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Debate Over Whale Hunt Focuses On Japan

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Debate Over Whale Hunt Focuses On Japan

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Debate Over Whale Hunt Focuses On Japan

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Hunting whales sparks passions in many parts of the globe. And today in Morocco, 88 nations have gathered to address the issue. Japan has consistently argued that whaling is a treasured part of its national culture, even though, as Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo, not many Japanese have an appetite for whale hunting or the meat it produces.

LUCY CRAFT: Japanese shops are packed with an impressive array of delicacies from around the world, but you have to go out of your way to find whale meat, as exotic to most Japanese as frogs' legs or escargots are to most Americans.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

CRAFT: We ate whale meat as children, says the shopkeeper, but we didn't like it.

Those sentiments are typical of Japanese who are middle aged and older. School lunches featuring rubbery whale nuggets are etched into the collective memory of Japanese who were growing up in the lean years right after World War II. In fact, the desperate, immediate postwar period is the only time in Japanese history when whale meat was consumed nationwide. Nowadays, there is little nostalgia nor appetite for eating whale meat.

Japan's enthusiasm for whale hunting is even harder to understand from a dollars-and-cents perspective. The business supports just a few thousand jobs and generates annual revenue of around $90 million. Toyota earns about that much every two weeks.

Japan's whaling rhetoric, in other words, is rooted, not in practicalities, but in national pride and the need to fend off what is seen here as Western high-handedness.

Masayuki Komatsu led Japan's whaling negotiations until his retirement from the fisheries ministry three years ago.

Mr. MASAYUKI KOMATSU: This is a matter of the principle sustainable use and principle of the convention. That's why we must exercise our own right to be heard by any other countries.

CRAFT: But Japan's official passion for whaling is at odds with widespread public ignorance and apathy, says Tomohiko Taniguchi, an adjunct professor at Tokyo's Keio University.

Professor TOMOHIKO TANIGUCHI (Keio University): I think there's a great irony here. First of all, people don't pay attention, that much, to whale meat, and many people are not probably aware, even, that the Japanese government is still involved in this whaling business.

CRAFT: Taniguchi, himself, had no interest in whaling until he was forced to defend Japan's position, as a spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Now retired from the civil service, Taniguchi is among a small but growing number of critics within Japan who say it's time for Tokyo to stop hurting its image worldwide.

Prof. TANIGUCHI: It is not illegal. But I became aware, by sticking to this minor, minor issue, Japan was gradually losing its friends. To be blunt, I became aware that the whaling issue was one of the best ways to lose friends for Japan.

CRAFT: Taniguchi favors the compromise whaling proposal, which would vastly downsize Japan's hunt in exchange for allowing it to pursue small-scale coastal whaling. He says Japan's government-subsidized hunts in the Antarctic have flooded the market with whale meat, depressing prices and further damaging Japan's coastal communities where whaling matters the most - the repositories of Japanese traditional whaling culture Tokyo says it is so committed to preserving.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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