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.
Meanwhile, the Japanese can still carry on killing whales for research in the northern Atlantic.
But Japan cannot afford to be complacent. It can no longer continue to insist that its whaling fleet had broken no laws or regulations.
The Australian victory is also likely to spur anti-whaling nations in Europe to lodge similar complaints against Japan's whaling activities in Atlantic waters.
When the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a whaling moratorium in 1982, Japan chose not to follow the example of Norway and Iceland, which defied the ban and continued to engage in commercial whaling knowing that the IWC was powerless to enforce its own decision.
Instead, Japan continued catching whales using the "scientific whaling" loophole.
Since 1982, a total of 38,284 whales have been caught globally for commercial and research purposes, according to latest IWC data. Japan caught just over half of that total, or 20,146 whales.
The outlook for Japan's whaling advocates is not good.
The Japanese can try to argue that they need to continue whaling to preserve their traditional culture.
Indeed, they have practised coastal whaling for hundreds of years. But the industry has diminished considerably - from employing more than 10,000 crewmen and fishermen in the 1960s to fewer than 200 now - due to the 1982 moratorium and the poor demand for whale meat.
For Japan to claim that whale meat is part of its culinary heritage will take some convincing. It was only after World War II that a scarcity of pork and beef led to whale meat becoming a key source of protein for the then impoverished nation. And it was not particularly popular. A 1951 survey found that whale was the least favourite meat among children in Tokyo.
In a piece on the ICJ ban, blogger Hiroaki Okamoto wrote on his website: "In primary school, we sometimes had whale meat. No matter how hard I tried, I could not chew it. Since then, I have hated whale meat."
The pro-whaling lobby insists demand still exists.
Mr Mitsuo Tani, 59, who runs a restaurant in Tokyo's Kanda district specialising in kujira ryori (whale cuisine), said 70 per cent of his customers are young people.
"Whale was badly served in the past, so people did not like it. Young people come to us because our whale dishes are delicious," he said.
Yet consumption of whale meat has fallen to just 2 per cent of its 1962 peak of 226,000 tonnes.
Ironically, the falling demand means that whale meat fans have less to fear about the ICJ ban.
Low demand has created an ample stockpile. Besides, Antarctic whaling accounts for only 20 per cent of Japan's total supply. The country also imports whale meat from Iceland and Norway, and some small-scale coastal whaling still takes place.
Chef Tani, who has served whale for more than 30 years, is worried nonetheless.
"Stocks will surely become less. But I intend to continue running my restaurant to protect our culinary tradition," he declared.
This article was published on April 13 in The Straits Times.
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