Saturday, February 14, 2009

Whaling in Japan: Japanese activists find resistance at home

Much of the challenge in addressing shark conservation issues with Asian countries centers on the strength of the cultural history behind the use of shark products. This is also true with the efforts to curtail whaling in Japan. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times addresses these challenges that range from a society that has long valued seafood and whale products to cherished beliefs in trust in government and commercial enterprises.

Many of you are probably aware of the number of whales taken by Japan in the Antarctic region under the auspices of "lethal research." Many conservation organizations consider this a fraudulent loophole in international whaling regulations, allowing Japan to continue to take whales to meet the demands of a few coastal villages and upscale restaurants.

Generally, those opposing Japanese whaling have been from the United States, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand and much of their efforts are met with resistance because they are viewed as outsiders in what is perceived as an internal policy decision. Additionally, the actions of more extreme radical groups like Sea Shepherd and the less radical Greenpeace seem to exacerbate the problem and, in a culture that prizes polite discourse, complicates diplomatic efforts.

Enter into the picture,Toru Suzuki and Junichi Sato, two Japanese activist members of Greenpeace who have been trying to bring the issue to the attention of their fellow countrymen in Japan. Last spring, the two uncovered a shipment of whale meat bound for the black market and sourced from a ship sanctioned under the government's whale research/non-profit policy. With a subsequent news conference, the two activists hoped for media support to bring the issue into the open but, instead, found themselves arrested for theft and, according to their lawyers, have experienced prolonged confinement and harassment.

Japan is an interesting culture. With a centuries-old dependence on seafood, combined with an ingrained trust in the integrity and support of government and commercial institutions, getting the general populace to question or level any degree of scepticism regarding official policy can be daunting and met with considerable resistance not only from the government but also from the media.

"We expected the media to support us," said Toru Suzuki. "But they turned against us." "They [Suzuki and Sato] took a stand against national policy," defense attorney Yuichi Kaido said. "So they are being harshly punished."

Many of the advances in Asian shark conservation have come about from a more "top down" approach, where political and media-focused efforts have induced government officials or the commercial users of shark products to adopt more conservation-minded policies and prohibitions. It can be a diplomatically delicate and slow process. But, can what has succeeded in some Asian countries succeed in a country like Japan - a country with an ancient history in isolationism and devout trust in authority which still shadows their thinking in today's world? Two Japanese countrymen are finding that it may not be so easy to prove that the emperor has no clothes.

Read the Los Angeles Times article.

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