Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Understanding Japan's whale ethics

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

I want to tell you something that until now I have kept to myself.

A Japanese whaling vessel leaves port in November 2007
The Japanese fleet plans to kill 1,000 whales in the Antarctic
I have eaten minke whale. I have eaten it raw - small squares of the skin and the flesh served as sashimi with soy sauce and spicy wasabi on the side.

And I have eaten it cooked - stir-fried with vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce.

I suspect there will be some people reading who are outraged - disgusted that I would eat whale meat.

Indeed, that is one reason why I have never mentioned it before. There are risks involved in such an admission.

Is it evidence that I have "gone native" after nearly two years of trying to make sense of this story from the Japanese point of view?

Well, no, the reality was that I felt I had no choice but to taste the whale.

'What about lambs?

I was in a diner in Tokyo owned by Michio Kono, a small man who has been in the restaurant business 30 years.

When we first arrived he was quite quiet, but when I began to talk to him about the rights and wrongs of whaling this diminutive chef exploded.

Now I do not speak much Japanese. My colleague was translating for me, but I did not need to be fluent to understand the extent of Mr Kono's anger and frustration at those who try to stop the Japanese whaling.

Cans of whale meat in a Tokyo store

He ranted and raged, on and on, chopping his outstretched hand through the air vigorously as he made his points.

"What about lambs?" he asked. "You people eat lambs, we think lambs are cute but we don't try to stop you eating them."

Once the interview was over he insisted I try some whale myself. The look I got from my Japanese colleague suggested that "no" was not an option.

In truth I was curious. I chewed the raw whale. It was not great, but it was not awful either.

The stir-fried whale was better, but not something I would want to eat again in a hurry - not because of any ethical objections, more because of its very strong flavour which was only somewhat disguised by the sweet and sour sauce.

Those Japanese who support whaling believe that all western journalists are out to get them.

That means you have to do whatever you can to try to counter that impression if you are to have any chance of conveying their point of view to the wider world.

It was clear that eating Mr Kono's whale had the effect of mollifying him. Perhaps I was not out to stitch him up after all.

Diplomatic harm

The whaling industry here is backed by a small minority of Japanese, a part of the establishment which shouts loud and likes to frame this as an issue of sovereignty: "What right have other nations to tell us what we can and can't eat?"

The campaigners have powerful friends in politics and in the media.

Australian officials return two activists who boarded a whaling vessel to their ship (Image: Sea Shepherd)
Australian officials had to return two activists who boarded a whaler

The debate over the rights and wrongs of whaling gets little coverage in the papers here.

The boarding of a Japanese whaler by two environmental activists did make it onto the news bulletins but many Japanese journalists chose to brand the two men environmental terrorists.

And, as far as I am aware, no politician has yet been brave enough to stand up and question whether or not preserving the whaling industry is worth the damage it does to Japan's reputation overseas.

The unfortunate bureaucrats in the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo who are required to defend whaling on our channels and those of other broadcasters often admit quietly, once the camera is switched off and the microphone unplugged, that this is not a subject they warm to.

Their frustration is not directed at the interviewers, who all too often give them a roasting, demanding they defend what to many is indefensible.

It is their fellow pen-pushers at the Fisheries Ministry who are making life difficult for them by continuing to prop up a whaling industry that sullies the reputation of Japan around the world.

War of words

Over the next few months the diplomats are likely to find it will only get worse.

A senior official from the Fisheries Ministry told me over lunch recently - fish but not whale this time - that Japan is serious about its threat to leave the International Whaling Commission unless it is reformed.

The Japanese are tired of the arguments between pro and anti-whaling nations.

They will do all they can he told me to try to reform the IWC from within, but if that does not work, perhaps within months, his officials will start planning a new body - a breakaway group for pro-whaling nations who want to return to the commercial hunting of whales.

The boarding of the Japanese whaling vessel by the environmental activists in the waters off Antarctica was just a skirmish.

The war of words about whaling here, there, on land and at sea, is likely only to get worse.

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