Japan admits aid deals buy support for whaling

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The Japanese government has admitted for the first time that it uses overseas aid to buy the support of small nations for its campaign to legalise whaling.

A senior Japanese official said yesterday "there is nothing wrong" with Tokyo using its diplomatic weight and its enormous budget for overseas development aid (ODA) to influence members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

"Japan does not have a military power," Masayuki Komatsu, head of the international division of Japan's Fisheries Agency, told Australia's ABC television. "[The only] means [to gain support] is simply diplomatic communication and ODA. So in order to get appreciation of Japan's position, of course it is natural that we must [rely] on those two major tools. So I think there is nothing wrong."

Environmental groups have long accused Japan of buying votes in the IWC, the international body that regulates whaling. At an IWC meeting in London next week, Japan is expected to be successful in defeating a proposal to create a sanctuary for whales in the South Pacific. Governments likely to support Japan include Panama, Morocco, Peru and Dominica – countries that have no domestic whaling industry but which receive substantial aid from Japan.

The Japanese government has always denied any connection between its aid activities and its lobbying on whaling, but Mr Komatsu's words will make that claim difficult to sustain. The façade began to crack at last year's IWC conference in Adelaide when the Environment Minister of Dominica, Atherton Martin, resigned in protest after his government's representative voted against the proposal for a South Pacific whale sanctuary.

"I am alarmed that the Japanese seem to be using the promise of aid ... to manipulate [Dominica] voting at the IWC," Mr Martin said in his resignation statement. "There is absolutely no reason for us to be held ransom by Japan in return for promises of aid." A three-quarters majority was required to create the whale sanctuary, but only 18 delegates voted in favour, with 11 against and four abstaining.

Commercial whaling was banned in 1986 but since then Japan has continued killing as many as 1,000 whales a year, saying they are not from endangered species, on the pretext that it is doing scientific research to monitor whale numbers. Environmentalists dismiss this as an excuse for keeping its domestic whale industry alive.

Mr Komatsu's remarks reflected a cynicism towards the whaling issue on the part of Japanese officialdom. "I believe that, you know, minke whale is, you know, [a] cockroach in the ocean," he said. "Because there are too many and [because of the] speed of the whale, you know, swimming so quick."

Helen Clarke, the New Zealand Prime Minister, joined environmental groups in condemning the Japanese statement. "When put alongside Japan's long-standing but spurious assertions that it is taking large numbers of whales for purely scientific and research purposes, this confirmation of Japan's tactics shows the desperate lengths it will go to maintain whaling," she said. "If Japan is indeed indulging in the sort of behaviour alluded to by Mr Komatsu, it can only underline the bankruptcy of its stance on whaling."

In a further blow to Japan's credibility, the London-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) announced yesterday it had discovered meat from endangered whales on sale in Japanese food markets. The scientists did DNA tests on 129 samples, and discovered tissue from protected humpback, fin and sei whales. It also found dolphin and even horse meat being passed off as whale.

The evidence has been presented to the IWC. "This new research finally reveals the truth – that so-called scientific whaling is providing a cover for the illegal trade in endangered species," said Naoko Funahashi, IFAW's Japan representative.

Anti-whaling groups fear that Japan's strategy is to muster enough support to overturn the whaling moratorium. Denise Boyd of Greenpeace said: "If ever there was an admission that Japan intends to declare war on the whales then this is it. It's important that the rest of the world realises the battle to save the whales isn't over and that Japan really wants a return to large-scale commercial whaling."

The Japanese government's stubborn commitment to whaling is a puzzle. Japan's diplomacy tends towards the cautious and conciliatory but on whaling Tokyo is aggressively active. The issue, though, does not raise passions among the public at home. Many young Japanese have never tasted whale, and the industry itself is not politically powerful or economically important.