Two Greenpeace activists who exposed a black market in whale meat run by the crew of Japanese whalers face up to 10 years in jail while the government shows no discomfiture over the nailing of its ‘scientific whaling’ claims.
Juichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, Greenpeace-Japan activists, appeared in court on Feb.13 on charges of trespassing and stealing a box of whale meat 10 months ago in a trial which has clear political overtones.
It all started about a year ago when Greenpeace was contacted by a former whaling fleet crew member, telling them that crew members of Japanese whaling fleets regularly take whale meat off the ships to sell for their own profit.
Greenpeace investigated and found about 93 boxes of “personal baggage” labeled with names like “cardboard” or “salted stuff” at Tokyo Harbour on the ship, Nisshin Maru, which had just returned from a five-month voyage in the Southern Ocean. The boxes were addressed to the homes of Nisshin Maru crew.
One of the shipments went to Aomori where Juichi Sato and Toru Suzuki entered the delivery truck and took one of the boxes, which did not contain “cardboard” but expensive prime whale meat cuts.
The ‘Tokyo Two’, as they are now called, turned over the stolen meat to the Public Persecutor in Tokyo in May, along with a dossier detailing the investigation, as evidence of the whale meat smuggling operation and wide-scale corruption in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, according to Greenpeace International.
Meanwhile, the transportation company, Seino, reported the missing box from their delivery truck to the police, which led to the arrests of Sato and Suzuki.
Their incarceration caused a public storm because it was the first time the public learned there was a connection between whale meat smuggling and so-called scientific research.
Japan may legally kill whales as part of research missions but, according to critics, many are killed in the Antarctic region under the guise of research and the meat sold commercially. The country can slaughter a limited number of whales for commercial purposes close to its waters.
The case has raised legal questions which are not normally encountered in a trial for trespassing and theft, according to lead defence counsel Yuichi Kaido. The defendants have never disputed that they entered a transportation depot and removed a box of whale meat which did not belong to them, the main fact on which the prosecutor’s case rests.
“Neither activist had any intent of illegal acquisition, which is one of the elements of crime of ‘theft’ as defined by Japanese domestic law,” Kaido said. “International courts have stressed that respect for freedom of expression is essential, if news and non-governmental organisations are to play their role as public watchdogs in a democracy.”
Moreover, from the perspective of international law, the acts of Sato and Suzuki were an exercise of the right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Greenpeace said the public prosecutors should have focused on the bureaucrats who ran the whaling programme funded by Japanese taxpayers’ money. However, the Tokyo district prosecutor’s office on May 2008 said it did not find any evidence of the smuggling and that the investigation into crew and whaling officials was dropped.
Takashi Akamatsu, a spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs, told IPS that the government will not comment on this case because it is currently in the hands of the judicial system.
The Japanese government claims the whales it hunts are used for scientific study and that the sale of the meat is to cover the cost of the study. There are specific areas where the Japanese are legally allowed to hunt and sell the whale meat.
The ministry’s website says “that certain NGOs and the media are spreading misinformation on this issue to the public to provoke an emotional reaction against our activities which could make dialogue difficult’’.
The ministry points out that whaling is no longer an issue of species conservation as was the situation in the 1960s and 1970s, when several whale species had been over harvested and effective measures to protect the endangered species were urgently called for.
Jun Hoshikawa, the executive director of Greenpeace Japan and author of 60 books, says, “It’s another piece of propaganda. Thousands of whales still die everyday from various interference by humans, including the impact of climate change.”
He blames the Japanese government for blurring the issue by continuing to fan nationalistic sentiment among the Japanese public. The Fisheries Agency claims that by killing whales in the Southern Ocean, they are defending Japanese culture with the support of its people.
Japan has been hunting and eating whales for hundred of years. The traditional name for whale was brave fish and it is served as a delicacy at special occasion and festivals. Today it is readily available in Japan’s supermarkets and even served in school lunches.
But awareness has been growing since the scandal broke that killing whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is not ethical. In fact, Japanese public sentiment against whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary has grown to 60 percent, which is a slight increase from last year according to a recent poll conducted by the privately-run Nippon Research Centre.
Greenpeace is opposed to ‘Research Whaling’ in the Southern Ocean because it is designated as a Whale Sanctuary by the International Whaling Commission, which the Japanese government does not adhere to, according to Hoshikawa.
“The Japanese Research Whaling programme kills about 1,000 whales every year in the South Ocean Whale Sanctuary,” he says. “It is a clear violation of the spirit of the Sanctuary and the International Convention for Regulation of Whaling. Japanese taxpayer’s money should not be abused in state-funded commercial whaling.”
Meanwhile, Sato and Suzuki are out on bail with many conditions, including not working for Greenpeace and staying close to home.