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'It's Hard Not to Feel Sorry for Him'
TIME Tokyo Bureau Chief Tim Larimer shares whaler Tsukasa Isone's trials and tribulations

October 3, 2000

Web posted at 7:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 7:00 a.m. EDT

Before traveling to Taiji, a whaling village on Japan's Pacific coast, southwest of Tokyo, we were warned: They won't like you, a helpful bureaucrat at Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries advised. They'll think you work for Greenpeace (not an organization known for its friendliness to people who kill whales for a living). They won't tell you where the whaling boats are. Hmm, I thought. How hard could that be? As it turned out, not hard at all.

Taiji is a tiny place of 4,000 people in an area of Japan known for its beautiful scenery and spectacular onsens, or hot baths. Right next to the fish market, which frankly, doesn't see a lot of action these days, we found a whaling boat, the Victory, one of two operated by Taiji men, coming back to shore just before sunset. The seven-man crew had no idea we were looking for them, but Tsukasa Isone, the 42-year-old captain with whaling in his genes, dallied around the docks to entertain our questions even though it had been a downer of a day out at sea.

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Isone's father was a whaler, but it's doubtful either of his own children, a six-year-old girl and three-year-old boy, will follow the family profession. Days like the one Isone just had are why. "Oh, we saw whales everywhere," said Isone, lighting up a cigarette as he paced along the dock. "But we can't do anything about them but watch them swim." That's because the variety of whales he claims to see in abundance just about everyday are minkes--and he's not allowed to catch those.

Regardless of how you feel, politically, about the notion of hunting and killing whales, it's hard not to feel sorry for a hardworking fellow like Isone. What he's doing is legal, after all, and he's not a participant in the research whaling expeditions Japan conducts every year (This year they included banned whales--10 sperm and 50 Bryde's--on expeditions in the Antarctic and the North Pacific regions. These are the controversial whaling ventures that raised the ire of the International Whaling Commission, and U.S. President Bill Clinton.)

Isone is one of a few dozen fishermen who have licenses to hunt for whales--of the pilot and Baird's variety--off Japan's coast. The government limits the number that can be hunted--some 160 of the two species--and each whaling ship gets a ration. In Taiji, where there are two boats like Isone's, each is allowed to hunt for six pilot whales and six Baird's from the beginning of May to the end of September. That meant that last week, when we visited Taiji and met Isone, the clock was ticking. And it hadn't been a good September, which is usually the best time for hunting pilot whales.

Of course, as our luck would have it, Isone had the best day for whaling in living memory, the day before we arrived. "We caught four yesterday," Isone said, with no small measure of relief in his voice. He still had one more in his allotment, though, and the pressure he was under was palpable. For the next two days, he came back to shore empty-handed. One whale obviously makes a huge difference in the livelihood of Isone and his crew, since each pilot whale can sell for as much as $40,000, depending on its size and market demand. "I worry everyday," said Isone. "We have to be patient to get the last one. It all depends on the currents." Three years ago, Isone took out a loan for about $1.8 million to buy a new boat. "Now I wonder everyday when they are going to impose new restrictions," he said. (For your information, whalers do make a good living, averaging about $75,000 a year. We talked to some lobster fishermen down near the fish market who are lucky to pull in one third of that.)

It wasn't hard to miss, too, a sad reality about a place like Taiji. Most of the fishermen were older, in their late 50s, 60s and even in their 70s. Younger men like Isone, and one of his crew members, who is just 33, are rare. The biggest employer in town these days? "The government," says the postmaster, Arata Wada, whose ancestor introduced whaling to Taiji some 400 years ago.

The Wada legacy endures, however, as the whale is the centerpiece of the town's identity. There are giant whale fins protruding from one shoreline park, there is a large gateway festooned with giant whales, a marine show that features an orca whale, and manhole covers on the town's streets are decorated with whales. Many of the family names in Taiji carry some sea or fishing connotation. That's because until the late 19th century, most Japanese didn't have family names; they were assigned names related to their work or their home setting.

The restaurants (there are just a handful) serve whale sashimi and roasted whale, and although many of the townsfolk swear by the meat, there doesn't seem to be a huge demand for it. On the great and vast menu of terrific Japanese foods, whale meat, we concluded, doesn't rank as one of the tastiest.

The debate over whales, in Taiji and all over Japan, is imbued with a sense of culture and national identity. It's not so much that people relish the taste of whale meat--although certainly, some do--but rather the nostalgic memories many people have for it. In the postwar years, in particular, whale meat was a dietary staple. An here's an interesting historical irony: It was the Americans, under the occupying forces of General Douglas MacArthur, that actually encouraged Japan to expand their whaling operations as the war-ravaged country faced terrible nutritional deficiencies. It's this memory, of a food eaten during painful times, which seems to be the lure of whale meat today. People here seem to understand that.

One day, the number of Japanese people nostalgic for whale meat will be outnumbered by those who think the creatures to be rather cute. In the meantime, Isone, the whaler, carries on. We called him later to find out if he had any more luck. Sure enough, he did. He had caught a pilot whale, the last one of his allotment, over the weekend. That will make the long winter ahead easier to swallow.

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