It is a cliche and it is far from reality: Japanese diners chomping on whale meat over sake.
But this is what Junko Sakuma heard a Japanese representative describe when pressing the case for whaling at a meeting of the International Whaling Commission in 2003. The 55-year-old activist was attending as an observer from the environmental pressure group Greenpeace.
Sakuma is now a researcher with no grudge against those who eat whale meat: in fact, she says, she herself has become good at cooking it. But she says her investigations show annual consumption per head is less than 30 grams — and any attempt to paint Japan as a “whale-eating nation” is a gross distortion of its culinary tradition.
The fiction began with a government-backed propaganda campaign in the 1970s.
“I admit there is a whale-eating tradition in some regions, parts of Chiba and Wakayama, for example, but we can’t call it a (national) eating culture,” Sakuma said.
Sakuma got involved with the whale campaign after joining a whale-watching tour in the seas around the Ogasawara Islands in 1988. The issues around whaling were attracting increased attention at that time.
In 1987, Japan provoked international controversy by starting research whaling, after abandoning commercial whaling in line with an IWC demand. Research whaling refers to limited hunting activity to collect scientific data.
Fellow tour members encouraged Sakuma to join Greenpeace Japan as a temporary staffer and she got involved in a campaign against Japan’s research whaling program in the Antarctic Ocean.
On the front lines of battle, Sakuma faced the pro-whaling camp’s rallying cry for the preservation of whale eating as a national tradition.
Sakuma recalls that before becoming a Greenpeace activist she used to feel sympathy with the argument for eating whale meat. She recalls agreeing with a newspaper column that described the whaling ban as a threat to a Japanese tradition.
One day during her spell as an activist, she came across a whaling-related article in a book of case studies on public relations. The article, written by a company called International PR, revealed that the company had been employed by the Japan Whaling Association since the mid-1970s to win the public over to the cause.
The crux of the pro-whaling argument was that eating habits are an essential part of a national cultural identity and that countries should respect foreign cultures.
International PR lobbied editorial writers of major newspapers to portray whale eating as a precious tradition, an effort that succeeded in rallying public support for whaling, the article contended.
“This public relations activity created a fictitious eating culture,” Sakuma said. And it is “still influencing” the debate today.
She said the fiction has only strengthened resistance overseas. The myth of a whale-eating culture has led people around the world, particularly environmental groups, to worry that whale meat consumption in Japan will shoot up if commercial whaling is given a green light — a message she gets when talking to activists from other countries.
Some pro-whaling people go so far as to allege that denying the Japanese the pleasure of eating whale meat would be tantamount to banishing hamburgers from Americans diners.
Sakuma quit Greenpeace in 2004 but stuck with the matter as a freelance journalist.
Her focus has been on the bulging reserves of whale meat that give the lie to the case for whaling. The stocks continue to swell as research whaling continues but whale meat consumption remains sluggish.
Sakuma has tried to determine exactly how much whale meat is eaten in Japan. She scoured fish markets, scrutinized customs data and investigated stock levels at major warehouses.
In August 2005, she arrived at the conclusion that total stocks in Japan almost doubled over the previous decade.
She published her finding as a report which grabbed headlines in both Japanese and foreign news media.
Sakuma received a flurry of inquiries from foreign embassies in Tokyo, and she spoke before the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
Despite her days as an anti-whaling activist, Sakuma considers whale eating to be no taboo.
“I sometimes buy whale meat during my investigation, so I have become good at cooking it,” she said.
In March this year, the International Court of Justice ruled in a case brought by anti-whaling Australia that Japan must abandon research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean.
The ruling reignited a wave of protest from some quarters in Japan, particularly politicians, who profess concern over what they describe as an endangered Japanese eating tradition.
At a general meeting of the IWC in September, Japan announced a plan to restart its research whaling program in the Antarctic Ocean in 2015. The program was suspended in 2014 following a ruling by the ICJ.
For her part, Sakuma continues her quest to shed light on the reality of whale eating.
“Even though prices are falling, whale meat sales remain weak, as people consume less than 30 grams on average,” she said.