A Clash of Views On Whale-Loving

Crew members of the Steve Irwin board a Japanese whaling ship and are detained by crewmen, Jan. 15, 2008. Video by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 26, 2008

TOKYO, Jan. 25 -- At Ohana, a restaurant not far from the Japanese parliament in central Tokyo, a small plate of chilled raw whale costs $17.50. Grilled whale is $9, while whale in a hot pot goes for $29.

The mammalian flesh for these dishes -- available year-round and served mostly to businessmen older than 40 -- comes from Japan's annual whale hunt, carried out, the government here declares, to advance "scientific" knowledge of cetaceans.

An international ban on whaling grants an exception for scientific hunts, and Japan's whaling fleet uses it nearly every year to harpoon several hundred whales -- killing and dissecting the animals is the best way to study their physiology and learn how to safeguard them, Japanese officials contend. The fleet then brings home thousands of tons of whale meat for sale to grocery stores and restaurants such as Ohana.

The hunt is on again this year in Antarctica's Southern Ocean. It's generating photogenic high-seas confrontations between whaling vessels and eco-activists while severely straining relations between Australia and Japan, longtime allies and major trading partners.

The hunt also seems to be widening a cultural chasm between Japan and the Western world. Many people here regard whale as merely seafood. But in much of the West, the whale is special. It is not a creature to be sliced thin and served on a plate with ginger and grated garlic.

(Ohana serves minke whale sashimi. It has a dark red color, a soft texture and a delicate taste, not fishy, a bit like carpaccio.)

Courts and political leaders in Australia are trying and, so far, failing to stop the Japanese from whaling in Antarctic waters over which Australia claims jurisdiction. The claim to those waters is not generally recognized by other countries, and certainly not by Japan.

"This is not scientific whaling," Kevin Rudd, Australia's new Labor prime minister, said recently. "This is commercial whaling."

Using language that seemed to mark a shift in Australian foreign policy, Rudd said his government intends to "accumulate an evidence base" for a legal challenge that would "end commercial whaling, period."

An Australian federal court order demanding that Japan abandon its hunt was hand-delivered this week by the Humane Society International to a Japanese whaling firm in Tokyo. The firm refused to accept it.

In the Southern Ocean earlier this month, two activists from the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd boarded a Japanese whaler on the high seas by jumping onto a low deck from a speedboat. They were promptly grabbed by crewmen as other activists videotaped the stunt from the speedboat.

Rhetoric on both sides quickly escalated, with Sea Shepherd officials accusing the Japanese of assault and kidnapping and Japanese officials in Tokyo calling Sea Shepherd a "terrorist group."

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