Time to take whale meat off the menu

Time to take whale meat off the menu

TOKYO - Despite all the hand-wringing and loud complaints from politicians about failure to understand Japanese culture and tradition, the recent ban on so-called "scientific whaling" by Japan in the Antarctic may have been a blessing in disguise for the country.

The March 31 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in effect provided a face-saving way out for Tokyo to end a controversial practice that has put a growing strain on the Treasury.

What's more, all the effort is expended on a meat the Japanese themselves are losing a taste for.

But old habits die hard, and the government could not be seen not to have put up a good fight.

It spent a tidy sum to engage the best legal minds and whaling experts to rebut claims that Japan's research efforts, which have killed about 1,000 whales annually in recent years, were just a cover for commercial whaling.

When Tokyo lost the case, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe let it be known that he had personally blasted chief negotiator Koji Tsuruoka over the debacle. But it was a hard case to defend, and one increasingly caught up in its own contradictions.

In recent years, the government had been pouring three billion to four billion yen (S$37 million to S$49 million) a year into the money-losing whaling operation. Nisshin Maru, the 27-year-old factory ship of the whaling fleet, will soon require costly refurbishment.

It would have been difficult for Japan to unilaterally give up or reduce the scale of its whale hunt in the Antarctic as it had been arguing since 1987 that the hunt was needed for scientific research, purportedly to determine if the whale population was big enough to resume sustainable whaling in future.

But few results have been released, and practically no attempt made to find non-lethal ways of surveying the whale population. On the contrary, the whale catch has doubled since 2005.

Because whales caught for research are not allowed to be wasted under international scientific whaling regulations, Japan has dutifully earmarked most of what it catches for restaurants or school lunches, the latter on a limited scale.

Media reports of the recent ICJ ruling were telling.

Interviewed by reporters, restaurant owners and residents of the few communities where coastal whaling remains a tradition all politely lamented the likely disappearance of whale meat - kujira niku in Japanese - from menus or the dinner table.

There were few, if any, reports quoting scientists saying how the Antarctic ban would affect research.

Will the ICJ ruling spell an end to the long-running controversy?

Not quite. The ruling does not impose a blanket ban on scientific whaling, but requires Japan to revoke any permits for such activities in the Antarctic, in line with a complaint brought against Japan by the Australian government.

No time frame is specified, but Japan has already said it will abide by the ruling.

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