about 7 minutes to read

It is rare that I find a piece in a newspaper written by a journalist that is well researched and illustrates a sound and critical analysis of the issue being addressed. Opinion pieces and guest editorials (usually by academics, some activists and some pundits—as they are called in North America) often provide this. In recent days i found such a piece by Peter Hartcher, the ‘political editor’ for Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, titled Japan’s fading appetite for a fight.

Hartcher presented a well rounded piece that illustrated a sound awareness of the politics of the issue from both sides. It was actually refreshing. Rather than spiel this out myself, provided below is the piece in full which i think is written well enough that it illustrates it itself.

Japan’s fading appetite for a fight
Peter Hartcher
November 21, 2008

Tomohiko Taniguchi was the official voice of Japan for the last three years. The spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo fronted the international media every day to answer, avoid and argue questions. Of the hundreds of matters he dealt with, the one he dreaded most was defending Japan’s whaling program. It was part of his job to defend official policy.

“I was being summoned by CNN, BBC and ABC on this issue far more than any other issue,” Taniguchi says. “I hated this issue because there’s no point in Japan sticking to its position,” he tells the Herald in flawless English.

No point? Today Taniguchi is an adviser to Japan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. But, since July, he is no longer an employed official, so he is free to speak his mind. And he does.

“The Japanese whaling industry generates revenues of 7.5 billion yen a year, which is $120 million at the current exchange rate. It’s tiny.”

Japan’s economy, the world’ second biggest, has an annual output of 515 trillion yen or $8.2 trillion. So whaling accounts for 0.0014 per cent of the national economy. Or less than one-tenth the value of the country’s annual market for toothbrushes.

And the total number of people who derive a living from whaling, including dependents, is between one and several thousands in a country of 130 million.

“Japan has nil national interest in the whaling industry,” Taniguchi continues. “The stake for Japan is near zero. If Australians criticise the Japanese auto industry, Japan must do everything possible to protect the auto industry. This is not the auto industry.”

He is writing a long piece for a Japanese magazine, Wedge, to ask Japanese to consider the balance sheet of national interests. On the other side of the ledger, he contends, “this issue is doing substantial damage to Japan’s image in Australia, the US, Canada, the UK, New Zealand”, the entire English-speaking world.

The Japanese whaling fleet set sail this week for the annual Southern Ocean catch, unannounced except by Greenpeace. The bad publicity has already started. Taniguchi says Japan has some legitimate arguments supporting its whaling program, conducted in the name of scientific research. He cites the point non-baleen whales eat vast quantities of fish “and though it’s difficult to prove, this could endanger fish stocks”.

But he argues there is no purpose in making the case. “Though it’s legitimate, you are the only one saying it among the 190 countries of the world. You may have a good product to sell, but when there’s no consumers for your product, then there’s no market.”

Japan’s officials were startled last year when the Rudd Government, in line with its campaign rhetoric, took an aggressive new line on Japan’s whaling, sending a Customs vessel to monitor the Japanese fleet. The fleet, in turn, carried its own Customs officials, implying the protection and sanction of the Japanese Government.

The foreign ministries of both countries feared the noisy escalation of the issue could endanger the big national interests that each country has at stake with the other – one of the biggest two-way trade flows in the world, and close strategic alignment as democratic US allies in the Asia-Pacific.

Even with its current economic anaemia, Japan remains Australia’s biggest single export market. In recent weeks it has re-emerged as one of the biggest foreign investors, too, with some of its stronger companies pitching to spend about $10 billion in Australia.

This is useful in its own right. But the big Japanese involvement in Australia’s economy is also an important counterweight to the growing mass of Chinese trade and investment.

Australia, by virtue of its current account deficit, needs foreign investment. By adding new investment of its own and by helping to balance the Chinese influence, Japan helps make Australia’s overall foreign investment much more manageable. This is a real consideration that weighs on the minds of Australian ministers and officials.

And, on the other side of the equation, Australia is a vital source of energy and food to a Japan that increasingly frets about being crowded out of world markets by a rising and voracious China.

For a moment this year Australia hoped the whaling problem would disappear. In May Taro Aso, then secretary-general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said if Australia’s feelings towards Japan were hurt unnecessarily “only in order to sustain such a small industry”, then Japan should “address this issue as quickly as possible”, according to an official record of his remarks. Aso made fun of the whaling industry’s pretensions to scientific legitimacy.

“Has anyone heard of any scientific results coming from Japan’s whaling program?” he posed rhetorically.

When he became Prime Minister, it raised hopes that he would dispense with the 500 million yen government subsidy that sustains the industry. But the whaling fleet is again on the high seas, and Aso’s prime ministership is in difficulty.

Taniguchi hopes the whaling industry will fade away. Whale meat is not a big seller, an uneconomic activity. About 80 Japanese parliamentarians support whaling, but it is a core issue for only six to eight. With the Government’s deficit worsening, the annual subsidy becomes harder to defend. But Taniguchi advises Australia, and others, not to press too hard, lest this only entrench Japanese political support for whaling.

The Rudd Government is heeding this advice, and both countries are seeking to cool the issue. Japan is not sending Customs officials with this year’s fleet, and Australia is not sending a Customs vessel in pursuit. Peter Garret’s announcement that Australia would instead put up $6 million for non-lethal research into whales, inviting Japan and others to join the effort, is a creative alternative to confrontation.

Many countries have an ugly blemish that mars the total image and makes other peoples recoil in distaste. China has Tibet, the US has Guantanamo Bay, Turkey has Armenian genocide, and Japan has whaling. Uneconomic and increasingly costly to Japan’s image, Taniguchi expects it will disappear in a few years. But in the meantime, he fears that escalation could damage the interests of Australia as well as Japan. “Japanese children would be horrified to learn that Australians routinely kill and even eat kangaroos, which they think are much cuter than whales.”



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