WHALING SEASON in Japan has been a relative failure this year. The fleet recently returned two weeks early to home port at Shimonoseki, after several months of clashes with protesters in the Antarctic Ocean, who effectively prevented the Japanese vessels from reaching their target quotas of 935 minke and 50 fin whales.
Another hunt was launched last week from the north-eastern port of Ayukawa, with the stated aim of catching at least another 60 minkes in domestic waters before the end of May.
According to campaign group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, this new mission is a transparent attempt to recoup the financial losses of the Antarctic hunting season before the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meets in Portugal in early June, where Japanese whalers are likely to be censured again for their ongoing programme of so-called "lethal research".
"They need to kill at least 765 whales to break even," reported Sea Shepherd, in a written statement which also alleged that Japan's whaling industry is a "criminal" enterprise perpetrated by "mad dog killers" and controlled by the Yakuza (Japanese mafia).
While no other environmental groups go quite so far - Sea Shepherd's opposition is proactive to the point of ramming its own ships into whaling vessels - most at least believe that Japan is using marine science as a cover for its ongoing trade in whale meat.
Commercial whaling has been subject to a worldwide moratorium since 1986, but Japan has carried on killing non-endangered species of whale with recourse to Article VIII of the IWC's founding treaty, which permits lethal sampling for the purposes of research, and allows for the public sale of whale meat as a by-product.
For their part, however, the public is not really buying. While the Japanese Fisheries Agency claims that up to 5000 tonnes of whale meat are consumed every year in this country, estimates suggest that at least 3000 tonnes are now sitting unwanted in cold storage.
Despite falling market prices, and regular government efforts to "educate" the population by way of academic lectures, food festivals, and compulsory school lunches, whale meat remains a dish that few modern Japanese have eaten more than twice. Not because it is scarce, they just don't like it.
Daiki Fukuda is owner of a traditional izakaya restaurant called Paddock, in the northern coastal prefecture of Ishikawa. His reasons for not serving whale meat are purely culinary. "It doesn't taste good," he says.
"I think it's very strange to go hunting for whales near the South Pole when we have other meat and fish that are much more delicious. I tried whale meat once at school when I was a kid, and I hated it. We all did."
Customer Uma Mori agrees on the taste, but adds that eating whale meat is not considered "wrong" in Japan.
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"In our culture we believe everything has life, even a grain of rice," he says. "There's not so much difference between killing an animal or cutting a piece of grass. Whale might not be food in Western countries, but it is for us." While this view may not be entirely representative, it does help explain why Japan has so far resisted pressure to abandon its whaling programme, and ignored the censures of the IWC.
In the absence of sound economic or scientific reasons (conservationists argue advances in DNA testing, fecal analysis and tagging have made lethal sampling unnecessary), there remains the question of national pride.
As Ayako Okubo of the Ocean Policy Research Foundation recently put it: "It's not that the Japanese want to eat whale meat they don't like being told not to eat it by foreigners."
This resentment is especially pronounced, because it was foreigners who told them to eat it in the first place.
Only a few villages around the edges of Japan can claim a legitimate historical tradition of whaling.
Most of the rest of the country had never tasted whale meat until after the second world war, when American occupation forces promoted it to the impoverished and malnourished populace as a relatively cheap and abundant source of protein.
Those who still claim to enjoy the taste tend to be older citizens and nostalgic baby-boomers. Japan's major political parties - all of which support whaling - are well stocked with those.
It's possible that the practice will die out as they do. But for now, says Nanami Kurasawa of Japan's Iruka and Kujira (dolphin and whale) Action Network, it is difficult for the small domestic anti-whaling lobby to be heard over the quasi-scientific rhetoric of politicians and the tacit, if silent, complicity of the general public.
"Our activities are not supported here," says Kurasawa. "The issue is too controversial for ordinary people, who believe that the government's science is neutral, and that Japan is the only nation conducting valuable whale research in Antarctica.
"The whaling community will not accept that whales are special animals. As long as they polish up' their arguments every day, it is not so easy for us to present the counter-arguments."
Meanwhile, the Japanese fleet have caught and killed 679 Minke whales this year, and counting.