Ben Hills

Out there on the green-grey, plankton-rich waters of the North Pacific is where Dr Tadao Furuya, at the helm of a crowded little pleasure boat called the Elm, separates the men from the boys.

Porpoises spring from the waves, sealions and otters gambol in the wake, and occasionally a spume of water marks the surfacing of a great whale – the grey hump of a minke, the dazzling black and white patches of orca, the”killer whale”, like an enormous sea-going Friesian cow.

“When we sight a pod of whales,” says Dr Furuya, who has been sailing these waters for 20 years, “you can see the generational difference straight away. The older people start counting them and working out how much they weigh, how much they would be worth as meat. The younger ones, especially the women, are incredibly moved by the experience … they want to jump overboard and swim with them.”

Muroran is a drab industrial port on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido which, until a few years ago, featured on no known tourist itinerary. It is the sister city of Knoxville, USA, home of the Tennessee Valley Authority -America’s largest power utility – which will give you the flavour of the place.

Its only claim to fame (apart from the cement works and the steel mills) is that it stands on Volcano Bay, the northernmost reach of the mighty Black Current, the oceanic superhighway that sweeps up from the tropics, bearing with it a rich stew of plankton, shrimp, sardines and squid – and the whales that feed on it.

For nearly half a century, Muroran was one of Japan’s great whaling ports. Old photographs show whales the size of semi- trailers hauled up on the beach for butchering. In its heyday, two whales a week were winched ashore, the boardwalk ran red with blood, the air was rancid with the stench of rendering blubber.

But now the town stands on the frontier of a new, fast-growing and politically correct industry. The people of Muroran – and of a dozen places like it the length of the Japanese archipelago – have rediscovered the whale… not as a delicacy for the hot-pot, but as a visual treat for tourists.

Muroran is the story that never gets told when demonstrators gather at the annual International Whaling Commission conferences to protest against Japan’s latest outrage – most recently, the decision to continue whaling in the Antarctic sanctuary most other countries agreed on this year.

It is the story of how a country changed its eating habits in just one generation – whalemeat, once a third of Japan’s meat intake, is now a gastronomic oddity, eaten mainly by wealthy older folk. Consumption is down to less than 1 per cent of what it was 30 years ago.

And it is the story of how the whales are being welcomed back to the waters where they were once hunted to the brink of extinction. Tourism is rescuing the economies of dying whaling towns, and some of the very men who once fired exploding harpoons into the brains of whales are now making a living showing them off to holiday-makers.

Eikichi Honma, a weathered 73, had been around whales all his life. His grandparents were whalemeat wholesalers, and as a child he remembers playing around the great factory on the bay where the big whales were brought ashore to be dismembered and turned into meat and fertiliser and oil.

“Whalemeat was the only protein we got in those days,” he says. “For New Year we might get a little piece of pork or chicken, but mostly it was whale. I still like it, but it’s too expensive for me to eat now.”

Honma was working at the cauldrons, rendering the blubber into oil, when word came one day in 1950 that the factory was to close. There are many fanciful theories why the whales disappeared, but the most obvious seems the most likely – the whalers had all but committed genocide on the larger, and more profitable, species. Isana, the “brave fish”, was nearly extinct.

At its peak, in the early 1960s more than 20,000 whales a year were killed in the earth’s oceans to satisfy Japan’s demand for a cheap source of protein- and the companies’ greed for profit. There was no thought of conservation, “sustainable yield” and the other buzz-words that now abound when you talk to Japan’s fisheries bureaucrats.

It was nearly 40 years later, the late 1980s, that Dr Furuya – a local dentist and keen game fisherman – began to notice that the whales were returning to Volcano Bay. By luck, the local council was looking for an opportunity to brighten up the town’s stagnant smokestack economy with a new image. And so Muroran, Whale City, was born.

The new coat of arms – a smiling whale, for some reason balancing a black and white soccer ball on its spout – emblazons every structure from the Toyota dealer to a gas tank at the oil refinery. A whale bus plies the streets. Whale tiepins, T-shirts, bottle openers, postcards, even whale wine, fill the shop windows.

