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Tuesday, June 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Japan's whaling ways must end

Special to The Times

When I was fortunate enough to visit Tokyo and Kyoto, thanks to a Japanese publisher, I was moved and impressed by the growing environmental movement there, which has made Henry Thoreau's "Walden" a bestseller and inspired thousands of young people to work for conservation of other species, particularly whales and dolphins.

Yet, once again, Japan is lobbying the International Whaling Commission meeting this week to expand whale hunting toward the goal of overturning a 1986 international moratorium. Does Japan understand why its "scientific whaling" — which usually ends up in gourmet Japanese meat markets — so offends the international community?

According to the Associated Press, Japanese fisheries official Masayuki Komatsu said of Westerners, "All they think is that whales are 'cute.' "

This statement shows a lack of understanding, both scientific and cross-cultural. As indicator species, whales and dolphins show us the health of our oceans. For example, subsistence Arctic whale hunters on Baffin Island have discovered that mothers can no longer nurse their infants because their milk is contaminated with heavy metals and PCBs. According to another International Whaling Commission meeting, reports on contaminant levels in whale meat in Japan "detected mercury some 1,600 times above the government permitted level, as well as large amounts of organic mercury and cadmium in whale meat that is widely available."

Expanding whaling hunts and eating whale meat in a time of contaminated whales, some of which now must be buried as "toxic waste," is not only bad business — it is dangerous to our human health.

Tokyo-based Dolphin & Whale Action Network reports that the Japanese people no longer like eating whale meat and Tokyo's argument that "whaling should be maintained to meet consumer demand is a fabrication." There are also reports from the online Times in Britain that Japanese whalers have been "throwing away tons of their catches at sea because of a slump in consumption that has resulted in a vast whale-meat surplus."

Japan claims that whaling is a cultural heritage, but what about the environmental culture and heritage of our oceans? The gray whales that once migrated past Japan's lovely islands are now all but extinct. Some Japanese fishermen who once slaughtered dolphins are now leading hugely popular dolphin-watching tours. Conservation-minded whale-watching is huge business worldwide. What if the Japanese spent their whaling money on whale-watching?

Economically, Japan's continued whaling may create an unwanted backlash — or even, as The Christian Science Monitor recently suggested, a boycott — just at the time when Japan is trying to show the world that it is a global player.

While Japan has proved itself a powerful economy, to become a respected world leader it must also adapt to certain environmental values increasingly held by the developed world. One of these values is that whales and dolphins are not just "big fish," as some pro-whaling Japanese argue; they are highly advanced life forms. They sing lullabies to their young, engage in complex family systems, and their communication and navigation skills rival our own. Dolphins have been known to save drowning men; and recently a humpback whale, after rescue from fishing nets, individually made eye contact with each rescuer, including dive master James Moskito, who said it was "one of the most fantastic moments" of his life.

As the world moves toward a more enlightened bond with these remarkable fellow mammals, Japan's pro-whaling lobby is leading its people backwards. Internationally, Japanese whalers are viewed as heartless and environmentally short-sighted. Is this the impression a modern Japan wants to give the world?

The Japanese are some of the most gracious, courteous and far-sighted people I've encountered. More than many Americans, the Japanese are very well-informed about the world's literature, politics and even pop culture. Japan has also led the way to the future in animation, electronics and emissions-efficient cars.

Japan has changed its environmental course before to great applause when Mitsubishi, the world's largest corporation, decided in June 2000 to preserve the pristine gray whale birthing lagoons in Baja, Mexico. This decision showed the world that Japan was committed to conservation and to the future and not the past, to being a strong and environmentally ethical member of the global community.

Is it possible that the Japanese government will again listen to international pleas and join in the vital work of ocean conservation? While we may not always share cultures, the fate of our oceans is also the shared fate and the future of all nations.

Brenda Peterson, of Seattle, is the co-author of "Sightings: The Gray Whales' Mysterious Journey" (National Geographic Books, 2002) and the novel "Duck and Cover" (HarperCollins, 1991), a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year."

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