Japan Launches Whaling Mission

Shrugging off possible U.S. sanctions over its expanded whale hunt, Japan threw a party today as a fleet of ships headed off for the Antarctic on a mission to take 400 minke whales over the next five months.

This port on the southwestern tip of Japan’s main island bid a rousing farewell to the five-ship fleet — part of the country’s much-criticized whale research program — with a brass band, beer toasts and fireworks.

“We want everyone to understand that the research we are doing is necessary,” Shimonoseki Mayor Kiyoshi Ejima told the crew and dozens of officials and spectators under tents set up on the wharf.

World Is Watching

The hunt comes as President Clinton is deciding whether to recommend sanctions against Japan over the expansion of its hunt in the North Pacific. Japan was already hunting minke whales, but it now will target Bryde’s and sperm whales too. Both are protected under U.S. law.

Commercial whaling has been banned for the last two decades, but Tokyo defends its hunts as scientific research allowed by the International Whaling Commission. It argues that it gains valuable data on sea resources through its whale catch and denies that the hunting endangers any species.

Critics, though, say the program is simply a cover to supply Japanese restaurants with pricey whale meat.

The dispute is beginning to dog Japanese officials internationally. Clinton brought up the conflict in talks Thursday with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Brunei.

Clinton told Mori the hunt could hurt vital U.S.-Japan relations, but he did not specifically mention sanctions. Mori answered in line with long-standing Japanese policy: that science, not emotion, should guide the discussion.

Clinton is expected to decide before leaving office in January whether to recommend that Congress impose sanctions, which could include denying Japan the right to fish in U.S. waters, or even stiffer penalties.

Japan Is Wary of Scrutiny

In Shimonoseki today, speakers from the city government and the national Fisheries Agency praised the research, which Japan argues is needed mainly to monitor whale consumption of fish stocks. Materials handed out at the wharf included several photographs of opened whale bellies gorged with fish and squid.

Officials, however, are clearly sensitive to the foreign criticism. The Fisheries Agency in Tokyo, for example, refused to confirm the schedule of the fleet as late as Thursday afternoon.

Speakers today made frequent mention of the heat the program is taking abroad. They warned the crew several times before leaving to be on the lookout for anti-whaling groups who may try to interfere with the mission.

“Even if they protest, please continue with your work,” said Seiji Osumi, head of the research institute.

Whaling opponents say the dispute has become such a nationalistic issue in Japan that they are reluctant to openly protest ceremonies like the one held today for fear of being dismissed as anti-Japanese.

“In Japan, it’s difficult to explain why we’re protesting the hunt,” said Junko Sakurai of Greenpeace Japan. She stealthily handed a reporter her business card at the ceremony, worrying that officials nearby might hassle her if they knew she was an activist.

The fleet was led by mother ship Nisshin Maru, which features a basketball court-sized deck area for carving up the catch. Behind it at the dock was one of the hunting ships, with a harpoon gun mounted on its bow.

Carnival Send-Off

The ceremony had a carnival-like atmosphere: Women presented officials with bouquets of flowers, and crew members handed out cases of beer, cracking them open and downing them to a cheer of “Kampai!”

A brass band played a marching tune on the wharf, and wives and friends waved farewell to crew members as they sailed off. Fireworks boomed in the overcast sky. Schoolchildren waved little blue flags with whales printed on them.

Despite all the controversy, whaling in Japan is not what it used to be. While whale meat was a key source of protein right after World War II, most Japanese rarely eat it now except as a delicacy in expensive restaurants.

“This business is on the way out. No young people are getting into it anymore,” said Tadaaki Ito, 72, a whale-meat wholesaler who remembers the days when Japan took thousands of whales. “Mass production, mass sales — it’s impossible now.”

People in the crowd — most of them with husbands or friends going out to sea — dismissed all the criticism.

“I think it’s good to do research,” said a woman at the wharf who refused to give her name. “It’s just a political problem.”