Ecopolitics: Why Japan Risks Its Place In the World to Hunt Whales

Japan's grim determination to keep hunting whales long after most states gave it up drives environmentalists round the bend. But never has it threatened relations with a key ally—or, arguably, the core of Japan's current foreign policy—till now.
In recent weeks, Australia's new pro-green Labor government has demanded that Tokyo call off a current whaling expedition in Antarctica, has ordered an armed customs ship to monitor the operation; it's even considered sending in Air Force surveillance planes. An Australian court also recently ruled that Japan's whale hunt defied a 1986 international moratorium. Should the Japanese continue whaling, there's a chance they could face detention and other sanctions if they put into Australian ports.

Why would Tokyo, which has been anxiously building a regional alliance of democracies to counter China, risk offending a key linchpin in that coalition in order to kill a few endangered animals? Especially when recent polls suggest that most Japanese don't actually care about the issue? It's especially baffling when you remember how hard Japan worked to seal a security pact with Australia just last year. The answer, like most of Japan's perplexing behavior, probably involves tradition. Though most Japanese don't care much for whale meat, a hard-core minority does, and defends the hunt as a traditional practice they're loath to give up. This has led the blogosphere to erupt over the controversy, with environmentalists calling the Japanese war criminals and Japanese Netizens blasting the Aussies as bigots and hypocrites.

Tokyo doesn't recognize Canberra's jurisdiction in the matter and insists the whales are being slain for scientific purposes only; Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda recently defended the hunt on these grounds. But whaling opponents argue you don't need to kill the giant mammals in order to study them, and note that blubber, which some Japanese regard as a delicacy, continues to turn up on sushi menus and in Japanese school cafeterias.

What happens next? Tokyo's already stopped hunting endangered humpback whales, so it might give up on the rest as well. But with some defining the whale hunt as a touchstone of Japanese identity, it's becoming hard for the government to compromise. That's part of a worrisome trend in Japanese diplomacy: the willingness to let overheated rhetoric about ostensibly hallowed traditions get in the way of its vital national interests. Not the best idea in a world where Japan's already seeming increasingly marginal.

Second Opinions: A New View On The Hole
Last week Hamas scored a PR coup when it blew down part of the wall separating Gaza from Egypt—breaking an Israeli blockade and letting hundreds of thousands of Palestinians pour into Egypt, where many of them shopped and returned home or simply disappeared.

Now some Israelis are wondering whether the hole might play into their hands. After the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Israeli hawks argued that Israel was no longer responsible for Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants—a view human-rights groups opposed. With the hole open, Gazans are now at least temporarily looking to Egypt for basic needs. Though Egypt made some effort to close the gap, some Israelis think Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is signaling a willingness to loosen the border. "This is a blessing in disguise," says one well-placed Israeli source. With Egypt providing life's necessities, "we can forget about [Gaza] and throw away the key."

Immigration: A Silently Rising Tide
Most of the Republican Party's presidential hopefuls have all but declared war on the United States' illegal-alien population. But a surge in the number of immigrants from one Latin American country has gone largely unnoticed: Cuba. Over the two years ending in September 2007, nearly 77,000 Cubans entered the United States, driven in part by dwindling hopes for change under Acting President Raúl Castro, according to the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. The influx is larger than at any time since the early 1970s, and double the number of the last large-scale maritime exodus from the island in 1994.

Today 90 percent of undocumented Cubans come across the Mexican border. Under Washington's "wet foot, dry foot" policy, Cubans intercepted at sea get sent home, while those who reach U.S. soil can apply for resident status. Enhanced U.S. patrols in the Straits of Florida means crossing to the Yucatán Peninsula is more likely to be successful.

GOP candidates are uncharacteristically quiet about all this. With a key primary in Florida this week, they are loath to antagonize the powerful Cuban-American bloc there by talking about the arrivals, much less complaining about them.

Whirlwind Romances: The Next Madame Sarko
What kind of premièredame would Carla Bruni make? The closer French President Nicolas Sarkozy gets to marrying Bruni, the more serious that question becomes. Previously linked with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, the former supermodel is a prolific seductress (the French press calls her a "praying mantis") who supported Sarkozy's Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, in the presidential election last May.

But with an engagement ring on the table, it's clear that Bruni is more than a rebound fling. And, barring a pop-star-style quick split, she might actually be cut out for First Dame status. "I don't see why she wouldn't be a good First Lady. He's already president. She knows what to expect," says Régine Torrent, the author of "First Ladies: D'Eleanor Roosevelt à Hillary Clinton."

Certainly Sarkozy's exwife, Cécilia, set the bar low—she complained that the First Ladyship "bored" her and made headlines by not bothering to vote at all. Later, she committed the diplomatic faux pas of cutting out on her husband's first G8 summit and bailing on a Bush family barbecue last summer in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Bruni, on the other hand, moves comfortably in powerful circles. She was famous as a supermodel long before she met Sarkozy. She's trilingual and well read—her 2007 album reprises poems by Auden and Yeats. And despite her bohemian look, this heiress to a tire fortune undoubtedly knows which fork goes where. "She's immensely rich," quips Torrent. "We don't need to worry about taxpayers' having to dress her."

Entertainment: Faded Kings Of Pop Find Fan Base Abroad
Chris de Burgh ("Lady in Red"), adored in Tehran, will play the first Western concert there since 1979. Some Anglo C-listers who are big abroad:

- The aging Irish balladeer Chris de Burgh is so revered that he trumped the mullahs' dictates.

- Journey discovered its new frontman crooning beloved Journey covers in Manila hotel lobbies.

- Michael Bolton's Sri Lanka concert in 2005 was so huge that the government itself advertised it.

- A new Russian MP3 player shows the face of Modern Talking's Dieter Bohlen, whose revues fill arenas.

- Air Supply still packs stadiums in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland.

Technology: Hot Gadget Cold Stock
Steve Jobs didn't announce anything as revolutionary as the iPhone at Macworld on January 15, but he did manage to introduce iTunes Movie Rentals and the envelope-thin MacBook Air, altering the landscape in film rentals and laptops. "It just goes to show that even when Apple doesn't announce a tsunami of a product, it still makes waves," says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at JupiterResearch.

But not necessarily money. On the one-year anniversary of the iPhone's unveiling, Jobs shared some hard data on the device's sales. Apple has sold 4 million units to date, short of the 5 million some analysts predicted. Perhaps because of that—and despite admiring commentary on the chic waistline of the MacBook—Wall Street seemed unimpressed: Apple stock closed last week down 10 percent.