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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 May 2007, 08:17 GMT 09:17 UK
Whaling row washes over Japanese
By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

The environmental activist group Greenpeace has produced a short film that is being shown in cinemas here, ahead of the main feature each night.

Greenpeace video
Greenpeace wants to raise awareness of whaling with its video

It is part of an effort to persuade the Japanese people to support its campaign against whaling.

The cartoon shows an elderly head teacher who reminisces about how he and his friends used to eat whale in the difficult years after the war, when food was scarce in Japan.

But now when he comes across a beached whale he encourages his pupils to help save it.

"The whales saved us when we were hungry," the film concludes. "Now it is our turn to save them."

'Lack of awareness'

Greenpeace says its own opinion polls suggest many Japanese people are unaware that their government catches and kills more than 850 whales each year in Antarctic waters in the name of science.

The Japanese media seems to show little interest in the protests its government's whale cull provokes around the world.

Michio Kono
It would be easy for us to abandon our own culture but I think it's my job to help maintain it
Michio Kono
Whale restaurant owner

At a recent public symposium in Tokyo - organised by Greenpeace to try to raise awareness of the issue - there were fewer than 70 people in the audience, and several of them were journalists or committed activists.

"92% of people don't know what's being done in their name, according to our surveys," Greenpeace Japan's Jun Hoshikawa said.

"If and when the facts are known, I would estimate more than half the Japanese would oppose what is being done in their name in the southern oceans."

Mr Hoshikawa complained that the debate here is always framed as an issue of nationalism.

"Why should any other nation tell us what we can or can't eat?" is the cry of the small but vocal minority of whaling supporters who keep up the pressure on the government, he said.

That certainly is one of the complaints of Michio Kono, the owner of a small restaurant that serves whale in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. But it does not stop there.

Mr Kono has run his whale restaurant for more than 30 years, and is a friendly man, clearly passionate about his job.

On the walls of the restaurant are charts depicting different types of whale, and I even noticed parts of different whales pegged up over the customers' heads.

Mr Kono serves Minke whale that he freely admits comes from Japan's annual cull for research purposes.

"The whale caught for research tastes much better than other whale caught elsewhere," he said, "because the Minke don't eat everything, they only eat tiny fish."

Greenpeace spokesman Jun Hoshikawa
Greenpeace's Jun Hoshikawa rejects the idea it is a nationalist issue

But it was a question about the rights and wrongs of Japan's stance on whaling that produced an explosion from this otherwise mild-mannered Japanese restauranteur.

"Some people say we are barbaric for eating whale but I want to ask what's wrong with it?" he spluttered. "We need to continue this fight no matter what other countries say."

Mr Kono feels he has an important role to play in that fight.

"My job is to prepare tasty whale dishes and to let people know that whale meat is delicious and nutritious," he said.

"It would be easy for us to abandon our own culture but I think it's my job to help maintain it."

After hearing these two views from the extremes of the debate, I talked to people in the street and found that most of them are far more measured.

"I understand when people say it's cruel to kill whales," said Naoko Ono, a young mother. "But I think it is important to preserve our traditions."

In fact, it was hard to find anyone with particularly hard-line views. Very few people seem worked up about the issue.

And that is the challenge for the pro- and anti-whalers here - to persuade people that whaling is something they should really care about.

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