Less than a week since Japan and its allies scored a stunning victory at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference - paving the way for a possible return to commercial whaling - the Japanese government has inadvertently revealed how it was done: by buying the votes it needed.
In a written reply to a query on Japan's "marine-aid" to developing countries, the government has acknowledged donating 617 million yen (£2.9m) last year to St Kitts and Nevis, the Caribbean nation that hosted the IWC conference. Japan also gave £5.6m to Nicaragua, while the Pacific island cluster of Palau got £2.7m.
All three countries voted with Japan, Iceland and Norway at last weekend's conference in favour of the "St Kitts and Nevis Declaration", calling for the 20-year ban on commercial whaling to be eventually scrapped. The pro-whaling camp won the ballot by just one vote. Conservationists said the result, while largely symbolic, could spell disaster for the world's whale stocks.
Japan has long been accused of using aid packages to swing the 70-member IWC back into the pro-whaling camp. Many of the commission's 20 newest members, such as the Marshall Islands and St Kitts and Nevis, have no history of whaling and several, including Mongolia and Mali, have no coastlines.
Conservationists also say Japan has been known to pay the IWC subscriptions of poorer members such as Togo, which turned up late to the conference with its $10,000 membership fee in cash, although such allegations have never been proved.
But the latest information is the most detailed yet on Japan's grants to its supporters and will lead to calls for further investigation into the ties between foreign aid and pro-whaling votes.
Japan's IWC negotiator, Joji Morishita, denied that his country bought its way to victory. "Japan gives aid to over 100 countries so why single out those that come to this conference?" he asked, claiming that the charges were an attempt by the "anti-whaling bloc" to smear countries that want to return "to sustainable use of whale resources".
An anonymous foreign ministry official, speaking to the Yomiuri newspaper this week, called allegations of vote-buying "Japan-bashing". But Greenpeace Japan's executive director, Jun Hoshikawa, said it was "obvious" that Japan's aid had influenced the St Kitts vote: "Otherwise why is money being poured into the country? Tax money is being spent on something Japanese people do not want on a place they don't know."
Environmentalists in Japan say the drive to end the 1986 ban is backed by a group of nationalist politicians who have invested more than £54.9m in public money since 2000 on six Caribbean nations, despite indifference at home to whaling. An internet survey released last week claimed that more than 70 per cent of Japanese people oppose a return to commercial whaling. Whale eating has been declining in Japan since the 1960s and is eaten regularly by less than 1 per cent of the population.
The government's campaign has flown largely beneath the Japanese media's radar. The conference, for instance, to which Japan sent 59 delegates - nearly five times as many as the UK - received scant coverage until the vote was announced. Conservative newspapers have since hailed the result as a victory for Japanese negotiators.
The aid question was tabled by Shokichi Kina, a member of the opposition Democratic Party. "Japanese people don't even eat whales or dolphins any more but still the government is pressing ahead," he said. "It's ridiculous to hear the fisheries ministry say stocks are increasing when nobody really knows if that's true."
The government said it had also awarded millions of yen in "grant aid" to Peru, which supports commercial whaling, and Samoa and Algeria, which environmentalists believe Japan is trying to recruit. The St Kitts grant was signed on 1 July 2005, just after the IWC conference in South Korea. The government did not deny the "vote-buying" charge in its reply to Mr Kina.
Japan and Iceland engage in "scientific whaling", while Norway ignores the moratorium. Pro-whalers need 75 per cent of the IWC votes to scrap the ban. Many fear they will use the momentum from what Mr Morishita called the "historic" weekend vote to dominate next year's IWC conference in Alaska.
© Independent News and Media Limited 2006