Oceans: A Win—Over the Long Term—For the Whales in Japan

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The anti-whaling movement scored a partial victory today in Tokyo, where two Japanese activists affiliated with Greenpeace were convicted of stealing whale meat, but were given a suspended sentence. Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki were found guilty of stealing 50 lbs. (23 kg) of whale meat from a delivery company’s warehouse in April 2008, meat that came from Japan’s whaling research program. (Though commercial whaling is banned by the International Whaling Commission, Japan is allowed to kill hundreds of whales a year, supposedly in the name of science.) Sato and Suzuki—whose treatment by Japanese authorities in the runup to the trial drew criticism from the UN Human Rights Council—were given a year in prison by the Aomori District Court in Japan, but won’t be serving jail time.

Greenpeace blasted the guilty verdict:

Greenpeace is appealing this totally unjust, politically motivated sentence. Junichi and Toru have taken great personal risks to investigate and expose embezzlement at the heart of Japan’s tax-funded whaling industry. They intercepted one of numerous boxes of whale meat embezzled from the whaling programme as evidence. These boxes were taken for private use by the crew of the Nisshin Maru in violation of the whaling programme’s regulations, and this amounts to a misuse of public funds.

Sato and Suzuki argued that they were acting as watchdogs, working to expose the black market trade of whale meat within Japan, and that any theft or trespass they may have committed was outweighed by the greater good. (It does look that way.) Greenpeace itself presented the whale meat to Japanese authorities in May 2008 as proof that the private companies carrying out the country’s annual whale hunts were secretly selling some of the meat they caught.

Unfortunately for Sato and Suzuki, the court rejected that argument—Japan isn’t a country that usually looks kindly on whistleblowers. And the verdict could have a chilling effect on NGOs and activists inside Japan, who might be less willing to challenge the authorities knowing the legal risks they may face. But if you’re opposed to whaling, like me, the case and the verdict still look like a victory for the long run. Sato and Suzuki’s two-year-long case brought much-needed publicity to Tokyo’s secretive whaling program, not just overseas but within Japan itself.

Japanese journalists have launched their own investigations into Japan’s whaling program, finding that whale meat is slowly creeping back into the country’s school lunch program. (That should be worrying for everyone because tests have shown that whale and dolphin meat is often dangerously contaminated with the neurotoxin mercury.) Given that whale and dolphin hunting in Japan is more about nationalism than it is about fishing, change will only really come from inside Japan, not from outside pressure. That’s beginning to happen. “I’m seeing some real change when I go there,” says Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer who has become a tireless activist against dolphin hunting and trade, and who has a new Animal Planet series on the issue called Blood Dolphins. “People are asking questions they didn’t ask before.”

Change will come slow—fishermen in the small coastal town of Taiji, whose annual dolphin slaughter was exposed in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, began their hunt with little opposition on Sept. 1. And Japanese who publicly fight whaling in their country will do so at their peril. It’s a cliché but true—in Japan the nail that sticks out is hammered down. But despite that, one never has to look hard in Japan to find brave individuals like Sato and Suzuki—two men who had little experience with activism before they decided to take on the whaling industry—who are willing to do what’s right, even at their own cost. That’s how change happens—in Japan and everywhere else.