Hideki Tokoro, the last and only hope of Japan’s commercial whaling industry, wears a light blue suit, a patterned blue shirt, a tie with whales on it, and a large whale tie pin.

A self-taught accountant who has founded his own firm, Tokoro was recruited last year to lead Kyodo Senpaku after working on a previous restructuring. The company owns and operates Japan’s only long-haul whaling ship, the Nisshin Maru – and dominates the controversial industry.

With Japan now withdrawing subsidies from whalers, Tokoro’s mission is to make Kyodo Senpaku profitable. Its success or failure will likely determine whether Japan remains a whaling nation or not.

“We are now engaging in intense promotional activity,” he said, in a rare interview with the Financial Times. “We need to revive this shrinking market. “

The business challenge that Tokoro has taken on shows the deep crisis triggered in its industry by Japan’s 2019 withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission, the global regulator, and the resumption of whaling in its exclusive economic zone.

Researchers with harpoons

As a member of the IWC, Japan had agreed to abide by the organization’s capture rules.
quotas – which since 1986 have been set at zero for commercial whaling. Japan circumvented this moratorium via a loophole in the founding convention of the IWC, which allows whales to be killed “for the purposes of scientific research”, with quotas determined by individual governments. The resulting “whale search” program was fiercely opposed by environmentalists and other members of the CBI.

In the end, Japan grew weary of both the CBI’s refusal to accept a revival of commercial whaling and costly subsidies for research hunting. Driven by powerful politicians from its whaling core, Tokyo has chosen to quit the IWC, avoid international waters, and let the industry sink or swim on its own commercial merits.

Kyodo Senpaku now has a government-set quota of 1,550 tonnes, which must be fished within Japan’s exclusive economic zone – less than the 2,400 tonnes previously allowed, and including less attractive species on the market. business plan.

“Initially, everyone was enthusiastic about restarting commercial whaling, but then the reality is that the allowable catches have been reduced,” Tokoro said.

Traditionally, whales have been viewed in Japan not as a delicacy but as an inexpensive source of protein. It was used extensively in school dinners in the 1950s and 1960s and still has this image.

Tokoro, who insists whaling is an ecological positive, wants to rebuild consumer demand and fund a replacement for the Nisshin Maru, who is nearing the end of his life.

The Nisshin Maru, Japan's only long-range whaling ship, is nearing the end of its life.  Its replacement is expected to cost $ 6 billion
The Nisshin Maru, Japan’s only long-range whaling ship, is nearing the end of its life. Its replacement is expected to cost $ 6 billion © The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Our targets are the rich and the young. The older the Japanese, the more they consider the whale to be a low level food, ”he says.

Tokoro has teamed up with an Italian restaurant to produce haute cuisine à la whale. Speaking in his accounting firm’s office, he shows off a promotional CD of karaoke songs and produces a pot of whale ice cream to try out. Made from 30 percent whale oil, it resembles sherbet, with a slightly unpleasant citrus flavor.

Economic realities

Tokoro’s exuberance masks a grim financial situation. Sales increased from 3 billion yen (27 million yen) in fiscal 2018 to 2.6 billion yen (24 million yen) in 2020, with the price of the whale falling from 1,200 yen (11 $) per kilogram at around 800 yen, before picking up more recently.

Kyodo Senpaku achieves significant operating loss. Until last year, it received an annual grant of 1.3 billion yen, which has now been replaced by 1 billion yen in public loans for each of the following three years. From 2024, it will have to survive on its own resources, while financing a new ship that Tokoro expects to cost 6 billion yen.

Tokoro despises anti-change bureaucrats and Japanese coastal whalers, such as those who lead Taiji’s infamous dolphin hunt. “We’re aiming for self-sufficiency, but land-based whalers can’t do it,” he says, due to their low sales and high costs.

Anti-whaling groups argue that hunting marine mammals is both cruel and environmentally unsustainable. Governments such as the UK and Australia oppose whaling and have blocked any attempt to lift the IWC moratorium.

Tokoro argues the opposite: that not hunting whales is not sustainable. He says the number of whales has increased by 4% per year since the start of the moratorium and says they are putting pressure on fish stocks. “In the future, if we plan to fish, we will have to hunt whales,” he says.

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Joji Morishita, a professor at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology and Japan’s last commissioner to the CBI before his withdrawal, says there is little evidence to support Tokoro’s theory. But he adds that Japan’s quotas are based on strict IWC calculations to ensure sustainability, and current levels of whaling have little impact on whale populations.

The shift to whaling only in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone has reduced international pressure, and the Japanese Coast Guard can prevent activists from taking direct action against whalers in local waters.

Tokoro is suspicious of activists who view whales as different from other animals killed for food. “To those who say whales are cute like pandas, then you shouldn’t eat them, all we can say is ‘good’, he said.

But the biggest threat to Kyodo Senpaku is the changing tastes of the Japanese public and the short remaining lifespan of the Nisshin Maru, otherwise it will cease its activities.

Unless Tokoro can rekindle the country’s appetite for the whale, the industry will likely die not of international outrage, but of Japanese indifference.