Satomi Omote, a 19-year-old Japanese student visiting San Diego, watched a "Save the Whales" protest at a downtown Burger King restaurant Friday with a look that could hardly hide her amazement and puzzlement.
The source of her confusion: In her country, whales are a culinary delight, not a subject of protest.
"Events like this just don't happen in Japan," said Omote, one of 20 students from the Bunka Women's College in Tokyo.
Omote, whose surprise came during the lunch-hour protest by nearly 50 members of Greenpeace Action, the recently formed San Diego chapter of the 850,000-member national group, was reluctant to take sides on the issue.
'Not a Cut-and-Dried Issue'
"I understand what these people are trying to do, but it's not a cut-and-dried issue about saving whales," said Omote, who spoke in Japanese. "Generations and generations of fishermen have raised families and practiced this as a livelihood. What are they supposed to do?"
Omote and her friends stumbled upon the demonstration at 4th Avenue and C Street, part of a nationwide, 26-city effort by Greenpeace to persuade Burger King Corp. to stop purchasing cod from Iceland. That nation, which depends on marine products for nearly 75% of its export trade, and Japan are the only two that still hunt whales.
Local protest organizer Lynn Howard, 27, said the Icelandic cod, which the fast-food restaurant uses as the primary ingredient in its "Whaler" sandwich, can easily be replaced with cod from another fish-exporting country.
"We are not protesting Burger King, but instead are asking them to join us in boycotting Iceland, which continues to slaughter whales," Howard said.
Cod can be purchased from Canada and Sweden, and "You can even buy American and get codfish from Alaska," she said.
Howard said she believes Iceland can be persuaded to halt its whaling.
"In 1986, Iceland netted a mere $8 million from whaling," she said. "In contrast, they made about $400 million from fish exports to the United States. If restaurants as big as Burger King join us and refuse to purchase fish from Iceland, it might make (Iceland) think twice about which products to emphasize."
Howard spoke in front of a Jeep adorned with an inflatable plastic whale that was sandwiched in a cardboard bun and tagged with a sign that read, "Whaler."
Protesters walked back and forth in front of the restaurant's doors chanting slogans such as, "Whales are dying while fish are frying!" and "Don't buy fish from a butcher!" but Burger King manager Chris Bailey said the demonstration did not interrupt lunchtime business.
Tim Hermeling, a national spokesman for Burger King, said by telephone from Chicago that the company recognizes the protesters' grievances, but he gave no indication that the restaurant will stop its business dealings with Iceland.
"We are being asked to discontinue use of fish products from all seafood companies in that country," Hermeling read from a prepared statement. "Burger King suppliers purchase fish from Icelandic fishing companies because of the excellent product quality.
"These Icelandic fishing companies are not involved with whaling in any manner. An International Whaling Commission treaty provides member nations the legal right to conduct scientific whale research projects.
"Burger King Corp. recognizes there are divergent scientific opinions on such research, but believes that solutions can be developed within the existing International Whaling Commission framework."
The IWC was established in 1946 to regulate the whaling industry.
Greenpeace is one group that questions such scientific research and claims that Iceland uses it as "a guise" to continue whaling for profit, according to Howard.
"When Greenpeace first started campaigning to save whales in 1971, there were 24 whaling nations," she said. "Now there are only two. We hope Iceland and Japan will soon stop."
Greenpeace won at least one supporter yesterday.
"I was going to buy a 'Whaler,' " said Jeanette Boyle, 27, who eyed the restaurant's menu board. But, she said, after hearing arguments, "I think I'll buy a hamburger."