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News 24 May 07
Japanese boatman drops harpoon to turn whale-watcher
by Shingo Ito
Tomohisa Nagaoka owes a lot to whales, having killed thousands during a long career as a whaler, but he has traded his harpoon for binoculars, convinced many Japanese would rather watch than eat them.
"I feel as if whales are part of my body," said Nagaoka, 75, who was born and raised in this former whaling port on Japan's southwestern island of Shikoku. "Whales are a gift from nature."
Nagaoka, who is permanently suntanned with deep wrinkles etched into his forehead, sails out with tourists on his "No. 2 Suehiro-Maru" fishing boat with a whale painted on its bow.
Japan hunts some 1,000 whales a year, to the fury of Western environmentalists, and is set to push again later this month at a meeting in Alaska for a full-scale resumption of commercial whaling banned in 1986.
Nagaoka, once renowned among his colleagues for his skill with a harpoon, decided in his mid-50s to become one of Japan's first whale watching navigators.
At that time, 20 years ago, global restrictions were tightening, leading to the merger of Japan's major whaling companies running controversial missions to the Antarctic.
"Whaling isn't easy, even with fellow whalers. Whaling with people I didn't know was one of my options," he said. "But I know more about whales than most people," Nagaoka said. "I know what kind of whales they are, where they swim and how they swim. I'd heard that whale watching was about to begin in Japan, so I thought, 'Let's give it a try.'"
No national figures are kept on whale-watching. But on the Pacific islands of Ogasawara, Japan's most popular spot for observing the massive mammals at play, some 14,700 people came to watch whales last year, a 20 percent growth from eight years ago, according to the Ogasawara Whale Watching Association.
One trend which few dispute is that Japanese people are eating less whale meat. This flies in the face of the government's insistence that whale meat is part of Japanese culture.
Annual per capita consumption has fallen to a mere 30 grams (one ounce) per person -- equivalent to one slice of sashimi -- compared with 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) per person in the early 1980s before the global moratorium.
While the environmental group Greenpeace and the Japanese government are in perennial discord, the enemies can at least both agree on whale watching.
"Although it's not our official stance, we can support whale watching as a means to use resources in a sustainable manner," said Hideki Moronuki, head of the Japanese fishery ministry's whaling division.
Junichi Sato, the campaign leader for Greenpeace Japan, said: "We suggest that the Japanese government shift funds from whaling to promotion of whale watching, which is still not well organised in Japan."
Nagaoka conceded that whalers were decimating the world's population of the mammals, particularly blue whales which are the biggest animals on Earth and are now an endangered species.
But he said Japan still had the right to catch whales. "Overhunting is no good," he said. "We used to catch as many as 60 blue whales a day, which was even beyond the mother ship's processing capacity, and some of them were spoiled due to rotting.
"But whaling within reasonable bounds should be allowed for people like the Japanese who have traditionally eaten whale like fish," the old man said. "I believe there is a way that people and whales can live together."
Whale meat does have sentimental value for many older Japanese as it helped feed the country during the severe food shortages that followed World War II.
But falling consumption has left a glut of uneaten whale meat and so the government last year set up a trading company to sell it to hospitals, bars and restaurants. The government is also reintroducing whale meat to school lunches in the hope of imparting a taste for it to a new generation.
In the whaling heartland of western Wakayama prefecture, nearly 85 percent of public elementary and junior high schools started serving whale in 2005, sometimes in the form of burgers to entice children.
Nagaoka began his career in 1956 at Kyokuyo, one of the nation's biggest whaling firms, joining as an apprentice before becoming a skilled harpoonist.
"Whaling was very dangerous, but a very attractive job," Nagaoka said. "Whales are very smart. They have sharp ears to notice danger. I'd pit my wits against theirs."
As chief harpoonist of his fleet, Nagaoka shot more than 4,000 whales, mainly in the Antarctic Ocean. "When you hunt whales, you should have no mercy. I tried to harpoon whales for the sake of my company and my family," said Nagaoka, who has two sons.
Japan continues to hunt whales using a loophole in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium that allows the killing of the animals for scientific research. Only Norway and Iceland defy the ban.
IWC regulations allow the meat of whales killed for "research" to be sold on the market, so Japan argues that it is not defying the ban.
But Japan is expected to use the Alaska meeting from May 28 to 31 to push for towns to be designated "subsistence" whaling communities using the same IWC rule that permits indigenous people in Alaska, Siberia and Greenland to hunt whales.
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