Toshihisa Miyamoto bowed ever so slightly from the hip as he greeted Virgita Vargas, the principal of La California Elementary School, in the shadow of JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport in Alajuela, west of San José.
On the wall beside him, an engraved plaque detailed the generous donation of the Japanese Embassy to the school: new classrooms, a refrigerator for the kitchen, a fresh coat of paint for the walls, new roofs and ceramic tile floors to hold down dust in the dry months.
“The children are so excited. Now there are enough rooms for all the students to attend school at once, and everything is so much cleaner. We have a new sense of pride in our school,”Vargas said.
Miyamoto, undersecretary of economy and aid for the Japanese Embassy in Costa Rica, blushed and smiled, then bowed again.
On a recent press trip, this school was one stop of several in the Central Valley designed to demonstrate Japanese generosity to the people of Costa Rica.
In San Isidro de Grecia, municipality water officials requested and received a grant of $77,000 from the Japanese Embassy, allowing them to build an aqueduct – known locally as the Tanque Japonesa – holding 500,000 cubic liters of water and ensuring hundreds of residents clean, safe drinking water. In Zarcero, Japanese support allowed local organic farmers to build a co-op that markets more than 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables from the region.
Since 1989, the Japanese have donated more than $17 million in community aid projects, and more than $6.5 million in cultural projects – including the purchase of instruments for the Costa Rican symphony orchestra, high-tech Japanese equipment endoscopes for hospitals and even chemical pesticides to help fight the spread of dengue fever.
During the past few months, Japanese generosity has reached an almost feverish pace, with press releases announcing new projects flowing from the embassy like river water in Costa Rica’s green season.
Which begs the question:Why? Mauricio Álvarez, of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), is skeptical, especially since the recent upturn in aid projects seems to coincide with a critical juncture in the future of whaling in the world’s oceans – an upcoming vote of the International Whaling Commission in June on whether or not to resume commercial hunting.
Though whaling is outlawed worldwide except for scientific purposes, the Japanese have long insisted “sustainable whaling,” causes no harm to global populations – much to the chagrin of international environmental group Greenpeace, which helped orchestrate the original ban in 1986.
“Every time the issue of whale hunting comes up, investment in the country from Japan increases,” Álvarez said.
Last month, a week before the Japanese press tour, national and international environmental groups made headlines in downtown San José’s Culture Plaza, toting a lifesize inflatable whale and urging the government to oppose Japan’s plans to resume commercial whaling (TT, Jan. 26).
Last week, Broad Front legislator José Merino filed a lawsuit against the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) in hopes of forcing the government’s hand on the matter.
Marine biologist Damián Martínez warned that Costa Rica has been behind on its dues to the whaling commission for 20 years, and must pay up in order to regain voting status and stop Japan from hunting whales.
“There are towns in the Osa Peninsula that survive on the tourism whales bring to the area, and these migratory whales could become the victims of hunting if Japan’s plan goes through,” he said. Costa Rica is among the top destinations in the world for whale-watchers.
Since the whaling commission declared the worldwide commercial whale-hunting ban, Japan has been intensely lobbying smaller countries – often with generous gifts – in order to gain votes in favor of lifting the moratorium, according to Greenpeace.
Álvarez said such gifts are not so subtle, influencing both politicians and public opinion.
“These investments by the Japanese government are far more important than the influence that Greenpeace can have, or any other environmental group,” he said. “Obviously there has been some pressure – and it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened.”
Álvarez cites other cases in Central America, including Guatemala in 2005 and more recently Nicaragua, where a similar skirmish ensued last year when Greenpeace campaigner Milko Schvartzman accused that countries’ fisheries director, Miguel Marenco, of being “an employee of Japan” and using his influence to sway a Nicaraguan vote in favor of whale hunting (NT, April 7, 2006).
While the allegations eventually fizzled and no such innuendos ever proven, Nicaragua did indeed vote against the whale ban, leaving international environmental groups fuming.
Yasuhisa Suzuki, advisor to the Japanese Embassy in San José, acknowledged his country’s interest in whaling in international waters.
“Yes, we are in favor of hunting whales. But we are not saying hunt them to extinction, we are in favor of sustainability,” he said, insisting that Japan’s intent is to fish only for abundant species of whales. He denied the issue has anything to do with his country’s well-known international aid program.
“We owe much of the infrastructure of Japan to the United States. They don’t need the help, so we’re helping other countries to develop – we’re simply returning the favor paid to us after World War II. This is a longstanding program,” he said.
According to Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry, Japan’s generosity is nothing new or unusual – the country has granted millions of dollars in aid to both private and public institutions in the country since 1989.
“Even after this region became less and less important strategically in the world, Japan’s program of support did not change. You can’t say the same for other countries,”
said Circe Villanueva, director of international cooperation for the ministry.
Villanueva said the ministry has yet to compile international cooperation statistics for 2006, but she said Japan’s program, while perhaps up a little, hasn’t wavered in years.
Asked by The Tico Times to put Japan’s generosity in perspective, Villanueva pointed out that not all embassy aid programs are as well organized and publicized as that of Japan’s, and thus they often go uncounted, making country-by-country comparisons difficult.
She did, however, affirm that Japan’s “program of cooperation is among the most important in our country.”
According to Suzuki, the program – the same one which helped bring roofs and floor tiles to the school in Alajuela – will remain open to further applications from Costa Ricans, regardless of the outcome of any whaling commission vote.
Last week, as the group of reporters and Japanese officials filed out of the newly remodeled school building, principal Vargas stopped in front of a freshly painted map of the world, another new edition to a school so desperately in need of attention.
She pointed to Japan – a mere speck near the bottom right-hand corner of the big, colorful map – and smiled at Miyamoto and the delegates from the Japanese Embassy.
“It’s a small country, but also very big,” Vargas said.