TOKYO — They were "pirates" to some, "hostages" to others. But two anti-whaling activists who drew global attention this week by forcibly boarding a Japanese harpoon ship in Antarctic waters have demonstrated how the emotional clash over Japan's annual whale hunt can disrupt even the best international friendships.
The high seas showdown sent shudders through the Japanese and Australian governments, which have a close partnership on trade and security issues but find themselves on opposing sides of a whaling dispute in which middle ground is evaporating.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Whaling: In an article in Saturday's Section A about friction between Australia and Japan over whaling, Nobutaka Machimura was identified as Japan's foreign minister. He is the government's chief Cabinet secretary.
Alarmed officials in Tokyo and Canberra, the capitals, watched as this year's whale kill in the Southern Ocean near Australian waters took a nasty turn, with mutual accusations of racism and hypocrisy followed by the dangerous boarding of the Japanese whaler by eco-vigilantes.
The sides disagree on why the activists remained on board the Yushin Maru No. 2. The activists said they were restrained by the angry Japanese crew and that crewmen initially tried to throw them overboard.
The Japanese government complained that the two men, an Australian and a Briton, refused to be repatriated to their protest ship.
"They had no intention of leaving," said Glenn Inwood, a spokesman for the Institute of Cetacean Research, the quasi-public body that operates under the auspices of the Japanese government and conducts the hunts under a clause of the 1986 ban on commercial whaling that allows some to be taken for scientific purposes. "They showed up carrying a change of clothes, books and a flask of rum."
A face-saving resolution to the three-day standoff came Friday, when an Australian coast guard ship acting as a go-between transferred the two Sea Shepherd Conservation Society protesters back to their own vessel.
But both sides agree that this year's clash has been animated by more fevered emotion than usual. While publicly demanding the Sea Shepherd stop "harassing" its ships, some Japanese officials have been privately horrified by how the financially insignificant whaling industry has cast a pall over Japan's relations with some of its closest partners, Australia and the U.S.
"This is doing no good for Japanese diplomacy," said an official who requested anonymity because his comments conflicted with Japan's official position. "Many people are saying Japan is not balancing its interests, with a vocal minority dictating a course that risks some of our most cherished relationships."
The Australian government also finds itself in an awkward spot. The previous conservative government had settled for lecturing Japan about whaling while doing little to stop it. But the newly elected Labor government has pledged a more aggressive stand, and faces demands to follow up.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's hand was further forced by the Japanese decision to go ahead with plans to kill 50 humpback whales in this year's hunt. The massive but acrobatic humpbacks are beloved in Australia, where they are the basis of a multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry. The population has recovered to about 42,000. In the 1960s, their numbers dipped so low that a global ban on commercial hunting was enacted to prevent their extinction.
The Japanese argue that the humpbacks' recovery has altered the balance of species in the Southern Ocean, and say killing a small number is essential to study their effect. Anti-whalers scoff at that claim, contending that the Japanese are threatening the humpbacks as leverage in their campaign to overturn the ban on all commercial whaling.
Either way, the prospect of humpbacks being harpooned galvanized anti-whaling forces. It also provoked a more vigorous than usual protest from the U.S. government, which has always tempered its criticism of Japan out of sensitivity for an ally, and to protect its own coastal whaling activities in Alaska. Western diplomats say they privately warned Tokyo that it faced unprecedented international anger if humpbacks were killed.
That pushed Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura to call off the humpback hunt before it could begin, but the public mood was already ugly.
Japanese have been outraged by a TV ad produced by John Singleton, owner of an Australian beer company and an anti-whaling activist. The ad shows a Japanese businessman sitting down to lunch and ordering "the full whale experience." He is then harpooned and electrocuted, drowning in his own blood.
The ad received prominent attention in the Japanese news media, which said it was whipping up anti-Japanese racism. It also was countered with an anonymously posted video on the Internet accusing Australians of hypocrisy in condemning the whale hunt while slaughtering kangaroos and endangered dingoes.
The whalers say the decision to kill humpbacks was not a miscalculation, though they acknowledge that it is responsible for fueling the fire.
"Everyone realizes that the situation has moved up to a new level," says the ICR's Inwood.
It's about all they agree on.