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Whale-Watching, a Growing Business around Japan

People packed the decks of the Japanese whale-watching boat, screaming in joy as a pod of orcas put on a show

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Tourists on a whale watching tour boat look for whales in the sea near Rausu, Hokkaido, Japan, July 1, 2019. VOA

People packed the decks of the Japanese whale-watching boat, screaming in joy as a pod of orcas put on a show: splashing tails at each other, rolling over, and leaping out of the water.

In Kushiro, just 160 kilometers south of Rausu, where the four dozen people laughed and cheered, boats were setting off on Japan’s first commercial whale hunt in 31 years.

Killed that day were two minke whales, which the boats in Rausu also search for glimpses of – a situation that whale-watching boat captain Masato Hasegawa confessed had him worried.

“They won’t come into this area – it’s a national park – or there’d be big trouble,” the 57-year-old former pollock fisherman said. “And the whales we saw today, the sperm whales and orcas, aren’t things they hunt.”

Whale, Business, Japan
Whale-watching boat captain Masato Hasegawa speaks with other boats in order to look for whales in the sea near Rausu, Hokkaido, Japan, July 1, 2019. VOA

“But we also watch minkes,” he added. “If they take a lot in the (nearby) Sea of Okhotsk, we could well see a change, and that would be too bad for whale watching.”

Whale-watching is a growing business around Japan, with popular spots from the southern Okinawa islands up to Rausu, a fishing village on the island of Hokkaido, so far north that it’s closer to Russia than to Tokyo.

The number of whale watchers around Japan has more than doubled between 1998 and 2015, the latest year for which national data is available. One company in Okinawa had 18,000 customers between January and March this year.

In Rausu, 33,451 people packed tour boats last year for whale and bird watching, up 2,000 from 2017 and more than 9,000 higher than 2016. Many stay in local hotels, eat in local restaurants, and buy local products such as sea urchins and seaweed.

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“Of the tourist boat business, 65 percent is whale watching,” said Ikuyo Wakabayashi, executive director of the Shiretoko Rausu Tourism Association, who says the numbers grow substantially each year.

“You don’t just see one type of whale here, you see lots of them,” she said. “Whale-watching is a huge tourist resource for Rausu and this will continue, I hope.”

Wakabayashi was drawn to Rausu by whale-watching; a native of the western city of Osaka, she fell in love with the area after three trips there to see orcas.

“I thought this was an incredible place,” she said. “Winters are tough, but it’s so beautiful.”

Whale, Business, Japan
A heavy shroud of morning mist fills a port in Rausu, Hokkaido, Japan, July 2, 2019. VOA

Hasegawa, who says he has a waiting list of customers in high season, has ordered a second boat.

“Right now, the lifestyle we have is good,” Hasegawa said. “Better than it would have been with fishing.”

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The five whaling vessels moored at Kushiro port on Sunday, the night before the hunt resumed, were well-used and well-maintained. Crew members came and went, carrying groceries or towels, heading for a public bath.

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Barely 300 people are directly involved with whaling around Japan, and though the government maintains whale meat is an important part of food culture, the amount consumed annually has fallen to only 0.1 percent of total meat consumption.

Yet Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – himself from a whaling district – left the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and returned to commercial whaling on July 1.

Whaling advocates, such as Yoshifumi Kai, head of the Japan Small-type Whaling Association, celebrated the hunt.

“We endured for 31 years, but now it’s all worth it,” he said in Kushiro on Monday night after the first minkes were brought in to be butchered. “They’ll be whaling for a week here, we may have more.”

Whale, Business, Japan
A captured Minke whale is unloaded after commercial whaling at a port in Kushiro, Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan, July 1, 2019, in this photo taken by Kyodo. VOA

Everybody acknowledges that rebuilding demand could be tough after decades of whale being a pricey, hard-to-find food.

Consumption was widespread after World War II, when an impoverished Japan needed cheap protein, but fell off after the early 1960s as other meat grew cheaper.

“Japan has so much to eat now that food is thrown out, so we don’t expect demand for whale will rise that fast,” said Kazuo Yamamura, president of the Japan Whaling Association.

“But looking to the future, if you don’t eat whale, you forget that it’s a food,” he said. “If you eat it in school lunches, you’ll remember that, you’ll remember that it’s good.”