A town that once subsisted on whalemeat, now does not have a single shop that sells it or a restaurant that serves it. In the shopping arcade, colourful banners displaying the 17 varieties of whales and dolphins that can be sighted in nearby waters flap from the roof.

“They are beautiful things,” says Hiroshi Matsubara, chief of the council’s tourism bureau. “Like most younger people today, I prefer watching them to eating them. Besides – whalemeat is too scarce now, and much too expensive.”

Dr Furuya began taking tourists out on whale-spotting trips three years ago, using two pleasure cruisers. This year he hired two skippers and added a third boat. Next year – he is already taking bookings for the season, which, around Muroran, runs through the three midsummer months – he will have five boats, three of them converted squid-trawlers whose owners fell on hard times.

It is only six years since a Tokyo cartoonist, Kyosoku Iwamoto, led the first group of 47 Japanese whale-watchers on an expedition to the Ogosawaras, a chain of semi-tropical islands 1,000 kilometres south of Tokyo. The media treated it all as a bit of a joke … but the idea took off like wildfire with the public.

Each year since, town after town around the Japan coastline has started whale-watching tours – nine of them at last count. Last year they catered for more than 23,000 people.

Even the fisheries agency, which initially regarded it as a one-day wonder, now estimates that the industry is worth $32 million a year and is rapidly overtaking whalemeat sales.

Off the rocky capes of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands and a whaling centre for more than a century, several former Antarctic whalers are conducting guided tours to the grounds where the giant sperm-whales were once hunted. More than 40 fishing boats are used for whale-watching and fishermen say the new industry now accounts for about a third of their income.

In the Kerama Islands around Iwo Jima (of World War II fame), Japanese youngsters are clamouring for the chance to ride out in rubber Zodiacs to encounter the humpback whale – the “singing whale” whose tapes have become best-sellers – and to swim with porpoises.

At Zamami, in the Ryukyu islands that link Japan with Taiwan, the humpbacks – which had not been seen since the 1960s when whalers slaughtered 20 or 30 a day, including mothers with calves – are back. A dozen five-tonne diving boats are in operation, providing employment for the young men who had been leaving the island in droves.

The town of Oshika, five hours by train from Tokyo, has built a Whale Land with models, exhibits, films and artefacts. At Kamogawa Seaworld, people pay to frolic in a pool with a killer whale.

And the boom shows no sign of abating. Thousands of school- children are being taken on whale-appreciation trips. Tokyo bookshops have set up special displays of whale books, tapes and videos. Whale documentaries have been the summer’s TV ratings hits.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society of England – which surveyed the infant Japanese whale-watching industry two years ago – says that Japan is now plugged into a global network involving 30 countries and millions of whale-watchers, which is worth a fast-growing $400 million a year.

It hopes the simple arithmetic of the industry will eventually persuade Japan to stop whaling altogether. A pod of 16 Bryde’s whales (the society calculates) is worth about $5.5 million for the meat but $7 million over a 15-year period in direct whale-watching revenues, and $55 million if all the tourism spin-offs are counted.

In spite of this, Japan – and other countries such as Iceland and Norway -continues to argue at the IWC that the whaling industry is an integral part of its culture, and that the minke whale is in no danger of extinction. It is an argument that is increasingly at odds with public opinion in Japan.

The whaling industry – with national and local government backing – has spent millions trying to turn the tide of public opinion and protect its vested, and highly lucrative, interests. But to little avail.

Even Dr Seiji Ohsumi, executive director of the Japanese Whale Research Institute and a member of the IWC scientific committee for 28 years, acknowledges that there has been a “generational change”. Young people in Japan, he says, have been “deprived of a feeling of closeness to the whale that comes from eating it”. And that, says Dr Furuya, is good for his business.

The whales are returning to Volcano Bay in ever greater numbers; now they are hunted for photos, rather than food.

“It’s almost as if they understood,” he says. “They are no longer shy -before we used to see a spray of water on the horizon, but now they come right up to the boat, and rub themselves against it. It is a beautiful sight.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 15 October 1994
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 7
Word count: 1733