IF YOUR OBJECTIVE IS TO SAVE FISH, the government of Japan presents big problems. Norway, Iceland, and China set no picnics, but the Japanese are especially notable for the financial value of their worldwide catch, the importance of seafood to both diet and national sense of self, and their determination to carry on.
The Japanese are adept at an international version of Tammany Hall politics (from which my family springs). Last year, for example, Japanese diplomats at a UN conference on endangered species campaigned successfully against any trade bans on endangered tuna varieties, the leading example of which is the Bluefin Tuna, high king of sushi. The Japanese performed like seasoned ward heelers: travel subsidies so that delegates from developing countries could attend the conference; generous cocktail receptions; even a big fish barbecue (sheesh!) the evening before the key vote. They have been similarly busy at regional and sectoral meetings, upsetting environmentalist plans to offer multi-million dollar payments to Pacific Island nations in exchange for their declaring national waters off-limits to non-national fishing operations. The Japanese just outbid the enviros. They'll give five million a year to not let us fish? We'll give you ten million.
The fish business – catching, importing, distributing, preparing, eating – matters more to the Japanese economy than to any other (although Taiwan and Spain aren't far behind). Japan's Fisheries Ministry is well-funded and influential, at home and abroad. And most of the Japanese people seem to regard fishing as a deep, defining characteristic of their archipelago culture. They can easily translate an anti-whaling campaign as an insult to their worth.
But unless the Japanese government decides to make some kind of meaningful deal on the international regulation of fish stocks and fishing grounds, we're all in big trouble. Hence the question on the mind of many an occidental enviro these days: How can outsiders help change Japanese public opinion and Japanese public policy without – to put it delicately – pissing them off big-time?