Whale, Business, Japan
A killer whale swims in the sea near Rausu, Hokkaido, Japan, July 1, 2019. VOA

Pro-whaling lawmaker Kiyoshi Ejima said that subsidies were unlikely, but that the government should be careful not to let the industry founder. About 5.1 billion yen ($47.31 million) was budgeted for whaling in 2019.

“If we pull away our hands too soon, a lot of companies will fail,” he added.

The goal of selling whale throughout Japan may be impractical, said Joji Morishita, Japan’s former IWC commissioner.

“The alternative … is to just limit the supply of whale meat to some of the major places in Japan that have a good tradition of whale eating,” Morishita said, adding that the meat is difficult to thaw and cook.

In areas for which whaling is a tradition, this niche market could promote tourism, which Abe has made a pillar of his economic plan.

“Whale eating in a sense is ideal – it’s different, it’s well-known, and for better or worse, it’s very famous,” Morishita said. “Taking advantage of this IWC withdrawal, I think there are business chances that are viable.”

Whales Up Close

For Rausu, on Hokkaido’s remote Shiretoko Peninsula, the viable business is whale watching.

Foxes run through the streets of the city’s downtown, which clings to a narrow strip of land below mountains and faces the Nemuro Strait. Summer often brings thick fog, while winter storms can leave waist-high drifts.

Though fishing was long Rausu’s economic backbone, the industry has taken a hit from declining fish stocks, which locals blame on Russian trawlers and falling prices. The population has dropped by several hundred annually, slipping below 5,000 this year.

Hasegawa, a fourth-generation fisherman, began his tour boat business in 2006. Though the first few years were a struggle, he is now happy with his choice as Rausu’s reputation grows globally.

On a recent weekday, customers packed the parking lot at a wharf lined with squid-fishing boats, waiting to board Hasegawa’s boat and those of three other companies. Hasegawa’s customers came from all over Japan and several foreign countries.

“Today there were more (whale) jumps than usual; it was fantastic,” said Kiyoko Ogi, a 47-year-old Tokyo bus driver who’s been whale-watching in Rausu three times. “I’m really opposed to commercial whaling; seeing whales close is so exciting.”

Whale hunting was never big in Rausu, and though Hasegawa said there once was “trouble” with people hunting small Baird’s beaked whales nearby, those fishermen now stay far from the tours and will tell him where to find orcas and sperm whales.

But he’s dubious about whether demand for whale meat will ever pick up. Restaurants and hotels in Rausu avoid serving it.

“We get a lot of kids in summer vacations. If you tell them on the boat that ‘this is the whale we ate last night,’ they’d cry,” he said.

“If they serve whale, nobody from overseas will come, especially Europeans,” he added. “Given that the national government is trying to woo overseas tourists so much, its thinking (on whaling) seems a bit wrong.”

($1 = 107.7900 yen). (VOA)

Next Story

Small Business Owners Start Wellness Programs

Small Businesses Embrace Wellness to Help Retain Staffers

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Many small business owners are starting wellness programs to help employees be healthier, happier and more likely to stay. Pixabay

Every month, the 30 staffers at Chris Boehlke’s public relations firm each get $100 to pay for anything that contributes to their wellness. And not just for typical expenditures like gym memberships or yoga classes.

“You can get nails done, anything you feel is helping your overall well being,” says Boehlke, co-owner of San Francisco-based Bospar. The company also has flex time and a generous time off policy including 17 paid holidays each year.

As a result, Boehlke says, the 5-year-old company has lost only two staffers.

Many small business owners or startups are starting wellness programs to help employees be healthier, happier and more likely to stay.

Wellness efforts encompass a wide range of benefits and services, including gym subsidies, stipends for classes and activities and apps that help motivate staffers to exercise and take care of themselves.

Owners are aware that many big companies have wellness programs, an advantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining staffers.

Rob Wilson sees interest in wellness programs growing among his small business clients, and his company, human resources provider Employco, is focusing more on these programs.

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Brent Frederick, founder of Jester Concepts, a restaurant group in Minneapolis poses at P.S. Steak. Frederick puts a 3% voluntary surcharge on guest checks to help pay for health insurance and mental health services and says almost all guests agree to pay it. VOA

“A lot of it so far has been online classes and health coaching, also a lot of online tools right now that employees can access anywhere to help them keep track of what they’re doing,” says Wilson, whose company is based in Westmont, Illinois.

