Greenpeace activists Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki with their lawyer, Yuichi Kaido, at a press briefing.

Greenpeace activists Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki with their lawyer, Yuichi Kaido, at a press briefing. Photo: Greenpeace, Greg McNevin

For years, they’ve thumbed their nose at the world, taking advantage of a loophole in international law. But the Japanese whaling industry may soon have its nose tweaked, if prosecutors proceed with their case against two Greenpeace activists.

At the center of the case is 23.5 kilograms of minke whale meat, which Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, both campaigners with Greenpeace Japan, intercepted after the meat was smuggled from the Nisshin Maru whaling vessel and passed through a delivery depot in Aomori Prefecture, where many of the whalers live, in a box labeled “cardboard.”

Japan has taken advantage of a controversial provision in the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 ban on commercial whaling that allows member states to kill whales for scientific purposes, such as researching the whales’ breeding and migration habits (not sure why they have to kill them to do that). But as animal advocates have long claimed ― and as Greenpeace’s investigation shows — Japan’s “scientific” whale hunts are merely a smokescreen for selling whale meat on the black market: the meat Junichi and Toru intercepted is worth up to US$3,000. The activists have been charged with theft and trespass and face ten years in jail if convicted in the trial planned for early 2010.

Junichi and Toru had taken the box of whale meat as evidence of corruption within Japan’s whaling industry, which this year claimed the lives of 551 minke whales (though that’s a far cry from the 850 they had hoped to kill; whalers were constantly on the run from ― or running into ― Sea Shepherd and its anti-whaling ship). Junichi and Toru turned the smuggled meat over to the Tokyo Public Prosecutor’s Office, which said it would investigate the scandal before dropping its investigation a month later. Greenpeace’s offices were then raided, along with the homes of five of its staff, and the two activists were arrested in June 2008. Junichi and Toru say they were strapped to chairs and interrogated for up to 12 hours a day, without lawyers present. Needless to say, Amnesty International has voiced their concern as well, suggesting the police actions are “aimed at intimidating both activists and non-governmental organizations.”

The two men plan to use the trial to expose whaling-industry corruption and the denial of human rights in their country. “I did [over]step the boundary,” says Junichi, “but I don’t think that’s bad. I think this needs to be done. I’m very sure this arrest was politically motivated.” He told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that the Japanese public doesn’t know the truth about whaling. “We need international pressure, but that’s not enough,” he said. “We also need people inside Japan to speak out against whaling. The media here doesn’t report the truth, so the Japanese people have no idea about the negative impact it’s having on our diplomatic relations with countries like Australia and New Zealand.”

Whistleblowers who alerted Greenpeace to the meat smuggling said most of the crew of the Nisshin Maru took home 200 or 300 kilograms of whale meat. One informer said that dozens of crew take as many as 20 boxes each and that this lucrative practice had been going on for years with the tacit agreement of the whaling company, Kyodo Senpaku.

Jun Hoshikawa, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, says the whaling program in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is funded by the Japanese taxpayers, including the Greenpeace activists who have been arrested, and they have a right to know who is profiting from their money. “The Japanese whaling program has been shamed internationally for its lack of scientific credibility; now it is being shamed at home as well for trying to hide the corruption, and now for taking revenge on those who have exposed it,” he says. “The Greenpeace activists should be immediately released.”

What You Can Do

Greenpeace is asking people to contact the prosecutor in this case. In addition, you can sign an unusual “arrest me” petition, which says that if the Japanese authorities can arrest Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki for helping whales, everyone who helps whales deserves to be arrested. If you’d like to help Sea Shepherd in their efforts to save whales from Japanese whalers, you can find details here.