Japan, whaling and the Esperanza

Politics keeps Greenpeace ship out of Japan

Feature story - 30 March, 2007
It is cherry blossom season here in Japan, and Tokyo is beautiful, with lovely spring weather and trees in full bloom. Unfortunately while people here enjoy the season, our ship the Esperanza is at sea in force 8 conditions as organisations within Japan attempt to deny her entry into port.UPATE: After nearly a week of intensive lobbying and paperwork, Greenpeace Japan has managed to get the Esperanza into Yokohama Bay, which is in Tokyo Bay. Press release | crew blog

The MY Esperanza in the Southern Ocean. The Greenpeace vessel was on its way to offer assistance to the Japanese Whaling fleet's factory ship Nisshin Mauru after it caught fire. Greenpeace offered to tow the factory ship out of the Whale Sanctuary and the pristine Antarctic Environment.

Our aim in bringing the Esperanza to Japan is to create an open public discussion about whaling.  Ninety-two percent of Japanese people do not know the details of their government's whaling programme in the Southern Ocean, and this must change. Most countries that have hunted whales in the past have already held this debate, and moved on from whaling to whale watching and conservation.

We have invited representatives of the Fisheries Agency of Japan, the Institute for Cetacean Research, Kyodo Senpaku (the company which owns the whaling fleet) - as well as the Japanese public - to visit our ship and start talking about the issue. We want to hear their views, as well as explain why we believe that there is no place for killing whales within an internationally agreed whale sanctuary in Antarctic waters.

The twist

Everything was going smoothly until shortly before the ship was due to arrive. Following an uninvited visit from representatives of the All Japan Seamen's Union (AJSU), our shipping agent withdrew their services from Greenpeace - making it near impossible to have all the paperwork completed and accepted in order to come into port in Tokyo. Media reports also say that the Seamen's Union has demanded that the Minister of Foreign Affairs deny us entry.

False charges

The AJSU claims our actions to protect the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary are illegal and endanger their crews.  They also claim we work with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.  These claims are simply not true. Their false charges of violence are particularly offensive following this year's whaling season in which we responded to no less than three distress calls, two of which were from vessels in the whaling fleet.

Greenpeace is committed to the principle of non-violent direct action, and this guides all of our campaigns. Even in those seasons that we have directly intervened to save whales from the harpoon, we have done so using entirely peaceful tactics.  In more than a decade of expeditions to disrupt the Antarctic whale hunt, we have never placed the whalers at risk in any way - their crews know this.

In contrast, we have had our ship rammed, been physically assaulted and our activists repeatedly put at risk by the whalers.  

Distress calls

This past whaling season was different.  Instead of protests we found ourselves offering aid.  A deadly fire on the Nisshin Maru, the whalers' factory ship, left it without engine power.  As one of the nearest ships to the whaling fleet, we steamed hundreds of miles at full speed to offer what aid we could.

The reason we responded immediately to their distress call was not because she is a whaling ship, it was not despite the fact she is a whaling ship; we simply responded because the crew had issued a mayday call, their ship was on fire and people were in danger.

As soon as we arrived at the scene, we established contact with their expedition leader, Mr. Nishiwaki, making it clear that we were there to offer our unconditional assistance. Mr. Nishiwaki responded by asking us to standby in the area, saying that they may require our help to navigate through the ice if they had to tow the Nisshin Maru. For the following week we stayed with the Nisshin Maru, disabled in the Southern Ocean - one of the most hostile and unpredictable waters on earth - continuing to offer assistance, and providing information on the ice conditions at Mr. Nishiwaki's request.

I have no doubt that the crew onboard the whaling vessels know very well that we offered our assistance in good faith, through genuine concern for the safety of fellow sailors and the environment. At all times we acted lawfully, responsibly, and in accordance with the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre, who were responsible for the mayday response. However, their bosses continued to play politics in Tokyo, labelling us terrorists even as we stood by to assist their ships and. Since returning to Japan, Mr. Nishiwaki himself seems to have erased his memory of recent events, denying that they accepted any assistance from Greenpeace, and even calling for the Japanese Government to sue Greenpeace.

Video footage is here, of our Japanese campaigner, Sakyo Noda, who was in daily contact with the whaling fleet. Their expedition leader acknowledged our offer of assistance, asked us to provide information on ice conditions, and requested that we stand by in case they required further assistance. (watch)

Why they are really worried

They know we did not endanger the safety of their crew - in fact we offered our help when they were in danger from a fire onboard their ship. They know that we are not terrorists. But it does not suit them for the public of Japan to know this. If the Government of Japan, its agencies, and organisations like the Seamen's Union have nothing to hide, and nothing to be ashamed of - they have no reason to be worried about allowing our ship into Japan.

However, it is clear that they are very worried. most likely they are worried about what will happen if those 92 percent of people learn that their government is killing hundreds of whales in Antarctic waters, in an area that countries around the world have designated as a sanctuary for whales. That information would allow people to come to their own conclusions about whether it is right or not. They are worried about whether they can continue to label Greenpeace as terrorists and portray our peaceful protest against whaling as violent anti-Japanese behaviour, once people hear what actually happened in the Southern Ocean.

Greenpeace believes that the people of Japan have the right to this information, and to make up their own minds about these issues. We are continuing to work to get the Esperanza into Tokyo, so that we can provide this information directly to the public.

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