In 2008, in Antarctic waters, the Japanese whaling ship, Nisshin Maru, hauled two dead minke whales on board for processing. Japan hunts the calves of mother whales, knowing the mothers won't abandon them. Australian Customs Service

By William Pesek
13 December 2011

Want to know why Japan’s earthquake recovery efforts are moving in slow motion? Ask the whales.

Tokyoites have grown accustomed to shocking news items since the earth shook and the oceans rose: the nuclear meltdown has proven far worse than the government admitted; radioactive cesium made its way into baby food; more leaks were found in the damaged Fukushima reactor; warnings by seismologists still go unheeded.

Yet the tale of the whales and the $30 million is what proved most disturbing -- and shed fresh light on why Japan is either unable or unwilling to undertake the broad reforms needed to avert credit-rating downgrades and reverse deepening deflation.

Japan spent about 2.28 billion yen on whaling hunting expeditions from funds allocated for recovery from the earthquake and tsunami. It’s a drop in the proverbial bucket, given that the government plans to spend at least $300 billion rebuilding the Tohoku region. It’s a highly telling expenditure, though, with significance far beyond the price tag.

The whaling programs carried out each year flout international conventions and dent Japan’s reputation, and for very little. Demand for whale meat is negligible: The industry survives because of huge public subsidies. Japan contends that using earthquake funds to boost security for ships will help them elude activists protecting whales. A successful hunt, it’s thought, will revitalize local coastal communities.

You know what would help more? Some fresh thinking. The devastation from March 11 required new ways of viewing and addressing Japan’s creaky economic model, aging population and waning competitiveness. It necessitated a reboot of politics, the government’s role in the economy and Japan’s change- resistant, consensus-obsessed mindset. What we’re seeing instead is an inability to adapt on a national level.

Nine months ago, the ground shifted under Japan’s feet not only literally, but figuratively. There was a fleeting glimmer of change, a hope that the disaster would end the political and economic stasis that has gripped Japan for more than two decades. Instead, tossing money at every problem without critical thought suggests that Japan is reverting to the wasteful ways that created a massive national debt and little growth to show for it.

One big question that hasn’t been tackled: Whether to bother rebuilding parts of Japan’s northeast -- given that they were dying a slow, steady demographic death anyway -- or relocate the communities away from the sea. Rather than grapple with it, Japan is pursuing whaling. But you have to wonder: How many young people who long ago fled to cities like Tokyo are going to rush back to their ancestral homes to become whalers? […]

Take Tokyo Electric Power Co. (9501), a poster child of bad management that makes the shenanigans at Olympus Corp. look harmless. Tepco’s safety failures are responsible for the radiation still leaking into the air and water 135 miles from Tokyo. Yet Tepco hasn’t been nationalized or delisted from the stock exchange. Instead of reform, there’s talk of bailouts. […]

The upshot is that trust is breaking down on too many levels. Companies are reluctant to hire, communities are split between those who want to stay and those tempted to leave, citizens don’t buy the nuclear industry’s protestations of safety, and cynicism toward officialdom in Tokyo has rarely been higher. […]

Killing Whales Matters More Than Saving People: William Pesek

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