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Emotions escalate in U.S., Japan whaling debate
TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) -- For some, it's a matter of pride and principle. For others, it boils down to nostalgia.
That appears to be the answer to the question currently puzzling much of the Western world again -- why won't Japanese stop hunting and eating whales?
A defiant Japan reacted angrily on Thursday to the latest U.S. action in a feud over Tokyo's recently expanded whale hunt.
Cabinet ministers deplored President Bill Clinton's decision to ban Japan's vessels from future fishing rights in U.S. waters and urged him not to go ahead with threatened economic sanctions.
"The issue of whaling should be discussed in a framework such as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) based on scientific facts," Japan's top government spokesman Hidenao Nakagawa told a news conference.
"It should not be dealt with emotionally," Nakagawa added, hinting yet again that Tokyo would complain to the World Trade Organization (WTO) if Washington slapped on sanctions.
But ask average Japanese -- and even some diplomats -- why the high-profile fuss, and many just shake their heads.
"I don't really know," said one Japanese government source. "It's not as if we're really eating a lot of whale meat."
Necessity fostered Japan's taste for whale
Despite a centuries-long history, Japanese whaling is by no means big business these days, making the whaling feud different from other trade spats over telecoms, steel and cars.
Japan gave up commercial whaling in compliance with an international moratorium that took effect in 1986 but has conducted what it calls scientific research whaling since 1987.
That research whaling is the source of the 3,000-4,000 tons of whale meat sold annually in Japan -- much of it at pricey specialty restaurants.
A Japan Whaling Association official said research whaling employs about 400 people, while those working in related industries number only in the thousands.
Short supply and high price tags -- about 4,000 to 6,000 yen a kg -- mean whale meat is hardly the protein of choice.
Older Japanese, though, recall whale as a staple of their school lunches, not only right after World War Two when food was in short supply but until the 1960s.
"It used to be the only meat we could get," said one office worker in his 50s. "There wasn't much beef or pork and they were too expensive anyway."
Japan insists research whaling is permitted by IWC rules and say it has resumed the hunt for sperm and Bryde's whales because scientific data suggest their numbers have recovered sufficiently to allow the catches -- a point on which debate still rages.
"Research whaling has scientific basis," Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori told reporters on Thursday.
Tokyo's hard line stance on whaling also echoes a growing frustration among some politicians with what they see as America's penchant for telling others what to do.
"Does the United States think that it should decide everything and that if it glares, that (Japan) will back down?" Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoichi Tani said this week.
Whaling lobbyists question the right of the West to dictate the diet of other those with different cultures.
"It is worth asking whether the whales-are-divine doctrine represents some universally accepted absolute truth or whether it is a narrow Western urban perspective," wrote Japan Whaling Association advisor Shigeko Misaki recently.
And trade officials more accustomed to dealing with battles over manufactured goods than mammals bristle at U.S. threats to impose sanctions over whaling or any two-way feud.
"Unilateral sanctions are not in accord with the ideals of the WTO," said a trade ministry official.
Public attitudes may be shifting.
"Japan expanding whaling amid domestic indifference" said a headline in domestic news agency article saying most Japanese had little interest in Tokyo's push to resume commercial whaling.
Said 23-year-old Yoshika Tsuchihashi when broached on the topic in Tokyo's glitzy Ginza shopping district: "I think whales taste good, but when I picture them alive and swimming freely in nature, I feel sorry. Whales shouldn't be hunted, they should live freely."
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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