With whaling soon to kick off, activists are preparing their campaigns. Naoko Funahashi of the International Fund for Animal Welfare tells DW why the slaughtering of whales should stop.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) recently released a report that showed that only 11.2 percent of Japanese people have bought whale meat in the last year and a mere 27 percent favor continuing the industry.
Deutsche Welle: What is the state of the Japanese whaling industry today?
Naoko Funahashi: It's barely surviving. And it's only still going today because the government has diverted billions of yen from funds designed to help areas devastated by last year's earthquake to keep whaling alive. We have been strongly critical of that. Without that money, the industry would have been bankrupt by now.
What do we know about this year's scheduled operations?
Traditaionally, the fleet leaves port in early December, but it might be a bit later this year, and they do not announce the date for "safety reasons." The real reason is that they don't want protesters there or for the foreign media to write about it. The fleet is made up of one factory vessel and three catcher boats, while last year they had two escort ships with members of the Coast Guard aboard. They're there to "protect the fleet" and the operation costs tens of millions of dollars every year.
Do the whalers have a quota for this year's operations?
Officially, they have a self-allocated quota of 850 minke whales, plus or minus 10 percent, as well as 50 fin whales. They also have a quota of 50 humpback whales, which they claim to have "suspended." But they could change their mind on that at any time. Last year they only caught 266 minke whales and one fin whale. We don't know their exact quota, but they're unlikely to meet the full total as they are going for a shorter period this time - they have less equipment and they have less money for fuel.
Why does Japan still have a whaling industry?
The authorities' answer would be "because we can." They claim Japan is an island country, we depend on marine resources and whales are a sustainable resource that we should utilize. But the real reason is more to do with national pride. Those in favor of whaling say it is part of our cultural heritage and that foreigners should not tell us what to do. Those feelings run very deep. Japan cannot be seen to be yielding to environmental groups.
What does the average Japanese person think about the whaling industry?
They don't think about it much at all, until they are asked why Japan still hunts whales by foreigners. The most common reaction then is for them is to defend Japan and our culture from outside criticism, but I do not think that's a valid reason for us to continue slaughtering whales. The industry loses money, it loses respect for our country around the world. It gains us nothing. We are losing parts of Japanese culture elsewhere, so why are we still trying to save this industry?
Are there other reasons for your opposition to the hunt?
There are many reasons; these are wildlife, as opposed to farmed animals for food. They breed very slowly, meaning that commercial whaling is not sustainable. And whaling is very cruel, particularly the way in which the whales are chased until they are exhausted. The whalers say the harpoons kill the whales instantly, and some do die immediately, but there have been cases when it has taken three harpoons and one hour for a whale to die. There is also the issue of health for anyone who consumes whale meat, because of the high levels of mercury, dioxin, PCBs and other chemicals.
What are the alternatives to lethal "scientific whaling?"
Whale-watching and dolphin-watching businesses were started here in the late 1980s and we're keen to help that industry. The east coast port of Choshi suffered damage in last year's earthquake and tsunami and we are very keen to help revive whale-watching tours from that port. Whale-watching is done in 30 areas throughout Japan now and there are hundreds of people involved in the industry, ranging from small outfits with a single boat to associations with dozens of vessels. We hope that if Japanese people can see these creatures in the wild, they will change the way they think about them.
Naoko Funahashi is the Japan country representative for the International Fund for Animal Welfare and devotes most of her energies to bringing about an end to what the Japanese government claims is "scientific whaling," but most of the rest of the world considers to be disguised commercial whaling.
Interview conducted by Julian Ryall in Tokyo