The Big Question: Have the Japanese seen off their opponents in the battle over whaling?

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Why are we asking this now?

Because after several weeks of highly publicised clashes between the Japanese Antarctic whaling fleet and environmental activists, the green campaigners – Greenpeace and the more radical Sea Shepherd Conservation Society – have left the Southern Ocean, and the Japanese have this week resumed killing whales (in the guise of "scientific whaling" – a fiction believed by no one. An Australian customs vessel has witnessed five whales being harpooned and hauled on to a Japanese ship. The Japanese this season want to hunt up to 935 minke whales and 50 larger fin whales.

Why did the green campaigners leave?

Because their own ships, Greenpeace's Esperanza and Sea Shepherd's Steve Irwin, needed to refuel and resupply after a long period out of port chasing, shadowing, photographing and harassing the Japanese whaling fleet – the factory ship Nissan Maru and its attendant catcher boats.

Are they going back?

Greenpeace say that Esperanza must now go for an overdue and necessary session of maintenance in New Zealand. Sea Shepherd say that the Steve Irwin will go back to the whaling grounds as soon as she is ready, probably next week.

So have the Japanese won?

It depends how you define winning. It is clear that the Japanese have suffered several recent reverses in their determination to hunt ever more whales, using the "scientific" excuse, in spite of the International Whaling Commission's 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, and in defiance of much of world opinion.

First, just before Christmas they were forced by an international outcry to abandon their plan, revealed earlier last year, to kill humpback whales – among the world's most popular animals – in addition to the minke and fin whales they are already taking.

Second, they were physically prevented last month, by the green campaigners on the high seas, from doing any whaling at all for about three weeks. Third and probably most important, the clashes in the Southern Ocean this winter have given Japan and the Japanese government a quite enormous amount of bad publicity and highlighted internationally, once again, a practice large numbers of people find unacceptable.

So what happened?

The two-day "imprisonment" of two Sea Shepherd activists, Briton Giles Lane and Australian Benjamin Potts, who boarded one of the Japanese, whalers, was a story that went round the world. The foreign criticism is leading to an increasing questioning of the merits of whaling, inside Japan.

But aren't the Japanese just going to continue?

For the moment, certainly. The dogged attachment to whaling of some sections of Japanese society, and of the Japanese government itself, may be puzzling, but it is real. It seems not to reflect majority opinion in Japan, and it does not reflect the opinion of the young, but it is in tune with the views of influential right-wing and nationalist politicians, who see it as part of traditional Japanese culture and do not feel that Japan should be told what it can do. It also reflects the views of older people, who grew fond of whale meat in the years after the war when food was in very short supply and whale meat became part of people's diets.

It is a fact that the Japanese government puts a considerable amount of effort and money every year into its campaign to have the 1986 commercial whaling moratorium overturned, hoping to do this by gaining a two-thirds majority on the voting floor of the IWC's annual meeting. It is attempting to secure a majority by encouraging small states to join the IWC – encouragement which is invariably sweetened by large dollops of Japanese overseas aid – and vote with Japan. It has been pursuing this strategy resolutely for more than a decade and shows no signs of stopping.

Is it likely to succeed?

So assiduously has Japan been recruiting other states that two years ago it came within a whisker of a 51 per cent majority in the meeting. This would not allow it to scrap the moratorium – a 66 per cent majority is needed for that – but it would have allowed it to make changes in the way the meetings are run which would be to Japan's advantage, such as secret ballots. (With secret ballots it would be much harder to identify Japanese client states.) Last year, however, the anti-whaling nations, known as the "like-minded countries" and led by Britain, the US, Australia and New Zealand, took on the Japanese at their own game and brought in recruits of their own to the IWC, which more than redressed the voting balance.

So what's the likely outcome?

One of the minor marvels of modern diplomacy is the quite unwavering attachment of the Japanese to whaling, in spite of the pile of international opprobrium it brings down on their heads. At this moment it seems highly unlikely that the moratorium can be overturned, but that will not stop the Japanese from trying, year after year. On the other hand, if they are determined, so are their opponents.

The "like-minded countries" regard whaling as extremely cruel and inhumane, and also entirely unnecessary, and have electorates that strongly back this position, so they will be unlikely to resile from it. The opposition is even more deeply entrenched in the green movement, as it has been since the 1970s and Greenpeace's first direct-action anti-whaling campaigns.

It used to be said that a war was the best recruiting-sergeant to get young men to join the army. This winter's vivid TV pictures of clashes in the Southern Ocean between Japanese whalers and green campaigners, riding the waves in their inflatables, will inspire the eco-warrior ethos in not a few young people.

So the battle is not over yet in spite of Japan's resumption of whale-hunting?

Well, consider the comments this week of Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd's Steve Irwin. He said: "This is going to be a never-ending trip to the dentist for Japan. We intend to remain a constant, nagging, festering pain to their intentions to continue to kill whales illegally.

"We will never surrender our efforts to protect the defenceless whales from the barbaric cruelty that Japanese harpoons inflict upon these highly intelligent, socially complex, gentle beings. As long as Japan continues to invade the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, we will continue to defend it."

Can the Japanese ever be persuaded to give up whaling?

Yes...

* They may eventually decide that the international opprobrium they incur is just not worth it

* As new generations are less fond of whale meat, a majority of the Japanese people may turn against it

* They may come to feel that the opposition from international bodies and environmental groups is never-ending

No...

* The consumption of whale meat is considered to be a part of Japanese culture

* Too much time and money has been invested by the Japanese government to abandon it

* The Japanese do not like to be told what they can and cannot do by other nations

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