At a press conference on 15 May 2008, Sato showed journalists a box of ‘personal luggage’, labeled as ‘cardboard’, sent by a crewmember of the Nisshin Maru factory ship to his home. It contained 23.5kg of salted unesu whale meat, worth an estimated US $1000 - $3000. Kyodo Senpaku (KS), the company which operates Japan’s whaling fleet, subsequently claimed it legitimately purchases whale meat from the government-funded Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) to provide each crewmember with a ‘souvenir’ of about 8kg of unesu and 1.6kg of red meat. An internal investigation found that three others had gifted the owner of the intercepted box part or all of their allocation of meat.
The credibility of this explanation was shattered during the trial, by evidence including the following:
- Industry officials admitted to police there is no paper trail for any sale of souvenir whale meat between ICR and KS even though the supposed twice-yearly transaction would involve 2 tons of expensive prime meat.
- In a taped phone conversation a few days prior to the 2008 press conference, the Fisheries Agency of Japan (FAJ) chief of Far Seas Fisheries told Sato that crewmembers are not permitted to take whale meat home.
- In a newspaper interview on 21 May 2008 with the leading daily Asahi Shimbun the Head of Sales of Kyodo Senpaku also said there is no practice of giving souvenirs to crewmembers. In court, he claimed he had meant that the whale meat is given as a payment in kind, not a souvenir.
- Three crewmembers whose meat was allegedly in the box taken by Sato and Suzuki could not agree on what types and how much meat each crewmember had received, and when it was handed out. Moreover, all struggled to account for the numerous heavy boxes they had sent themselves, claiming they contained alcoholic drinks or Antarctic ice – in one case even for boxes sent at room temperature.
- One of the whistleblowers who informed the 2008 Greenpeace investigation broke his anonymity to testify on the embezzlement he had witnessed. He also stated whale meat gifts are sent to members of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, and to FAJ bureaucrats, and that ICR officials embezzle tail meat – another prime cut. The defence produced a photo discovered in Greenpeace archives, showing an ICR official loading a cardboard box labeled “sample” into the trunk of a car. Official samples are collected by refrigerated truck.
- The whistleblower testified that two production managers were fired over an incident in 2006 when fin whale meat appeared on the market before official sales had begun. The court saw and heard evidence that at least two current production staff members sent the two dismissed managers gifts of unesu from the fleet in 2008.
- The statements of the owner of the box, witness A, were shown to be unreliable:
- In his police interviews, he initially claimed to have received meat from one other crewmember, changing this later to two, and then to four. In court, he named three crewmembers – dropping witness B from his list. However, B had testified the same morning that he did, in fact, give A meat.
- His claim that the 10 pieces of meat in the box intercepted by Sato and Suzuki were originally 5 pieces, cut lengthwise in half, was disproved by DNA evidence showing 3 pieces came from one whale and 7 from another.
- In his police statements A admitted sending himself other boxes containing whale meat, 30kg of which he had eaten with his wife within a month – a remarkable achievement, particularly as A’s wife was traveling during part of the month.
- He admitted bringing 5kg of salt onboard the Nisshin Maru, but claimed it was for cooking rather than for preserving stolen meat.
- He claimed to have told the courier company his missing box contained whale meat, contradicting the company’s branch manager who testified he was told the box contained ‘fresh produce’. A could not properly explain why he had accepted about US $300 in compensation for his lost box without complaint, when its contents were worth substantially more.
The trial also saw evidence of attempts by the whaling industry and authorities to cover the scandal revealed by Sato and Suzuki up:
- The whistleblower testified police had asked him to declare in his statement that he had not personally participated in embezzlement – even though he had admitted to his own past involvement.
- Witness C, one of the crewmembers thought to be at the heart of the embezzlement scandal, testified he had never been questioned by Kyodo Senpaku as part of their supposedly comprehensive internal investigation.
- The branch manager of the courier company testified he had been interviewed by state and security police as many as 20 times about the interception of the box by Sato and Suzuki – but he had not been interviewed once about any knowledge of transports of embezzled whale meat.
- The DNA evidence showing A was lying was available to prosecutors even before Sato and Suzuki’s arrest, yet was not made available to the defence until the end of the trial.
- The prosecution refused to disclose large, apparently key portions of statements made to police by crewmembers, claiming they contained only ‘personal information’.
Finally, the trial heard expert evidence from professor Dirk Voorhoof of Ghent and Copenhagen Universities, who testified that:
- The investigation undertaken by Sato and Suzuki fits within the public watchdog role of NGOs, which enjoys protection under international law
- If the defendants are given a custodial sentence, this would violate their freedom of expression as guaranteed in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a UN treaty which prevails over Japan’s criminal code. In light of the opinion of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which considered the 26-day detention of Sato and Suzuki a violation of their rights and politically motivated, only an acquittal or at most a ‘slap on the wrist’ such as a minor fine would be appropriate.