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Last Updated: Friday, 7 March 2008, 02:27 GMT
Why Japan persists in hunting whales
As the International Whaling Commission meets to search for common ground between pro- and anti-whaling nations, the BBC's Chris Hogg reports from a Japanese town showing no sign of giving up on its whale meat.

A woman in  Mr Shoji's factory cutting whale meat
The meat will be flavoured with soy sauce and sake, then dried
If you want to understand why the Japanese hunt whales, you need to travel to one of the handful of small coastal communities where they still take them from the sea, a place like Wada.

The small town clings to the steep hills that surround it, as if trying to stop itself falling into the sea.

Fishing boats are pulled up on the shore in the tiny harbour. Nearby a few men are mending their nets.

The International Whaling Commission bans commercial whaling, but not all species of whale are covered by its rules.

Yoshinori Shoji is the town's whaler. He catches 14 whales every year.

Most of the whales Mr Shoji catches are Baird's Beaked Whales. He finds them about 20km (12 miles) off the coast.

Japanese government fishing quotas allow him to hunt during just three summer months.

In all, in Wada, 26 whales were brought ashore last summer.

They were brought to Mr Shoji's whale meat processing factory to be made into whale jerky, whale burgers, whale steaks - whatever the customer wants.

Commercial venture

Mr Shoji is a huge man by Japanese standards, towering over his workers.

He is softly spoken, but determined to get his message across - happy to debate the rights and wrongs of whaling, but not to concede that the practice should be stopped.

He shows me around the plant.

We stop in front of two women who are slicing up huge hunks of deep red whale meat.

The blood runs down their plastic overalls and on to the floor.

This batch of meat will be flavoured with soy sauce and sake, then dried to make jerky.

Japanese delegate to IWC Joji Morishita

"Kyushu people like their whale meat fresh," Mr Shoji tells me, referring to people who live in the south of Japan.

"Around here we like it with a little flavour, so when we bring the carcass ashore we leave if for a day before we cut it up for the freezer."

The meat caught each summer is stored and then used when needed.

He pulls open a large metal door to show me. Inside the freezer are boxes and boxes of whale.

Some of it is minke whale which has been cut into small regular blocks like match boxes.

This is whale caught in the oceans off Antarctica by Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research. Mr Shoji buys the meat from them. The proceeds of the sales are used to help fund the Japanese research programme.

"We use it for sashimi," he says.

I put it to him that around the world there is opposition to Japan's annual whale cull in Antarctica, and to the activities of fishermen like him who catch whales off Japan's coast.

"I do not see the difference between fishing and whaling," he tells me. "We have been eating whale for 400 years so what is the difference between catching a whale and catching a fish?"

Endangered species

He says he accepts the argument that some species need to be protected to prevent them from dying out.

Blue whales, for example, should not be hunted.

Yoshinori Shoji
Despite the pressure from overseas, Japan's government should not back down
Yoshinori Shoji
But he believes minke whales are abundant, and does not see why others should be able to tell him what he can and cannot hunt off the coast of Japan.

As for the environmental activists who try to disrupt Japan's whale hunts, "they are just trying to gain publicity to attract donations", he argues.

But as we talk it becomes clear that for Mr Shoji, this is not a matter of tradition or of economics.

He explains that the problem with using tradition alone to defend whaling is that it is not a good enough reason to continue when species are at risk.

He gestures around the small room in which the two women are slicing up the hunks of meat. The economic argument is not that strong either.

But when whaling can be done in a sustainable manner who has the right to tell him not to?

"It's a matter of justice," he says. "Despite the pressure from overseas, Japan's government should not back down."

Part of the culture

Later he takes me to a school in town where he has been invited to take part in a lesson about whaling.

There is not much public debate about the issue in Japan, but here the children are engaged in detailed discussions about the way whaling hunts are carried out.

"I know some people think it is brutal to kill whales," one of the pupils tells me, "That is why they are against it. But I was born here so I think we should continue because it is our tradition."

As the lesson continues, it is clear the children are aware that around the world there is considerable opposition to whaling.

There is no attempt by Mr Shoji or their teacher to hide that from them, or to persuade them to accept that what he does is right.

Eating whale meat is part of Wada's culture and heritage
But although the classroom is decorated with pictures of whales and drawings of their favourite species, much the same as you would find in other countries, the children seem to accept the view that whales are food.

Indeed Mr Shoji admits to some frustration that Japan's government does not do more to try to get that across to opponents of whaling in other countries.

It was a point that I put to a fisheries official when I returned to Tokyo. He shrugged.

"Organisations like Greenpeace spend millions on their campaigns," he told me. "How could we compete and justify that to taxpayers as a sensible way to spend their money?"

Japan's insistence on its right to hunt whales is harming its image abroad, in particular in countries where the opposition is strongest like Australia.

But in a place like Wada, you see why it would be hard for the government to back down.

Here they see this not as a conservation issue but as an issue of sovereignty almost.

And any attempt to stop them whaling would provoke an angry response.

Whaling body seeks path to peace
06 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
Japan escalates whaling argument
04 Mar 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan seeks new allies on whaling
03 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
Diary: Jonah and the whale-chasers
28 Jan 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Japanese premier defends whaling
24 Jan 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Whaling fights: Everyone's a winner
01 Jun 07 |  Science/Nature


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