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Asia

Japan struggles to keep whaling alive

Japanese media often report on clashes between environmentalists and the country's whaling fleet in the Antarctic. Yet there is no debate about a heavily subsidized industry producing food that only a few desire.

The causes and blame for the events that unfolded in the Antarctic Ocean on February 2 depend on who is telling the tale. According to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, its vessel, The Bob Barker, was the target of "an unprovoked six-hour attack" by a Japanese whaling fleet, with two smaller harpoon ships crossing the bow of the environmentalist group's vessel 33 times at close range and dragging steel cables designed to disable to ship's propellers and rudders.

Sea Shepherd says "Operation Relentless," its tenth annual campaign to save the lives of whales in the internationally recognized Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, has been a success that has frustrated efforts by the Japanese to target 850 minke whales as part of its annual "research whaling" campaign.

Flares and water cannons

However, the Japanese government's version of events is quite different. In a statement issued in Tokyo on February 25, the Fisheries Agency said Sea Shepherd had disrupted the operations of two research vessels, thrown ropes at the Japanese ships 26 times and fired what appeared to be 13 signal flares at the fleet.

Japanese whaling ship Yushin Maru (L) almost collides with the Sea Shepherd vessel, the 'Steve Irwin' (foreground) in the Southern Ocean, February 2, 2014.

There are conflicting accounts of the events that unfolded in the Antarctic Ocean on February 2

The whalers said they had kept the activists away from the fleet with water cannons, but the incident lasted for almost seven hours. Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary, said that the actions of Sea Shepherd were "extremely dangerous and we simply cannot accept them."

Japan has called on the government of the Netherlands, where the vessels conservation society are registered, to "take effective measures" to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.

The Japanese media has been supportive of the government's stance and critical of Sea Shepherd's tactics, but other environmental groups say there is still far too little debate in Japan about the need for whaling.

Declining demand

"Overall, we have seen persistently low demand for whale meat over recent years, especially among young people," said Patrick Ramage, director of the Whaling Program at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). "A dwindling minority of Japanese still eat whale meat," he says.

Different sorts of whale meat being displayed

The IFAW says seen persistently low demand for whale meat over recent years,

The IFAW's latest national polling data was carried out by a research agency and released in February 2013. "The most striking aspect was the overwhelming indifference of a majority of Japanese when asked about whaling," he added.

The report, titled "The Economics of Japanese Whaling: A Collapsing Industry Burdens Taxpayers," utilized official statistics to disprove the claim that commercial whaling is a cultural and nutritional necessity to Japan.

Japan's whaling fleet, for example, is subsidized to the tune of around Y782 million (7.6 million USD) a year, yet the Institute of Cetacean Research still operates at an annual loss. At the same time, consumption of whale meat among the Japanese public today is around 1 percent of its peak, in the early 1960s, and the authorities are encouraging schools to put it on their menus to shift the stockpiles of unsold whale meat.

Government subsidies

About 89 percent of people responding to the poll said they had not purchased whale meat in the past 12 months and 85 percent said they were opposed to billions of yen in taxpayers' money being used to prop the industry up.

There was also public anger when it was revealed that some Y2.28 billion were diverted from funds set aside to help communities struggling with the aftermath of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and instead spent on "research whaling, stabilization promotion and countermeasure expenses."

"This is demonstrably an industry in its death throes," Ramage told DW. "It fails to cover its own costs, public demand for the product is decreasing and expenses - including fuel costs, maintenance of vessels, refurbishment and so on - are on the rise."

And the international repercussions are potentially damaging as well, he said. "Whaling is a persistent irritant in Japan's bilateral and multilateral relationships vis-à-vis other governments and international forums," Ramage added. "It needlessly damages the country's international reputation and could ultimately threaten Japanese business, trade and bilateral relations."

Cultural conflict

Junichi Sato, the executive director of the Japan branch of Greenpeace, says the argument has been framed in such a way for the domestic audience that Japanese people largely remain silent, even if they do not agree with the "research whaling" program.

"It has become a cultural conflict pitting Japan against outsiders," he said. "They have made the argument claiming that if you oppose whaling, you oppose Japanese culture. That makes it very difficult for Japanese people to speak out.

"It is also difficult for the government to admit that it is spending a lot of money on a product that nobody wants or needs, particularly because an admission would mean there would be no way to restart commercial whaling, which is what Japan has been pushing for," Sato added. "It's simply not commercially viable - but they cannot go back on their own propaganda."

A dead whale on a Japanese fishing ship

Japan is believed to have killed an estimated 14,000 whales since 1988

Japan has killed an estimated 14,000 whales since it first exploited a loophole in the International Whaling Commission's regulations that permit whaling for research in 1988.

The IWC's scientific committee has found that the research hasn't achieved any of its stated objectives. The Fisheries Agency and the Japan Whaling Association declined to be interviewed for this story.