Walter Hamilton. The guts of a Free Trade Agreement with Japan.

Dolphin-culling and free trade agreements represent opposite sides of the coin of the relationship between Australia and Japan. Both are currently in the news, with Sea Shepherd activists hounding the fishermen of Taiji (where the documentary ‘The Cove’ was filmed) and Australian cattle producers in Tokyo trying to break down the last obstacle to a bilateral FTA. More than that, the two issues encapsulate the divided response among many in the West to Japan as a backward and insular nation, on the one hand, and a modern, global partner on the other.

Years ago I visited the island of Iki, off the coast from Nagasaki in western Japan, to report on the practice of ‘drive hunting’ of dolphins, the same culling method used by fishermen at Taiji to reduce the natural competition for a diminishing fish stock. The founder of Sea Shepherd, Paul Watson, had been in town a fortnight before and got himself deported for cutting nets strung across a cove in Iki, releasing scores of dolphins. The irony was that in the very act of sabotage Watson was caught in a storm and became stranded on an islet from where he had to be rescued by local fishermen (a fact omitted from the fanciful account of this episode posted on the organisation’s website.)

Interested to find out how others living on the island regarded the dolphin killing, I visited a farmer working his small holding a few kilometres from the coast. ‘Oh, those fishermen down there,’ he told me, ‘they’re an uncouth lot. They give the place a bad name.’

I was taken aback to find such a sharp divergence of interest, on this tiny island, between fisherman and farmer. I then realized the true importance of factionalism, based on occupation and geography, particularly in rural Japan. Australia’s FTA negotiators, the latest in a long line of officials who have tried for half a century to eliminate tariffs on beef and dairy imports, will be aware of these fissures in the Japanese bargaining position; the fissure, for instance, between the farm lobby and the consumer lobby, or the one separating domestic from international economic priorities.

The ‘enlightened’ farmer I met proudly showed me his chief productive asset: one Wagyu steer penned in his front yard, being pampered and premium-fed in readiness for the abattoir. Yes, you read that correctly, a herd of one. This and a few other odds and ends, plus a huge government subsidy, kept him in reasonable comfort. He was (and I think he sensed it to a degree) a parody of modern farming. It reminds me of another occasion accompanying an Australian delegation, led by the then Primary Industries Minister John Kerin, in the mid-1980s. Australia at the time was in the grip of a terrible drought, graziers were at their wits end, and yet they could not sell into the Japanese market at fair prices. I remember going with them to a farm near Nagoya and trudging past a veritable showroom of brand-new farm machinery bought with cheap loans from a highly protected rural bank. The Australians could only shake their heads in bitter disbelief.

So the Japanese farmer and fisherman, for all their differences in lifestyle, share one vital, historic conviction: that, whatever it takes, whatever the international pressure and criticism, their survival is paramount to the national interest. Anyone covering Japanese affairs will tell you that the Ministry of Agriculture has always outranked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs around the Cabinet table. While some progress has been made as a result of the decades of lobbying to gain improved access to the Japanese market for farm goods, every yard conceded has been hard fought. Cracks in the façade often seem to open up at moments during negotiations only to close again as a result of sectional pressure. I’ve heard Japanese Agriculture Ministers explain, in all earnestness, that their countrymen, even if they were given the choice, could not eat more imported beef––because, wait for it, Japanese intestines were different from Westerners’ intestines. Try arguing against that!

Without major concessions on agricultural imports, no FTA with Japan would be worth its name. Political conditions, however, are as favourable now as they’ve ever been for a genuine agreement, mainly because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, riding a large parliamentary majority, does not need the farm vote as much as it did 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Global trade liberalisation is also an important lever in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s declared policy of economic deregulation (the last ‘arrow’ of ‘Abenomics’). Perhaps the time has come. But as the Sea Shepherd boys and girls will tell you, still prowling the headlands of Taiji looking for blood in the water, rugged self-reliance and a sense of entitlement to a traditional way of life remain formidable obstacles to change in Japan. And the Sea Shepherd crew should know all about that frame of mind.

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC between 1979 and 1996 for a total of eleven years.

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