In an annual ritual as seemingly unstoppable as the tides, Japan's whaling fleet is again ploughing the Southern Ocean hunting and killing whales. Bitterly criticised, harried by eco-warriors on Sea Shepherd's ships and tracked by the world's media, the fleet may be slowed but it won't be stopped. On its return to port in April, the refrigerated holds are likely to be stuffed with the meat from 850 minkes and 50 fin whales. Next year, 50 endangered humpbacks could be added to the list.
Japan has so far been largely inoculated from debate on the annual cull, but that may be about to change. Next month sees the first public hearing in the trial of Greenpeace activists Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, accused of trespass and theft in their attempt to expose the embezzlement of whale meat by crew members on board the fleet, who sold it for personal gain. Activists believe the so-called Tokyo Two case could put the entire whaling programme in Japan on trial.
Japan's stubbornness on whaling is one of the mysteries of world diplomacy. Why does the country turn angry and unyielding when it comes to whaling? Why does it continue to snub one of the environmental movement's few lasting triumphs: the 1986 moratorium on commercial hunts?
Oddly, very little is known about the dynamics of whaling in Japan, probably because foreign media do such an awful job of reporting it. Without an explanation, Japan's taste for "whale blood" (as The Independent once put it) seems irrational and barbaric, fuelling racist stereotypes that the Japanese do not deserve.
Clearly, it is not because Japan's citizens love whale meat. A 2006 Greenpeace survey concluded that 95 per cent of Japanese had "never or very rarely eaten" it. Outside of a handful of local ports, fresh whale is as rare as, say, veal, in the UK. Pro-whalers respond that it is so only because foreign pressure has made the meat so expensive to harvest. But even after the 1986 international whaling moratorium and the start of Japan's "scientific" whaling, 70 tons of whale meat was left unsold from a catch of 1,873 tons after the fleet returned to port in spring 2001 – a fraction of the 230,000 metric tons consumed in the peak whaling year of 1962. Although some middle-aged citizens remain fond of it, most youngsters would rather eat almost anything else. The mass consumption of whale meat, and the industry that supports it, was essentially forced on Japan by a lack of alter-native resources half a century ago.
So, boring as it sounds, Tokyo's relentless drive to reverse the whaling ban is essentially political, and understanding why means casting our minds back to how the ban came into being. The Japanese Fisheries Agency (JFA), which controls the nation's whaling policy, feels that it was bamboozled and blackmailed into abandoning commercial hunts by the US-led West.
One date, in particular, is for ever burned into the JFA's collective consciousness. On 30 June 1979, anti-whaling protester Richard Jones, who later became an Australian senator, dumped red paint over Japanese delegates at the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) conference in London. Caught up in the growing environmental movement, the bureaucrats professed no idea why they were being blamed for the destruction of whale stocks, when historically the US and Europe had hunted far more whales.
In the 1980s, as a bitter trade war raged between Japan and the West, Washington came under pressure to limit access to its coastal waters, which yielded nearly a million tonnes of fish per year to Japanese boats. In a deal struck in the middle of the decade, Japan agreed to withdraw its objections to the IWC whaling moratorium in return for a US pledge to keep this access open. But months after Japan formally agreed to the ban in July 1986, its US fishing quota was halved. Two years later, it had fallen to zero and an angry JFA responded by kick-starting the now infamous practice of "scientific whaling".
The JFA knows it has zero chance of winning a two-thirds majority to overturn the IWC ban. It also knows there is no chance of reviving the commercial industry, which is kept alive on government life-support. What the agency can do is fight for the symbolic right to whale sustainably, and occasionally skewer Western hyp-ocrisy, which it does quite well. Why do American hunters kill five million "beautiful, Bambi-eyed deer" annually, wondered Japan's top whaling diplomat Joji Morishita at a January press conference. "I've no problem with that, as long as it is sustainable."
For some Japanese politicians, the appeal of the pro-whaling campaign is quite clear: Japan can let off steam in the foreign political arena.
Fixing what is basically a case of wounded national pride should be straightforward, but after two decades the pro- and anti-whaling camps are deeply dug in and have little reason to compromise. Western politicians lose nothing domestically by not budging an inch on Japanese whaling. Their Tokyo counterparts can condemn Western "cultural imperialism" and bask in the reputation as defenders of Japan's right to the "sea commons".
So what to do? One solution has been around for at least two decades: allow Japan the right to hunt more whales around its own exclusive fishing waters in exchange for scaling down or pulling out of the high seas. This essentially is the so-called "compromise package" that has been discussed for the past two years behind the scenes at the IWC. The details are forbidding. How many whales would Japan catch? How would the hunts be monitored? Would such a deal not be simply rewarding Japan for a decade of brinkmanship, during which it gradually scaled up its Antarctic hunts to the current 1,000 whales a year?
But one reason Norway, which hunts almost as many whales as Japan, gets far less attention, is because it doesn't send its trawlers outside its own waters. Some Japanese diplomats have taken note, and are growing tired of the battering Japan takes every time its fleet leaves port. If Tokyo can be persuaded to abandon its Southern Ocean cull, limit or stop expeditions to the North Pacific and submit to monitoring of its coastal catch, shouldn't this initiative be given a chance?
As Sato Tetsu, professor of ecology and environmental sciences at Nagano University, says. "It is not really a problem of reviving the whaling industry now; it is a problem of national pride, or at least government and bureaucratic pride. They basically need a symbolic victory."