pacific at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting this week in London.

“Japan does not have military power, unlike the United States and Australia. You may dispatch military power to East Timor, but that is not the case for Japan. Our means is diplomatic communication and Overseas Development Assistance,” Fisheries Agency official Maseyuku Komatsu told Australian ABC television.

While the remarks by Komatsu were frank, they were a “mistake”, says Yoshinori Murai, a professor of foreign studies at Tokyo’s Sophia University who is also involved in ocean resources research.

The comments were “very embarrassing to the international community and for the Japanese government,” he explains.

In response to media inquiries, a Fisheries Agency of Japan official said all staff in charge of whaling are attending the IWC meeting and no one “with responsibility” who could answer queries about Japan’s position.

Reports say the Fisheries Agency has issued an internal memorandum saying that a check with Komatsu found that “there was no truth” to remarks attributed to him on record. It also said the ABC report gives the impression that “a country’s policy can be traded for money and insults the recipients of our aid”.

An earlier response by the Japanese Whaling Association to Greenpeace International’s criticism denies that Tokyo gives aid to influence countries on whaling.

“Japan is the largest donor of foreign aid worldwide, and among some 200 recipients of the ODA or Fisheries Development Funds from Japan are some strong anti-whaling nations in IWC such as India, Brazil Argentina and Peru.”

While some Caribbean nations that support Japan do receive Fisheries Development Assistance, Tokyo, ” the money is not sent to them for ‘buying votes’,” it added.

Clearly, this is a touchy issue for Japan’s government, at a time when Tokyo is trying to be more of a leader in the international community and its overseas aid programme is supposed to be more transparent.

But there may be other reasons for Japan’s silence on the matter. Noriko Oyama of Greenpeace says, “Most Japanese are not interested in whaling issues. They really do not care about it. Eighty percent of the population considers the price of whale meat too expensive.”

An analyst here watching the whaling controversy called Komatsu’s remarks an indication of “fisheries diplomacy”. He added: “As common sense, no country gives money for nothing. Here, Japan is asking for some kind of compensation in return for a favour.”

Officials of some governments to whom Japan has dangled the aid carrot in recent years had different reactions. A Tongan official earlier this year his government had been approached this way, but said aid and whaling were two “separate” matters.

But others say Japan’s approach is mere pragmatism and perhaps no different from other donors on other issues. Last weekend, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Lester Bird, told the Caribbean news agency CANA his government would back whaling due to considerations of Japan’s aid.

“Quite frankly I make no bones about it. . . . If we are able to support the Japanese, and the quid pro quo is that they are going to give us some assistance, I am not going to be a hypocrite,” he was quoted as saying.

Murai says of the quid pro quo formula: “However, it is not a clear bribe but a promise of aid to a country, and the offer could be very attractive.”

It is easy to recognise the power of Japan’s official development assistance, which accounted for some 30 percent of the world’s total ODA last year. For fiscal year 2001, Japan has earmarked 8.3 billion U.S. dollars for foreign assistance.

Murai adds that Japan’s government and the whaling industry are very strong here. Japan believes its official studies that confirm the increase of some whale populations, which it says would make sustainable use of these resources possible.

Japan, like Norway, says its consumption of whale meat follows tradition. The Japanese Whaling Association argues that Greenpeace believes “the killing of any whale is evil,” even if better management of ocean resources requires a multi-species environment, adding that it does not go after endangered species.

But claims about whale meat, now a luxury food, may apply to a smaller number of people in Japan, where the older generation remembers how nutritious whale meat was abundant and inexpensive.

Today, Kujiraya is the only restaurant in Tokyo that exclusively serves whale meat. The owner of the 51-year-old restaurant says 200 to 300 patrons come daily for whale steak and whale sashimi dressed with soya and horseradish. He also offers fried whale.

The price varies between 1,300 and 1,600 yen (11-13 dollars) per hundred grammes. In other areas, chefs prepare sashimi with the testicles of whales.

Every year since 1987, a fleet of Japanese research ships operates in the waters of the Antarctic and North Pacific and harpoons up to a total of 500 minke whales under the category of scientific research.

Opponents claim that these are actually designed to provide whale meat to the dwindling specialised restaurants on the archipelago.

But the natural course of events may yet determine the degree of demand for whale meat products in future.

In Taiji in Wakayama prefecture in southern Japan — known as the birthplace of Japan’s commercial whaling — only a handful of fishermen today are still involved in the capture of small whales which are not prohibited by the IWC.

An earlier report by Japan’s Kyodo news agency says that in the 1960s, Taiji whalers caught about 6,000 whales annually in the Antarctic. This provided 200,000 tonnes of whale meat, enough to feed 10 million Japanese.

But now, officials recruiting young people for “scientific whaling” are finding it hard to find people keen on it. Taiji’s younger folk are in no mood to take up whaling — which they consider a ‘3K’ occupation, ‘kitanai’ (dirty), ‘kitsui’ (hard) and ) and ‘kiken’ (dangerous.)

Even Taiji children are now reluctant to eat whale meat because, the Kyodo report says, they say “it’s a pity to kill whales and dolphins.”

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