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Food for thought from Japan's accused

Richard Black | 08:27 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010

From the International Whaling Commission annual meeting in Agadir, Morocco:

One of the people I wasn't expecting to see here was Junichi Sato, whaling campaigner for Greenpeace in Japan.

He's one of the activists facing jail time for taking whalemeat from a warehouse back in 2008 - an action intended to draw attention to issues within Japan's Antarctic whaling programme.

Evidence in the case has now been heard, and the judgement is expected in September.

Mr Sato and his fellow activist Toru Suzuki are looking at a possible penalty of 18 months in jail if convicted, which they expect to be.

Junichi SatoThe reason I was surprised to see him here is that at various times since the whalemeat "liberation" two years ago he's been prevented from travelling, or speaking to the press or even to Mr Suzuki.

If the fact that his bail conditions permitted travel, I was even more surprised (and pleased) that he's now allowed to talk to the press.

And after IWC member governments rejected the notion of a potential compromise agreement that would have cut the scale of Japan's Antarctic hunt, I was interested to get his take on events, his reflections on anti-whaling campaigns, and his projections for the future.

So we had lunch.

For someone who believes he's about to go to jail, he came across as relaxed and content in himself. After two years of suspense, he confirmed, the court verdict will at least get some certainty back in his life, whatever it is.

I've wondered whether in retrospect he might see the whalemeat removal as something of an own goal.

Coverage of the incident in Western countries endorsed the Greenpeace conclusions that here was clear evidence of wrong-doing in the government agencies that run whaling, and showed that whalemeat was in such oversupply that it had to be given away free to crewmembers and officials.

But in Japan it played rather differently. The activists were largely painted as common criminals; and the investigation that they were told would begin into the whaling agencies never materialised.

Greenpeace Japan lost about a thousand members as a result - roughly one-sixth of its membership.

But, he said - not many regrets. A better understanding of international treaties and agreements on human rights law might have enabled him to tell his story better; but as to the taking of the meat, it was vital to exposing the wrong-doing, he said.

The big news here - the failure of governments to reach a compromise - he views as a missed opportunity to take Japanese whalers out of the Southern Ocean.

Japan was prepared to reduce the scale of its Antarctic hunt to 200 minke whales per year.

Whaling factory shipOfficials from governments at the heart of negotiations have told me they thought Japan would have gone lower still, had it had the right signals from the EU, Australia and the Latin American bloc.

These countries had wanted the promise of a complete phase-out. But there is a view that going down to, say, 150 per year is effectively the same thing, as sending a fleet to the Antarctic for that few minke whales is simply not economic.

Mr Sato endorsed this view; Japan accepting less than 200, which could have been secured, would effectively have been promising a phase-out, he said.

If this is something of a rebuke for countries and environment groups that opposed the notion of a deal, his criticism of the Antarctic whaling programme itself is undiminished.

Any pretence that it's really conducted for scientific research is fatally holed, he said, by the fact that Japan was prepared to downscale the size of the hunt so drastically; if you really needed 850 for research, you'd stick with 850.

On the campaigning front, I reminded Mr Sato of a news conference he'd held back in 2007 at the IWC meeting in Anchorage, Alaska.

At that time, Greenpeace still mounted annual expeditions to the Southern Ocean to obstruct the Japanese hunt.

Some Japanese academics had begun to say that the annual confrontations on the high seas were counterproductive, and that anti-whaling organisations would be better off stopping.

At the time, Mr Sato didn't accept that thesis. Now, he does - and indeed, Greenpeace isn't sending ships to the Antarctic any more.

The organisation's goal is unchanged - an end to Japanese whaling, certainly in the Antarctic. But it feels it can achieve more now by campaigning with words - by attacking the finances of the hunt, pointing up the reputational damage that Japan suffers as a result of the hunt, and so on.

Greenpeace Japan is a tiny organisation, and one of only a handful campaigning against whaling in the country. Therefore, the bulk of activism on the issue, the bulk of the pressure, comes from the outside world.

But does the outside world including the activist community understand enough about Japanese society, I wondered, in order to apply that pressure effectively - in order to find the right places and the right times to push, and the right occasions for restraint?

Mr Sato's answer - and this should perhaps be salutary for many of the campaign groups here that declaim long, loud and often about what Japan ought and ought not to do - is no, they don't.

We discussed two ways in which that manifests itself. One is that change can be wrought much more slowly than in the West; impatience is unlikely, therefore, to bring rewards.

The second, though, is that over the years, Japanese society and indeed the Japanese government has changed and is changing - as witnessed by the emergence of academics such as Jun Morikawa, whose recent book I discussed in a previous post, who are prepared openly to challenge the justifications put forward by the Japanese government for whaling.

This isn't the 1970s, Mr Sato acknowledged; and campaigners who want to effect change in Japan should not see things in the same terms as in that era.

Lunches come to an end, and so do blog posts: and so, soon, may liberty end temporarily for Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki.

I hope our conversation provides readers as much food for thought as it did for me.


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