“The companies doing it are really interested in keeping their employees,” he says.

Work can take a toll

They also want to care for staffers who can be sacrificing good health habits by working long and hard hours. At MonetizeMore, an advertising technology company, CEO Kean Graham has sensed that the sedentary lifestyle of his more than 100 staffers has taken a toll. He’s seen extended absences and depression, and staffers have said that they’ve gained weight.

“We came up with a steps program that measures everybody’s number of steps per month via their smart watches or apps on their phones,” says Graham, whose company is based in Victoria, British Columbia. After several months, he saw an improvement in absenteeism and spirits.

The 100 employees at Birch Coffee get stipends toward a variety of wellness activities, and the company pays for monthly massages at its 14 New York stores. Birch is trying to offset the physical and mental stress staffers encounter, co-founder Jeremy Lyman says.

“Each barista engages with hundreds of people every day,” Lyman says. “Mentally, it can take its toll, and you’re standing on your feet for seven hours.”

Encourage good health

Some owners sign up with companies that run structured wellness programs. These can include encouraging staffers to take care of their health with weight-loss and smoking cessation aids, health screening and coaching and apps to track steps, calories and other metrics. Some businesses have point systems and competitions to reward staffers.

Nearly all the 86 employees at Connor & Gallagher OneSource take part in its program created by a wellness software company, says Kayla Roeske, the director of client wellness at the Lisle, Illinois-based human resources and employee benefits firm. She finds that staffers are more likely to participate fully when the program is presented to them in a positive way, rather than the company coming across as “Big Brother” trying to control them. The company doesn’t get individual data but instead “we can see aggregate data from an organizational standpoint that tells us where we are year to year,” she says.

Avoid cheerleading 

Owners need to steer clear of being overbearing and negative about employees’ health. While a boss might be happier if staffers didn’t smoke or if they lost weight, if the company comes across as intrusive, it could lose good employees.

“If you start to push decision-making and judgment on these things, that’s where you may begin to cross the line,” says David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, an HR provider based in Norwalk, Connecticut. He advises that owners offer education and make tools available, but avoid too much cheerleading.

“If you say, `we want you to live a better life,’ to some extent employees are going to take that, but they’ll be skeptical if it’s syrupy,” Lewis says. He suggests owners speak to staffers about realities, like the need to lower health insurance costs.

Owners may need to be creative about funding their wellness efforts, especially when they include health insurance, a benefit many small businesses can’t afford. Brent Frederick, founder of Jester Concepts, a Minneapolis restaurant operator, includes a voluntary 3% surcharge on guest checks to pay for health and mental health insurance.

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A line item shows an example of how the charge that Brent Frederick, founder of Jester Concepts, a restaurant group in Minneapolis uses as a 3% voluntary surcharge on guest checks to help pay for health insurance and mental health services and says almost all guests agree to pay it. VOA

‘A better business’

Frederick has 250 employees among his four establishments, which include restaurants, a food truck and a sports arena concession. Even the part-timers get coverage. That has made Jester Concepts a more competitive employer.

“We’ve been able to retain employees and be a better business in the community,” Frederick says.

The majority of Jester Concepts’ customers are willing to pay the 3% surcharge, which amounts to $3 on a $100 check. Some question it, but Frederick estimates that no more than once a month at each location does a guest ask to have it taken off their bill. Customers can look at the surcharge as proof that the company is concerned about its staffers’ well-being.

Owners who want healthier employees may have to set a good example, and even make some changes to office routine and policies.

A boss who likes to keep cola and other highly sugared beverages in the break room fridge may need to stop stocking it.  And at companies where the culture is for everyone to work through lunch at their desks, there may need to be a new normal — staffers have to break away.

At Hoppier, an Ottawa, Ontario-based company that delivers snacks and supplies to businesses, “we don’t let anyone eat behind their computer screens. We think that everyone deserves a proper break, so we ask them to eat somewhere that doesn’t require any work,” CEO Cassy Aite says.

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Aite used to work at a consulting firm and eat at his desk; it’s what people did. His next job was at a German company, where he learned a very different approach — talking 90 minutes away from the office each day for lunch.

“It’s an amazing way to break up the day,” says Aite. (VOA)