By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
In the late 1960s, with the scent of flower power fresh in the air and the Vietnam War in spate, the nascent environmental movement, with US groups in the vanguard, began to adopt whaling as a signature campaign.
Relations between Japan and the US have had troubled times
Patricia Forkan, who has campaigned against whaling for more than 30 years and now works for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), says activists feared the disappearance of all whales - forever.
"They had completely extirpated the blue whale, they were on their way to doing that with fin, humpback and others, so why wouldn't they just continue down to the minke?" she recalls.
"All of us were saying 'why would you eliminate the very resource that is keeping your business afloat?' And there was an economic study done that showed it was more profitable to go out and take as many as you could and then re-purpose your boat to go off and do other kinds of fishing."
The environmental groups pushed for an end to all whaling. And their call was heard by governments which had recently retired their own fleets, such as the US, the UK and Australia.
The first major victory came in 1972, with the adoption of a resolution at the first global environmental conference, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, calling for a halt to whaling.
A decade later, in 1982, the moratorium was voted through in the body which mattered, the International Whaling Commission (IWC); all commercial whaling would end in 1986.
Apparently, the environmentalists had won. Yet whaling continues today.
Norway and Iceland hunt commercially, while Japan, which behaves more assertively in the international arena than its northern counterparts and attracts most ire from the anti-whaling bloc, catches whales in the name of scientific research.
So what went wrong?
One theory, explored in the BBC World Service's One Planet programme, is that the environmental movement pushed too hard; that its strident calls helped to alienate Japan at the very point where it was prepared to abandon whaling, and to remove a key bargaining tool from the US armoury.
Did the environmental movement harpoon its own ambitions?
There is no doubt that Japan felt affronted by the moratorium. The most depleted species such as the blue whale were already protected, the IWC was awarding ever-declining annual quotas for the rest, and Japanese negotiators felt a complete halt was an unnecessary political act.
"It was a totally irrational position, to us," recounts Kazuo Shima, one of Japan's Commissioners to the IWC in the 1980s and 90s.
The first UN environment summit was a rallying point on whaling
"The US gave strong pressure, which was a very irrational activity of them."
This came on top of Japanese resentment that they were being blamed for bringing some whales close to extinction by nations such as the UK and US which had historically caught far greater numbers.
Along with Norway, Peru and the USSR, Japan lodged an objection to the whaling moratorium, which any IWC member was entitled to do, exempting themselves from the decision. It is on that basis that Norwegian whaling continues today.
The diplomatic pressure on Japan was about to increase.
Vein of vitriol
Reports from the period document the strong vein of anti-Japanese sentiment running through some strands of US society at the time.
The nation which US bombers had razed less than 30 years previously, which had entered the war through the attack on Pearl Harbour, was now out-competing the US industrially.
Japanese electronic goods were ceremonially smashed in Congress, and Tokyo voluntarily withheld car exports to avoid US protectionism.
Turning American citizens and American politicians against Japanese whaling, with lobbying, publicity and boycotts, was perhaps rather easy for NGOs.
Green groups tried to force action from Ronald Reagan's government
The US had two pieces of legislation which it could use to put pressure not only on Japan in general, but on its huge fisheries interests directly.
The Packwood-Magnuson Amendment allowed Washington to cut the fishing quotas in US waters of any country which it felt was undermining an international conservation agreement; under the Pelly Amendment, it could impose trade sanctions on any offending nation.
Fishing quotas were hugely important to Japan. Its boats were catching more than a million tonnes of fish per year in US waters, mainly off the Alaskan coast. The New York Times of 1983 priced the catch at $425m annually, well beyond the value of Japan's whaling.
At the end of 1984, a coalition of environmental groups initiated a lawsuit aimed at forcing Ronald Reagan's administration to invoke Packwood-Magnuson and Pelly against Japan.
But in bilateral discussions, the two governments reached an agreement. Japan would cease whaling in 1988, two years beyond the moratorium date, and withdraw its objection; in return, Ronald Reagan's administration agreed not to take action under Packwood-Magnuson or Pelly.
Again, it seemed that an end to Japanese whaling was in sight. However, the court action continued, the NGOs claiming the administration had no right to make a deal with Japan.
Eventually, in June 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the administration. The deal, apparently, was sealed; in return for keeping its fishing nets full, Japan would hang up its harpoons for good.
The next month, Japan formally withdrew its objection to the whaling moratorium.
However, on the US west coast, a completely different issue was raising its head.
In a bid to develop their own industry, US fishermen were pushing for the removal of foreign access to US waters. They were aided by a coalition of 14 NGOs led by Greenpeace who went to court against Japan, claiming its fishing methods harmed porpoises, seals and birds.
The Japanese quota plummeted. From 900,000 tonnes in 1985, it halved in 1986, then fell to 104,000 tonnes the following year. In 1988, the quota was zero; an estimated 130 Japanese fishing boats had nothing to catch.
Shigeko Misaki, who worked with Japanese IWC delegations first as an interpreter and later as an advisor, recalls great anger within the Japanese government and fishing industry at the time.
"(The US) said 'we didn't promise - we just have to give more fish to our fishermen'," she says.
"Anger is the only word that can describe it - why did America have to cheat us like that?"
Within months, Japan had announced it would begin hunting whales for scientific research, a programme that continues to this day.
Patricia Forkan rebuts any notion of a link between the withdrawal of fisheries rights and Japan's initiation of scientific whaling.
"There was never a discussion that I heard about them feeling betrayed on fisheries," she contends.
Might Japan's harpoons now be mothballed with different tactics?
"Everybody - meaning the US government and the NGOs - knew those fisheries were going, for everybody. So I think that's just sour grapes."
Even if Japan's scientific whaling programme did not stem from a perceived betrayal by Washington, what is clear was that the Reagan administration had lost one of its key bargaining chips, the Packwood-Magnuson Amendment.
And something certainly fuelled the determination of officials such as Kazuo Shima, who vows: "Always I was beaten by United States and United Kingdom. However, I will never give in, because we have a rationale on this issue."
When activists look back from this year's IWC meeting, which marks the 25th anniversary of the moratorium decision, will they feel any qualms that their lobbying, demonstrating, boycotting and suing might have been too extreme, forcing Japan to kick back?
If they had lowered the pressure, might they now be looking at a world without Japanese whaling?
"We'll never know; but I have thought about that a lot," says Patricia Forkan.
"It's possible, if we all passed the moratorium and we all went home, maybe."
One Planet: Japan And The Whale is broadcast on the BBC World Service at 1130 GMT on Thursday, 17 May. Check the World Service schedules for other timings. The programme will also be archived on the One Planet website