Whaling: the meat of the matter

by Bharti Legros

Whales are magnificent creatures I have always dreamt of seeing in the flesh. However, tucking into a slab of whale steak at a restaurant in Tokyo was not what I had in mind. Nevertheless, this was a close encounter with one of the world’s largest mammals that I felt I could not duck out of: If I was going to better understand all the fuss about whale consumption and Japan’s “research whaling,” I thought I’d better do some of my own “research eating.”

As my friends and I were led to our own private room at Kujiraya, near Shibuya Station, we noted that older ladies dressed up in kimono were among the clientele at this busy restaurant. This was obviously not going to be your garden-variety business lunch, a point further evidenced by the midday menu choices: whale sashimi, whale steak and deep-fried whale nuggets. While all three were beautifully presented, Masakazu Kobayashi, our sushi-chef escort, recommended the sashimi, which he said would bring out the high quality of the meat. My friend and I, however, were less ambitious and opted for the steak and deep-fried dishes.

I found the sashimi, which resembled a slice of raw tuna in texture and color, a bit frozen and challenging. The whale steak, slightly seared and marinated in a sweet soy sauce, was a tad chewy and reminded me of beef. The fried nuggets, however, were a real delicacy: They had a crisp taste and ended up melting in my mouth. However, as with any set lunch in Japan, I was pleased to have my rice and miso soup on the side. Kobayashi, 29, found the sashimi extremely delicious. Surprisingly, it was also his first experience of eating whale.

Many of the older generation wax nostalgically about eating whale back when it was cheaper and more readily available.

“I used to eat a lot of whale meat in school when I was a child. It was so delicious,” said Nakachi Sadaku, a Japanese teacher who grew up in Tokyo. “Now I appreciate it more because it’s hard to find. Back then, it wasn’t considered a delicacy but an ordinary daily food.”

My Japanese teacher, Seiko Arikawa, agreed. “It was quite delicious. On the days we had whale meat (at school), the kids were very excited. My children, who are in their twenties now, also ate whale in school. They also liked it.”

Archaeological finds suggest that the Japanese have been eating whales since 3000 B.C., initially catching only stranded whales in the inlets. Traditional whaling has been around since the late 16th century in seaside villages such as Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture and on Chiba’s Boso Peninsula. The oil from the whales was sold in Tokyo (Edo) and locals consumed the meat. The Chinese character for “kujira” (whale) is made up of the components “big/strong” and “fish,” and today 42 percent of Japanese still believe whales are fish, says Greenpeace.

And there’s the rub: In Western culture whales are considered — and at times almost revered and romanticized — as highly intelligent mammals, and there’s no doubt these cultural differences play a major part in the present-day rows over Japan’s whaling. But the real issue should not be whether it is right or wrong for Japanese to eat whale (or for non-Muslims to eat pig, or non-Hindus beef). These are matters of morality, based on traditions and conventions. The real issue, then, is the whaling, not the eating.

Before World War II, whale consumption was limited to traditional whaling towns. It was only in the lean postwar years that whale meat became more prevalent and was a primary source of protein, particularly in school lunches. Needless to say, as consumption of whale meat increased, the stock of whales in the Southern Ocean declined. Likewise, whaling by other countries for the creatures’ oil left global stocks depleted. Hence, in 1946, 15 whaling nations established the International Whaling Commission for the purpose of regulating catches. Ever since, the commission has met annually to discuss the regulation of commercial and scientific whaling.

In the 1970s, the IWC was opened up to non-whaling nations and soon mushroomed to something resembling its present form: 81 member states, the vast majority of which have no history of whaling (eight are even landlocked). The global moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect only in 1986, and ever since Japan has practiced “research whaling,” which is permitted by the IWC, in the Southern Ocean.

The Institute of Cetacean Research conducts whaling research and then distributes whale meat via a Tokyo-based shipping company, Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha Ltd., to whom the institute commissions its whaling activities. In major grocery stores like Daiei and Meidiya, you can buy packaged boiled whale meat, much like boiled ham. This packaged meat will set you back around ¥2,000 for just 80 grams or so. (A whale meal at Kujiraya, on the other hand, can be as cheap as ¥1,000 at lunch or a reasonable ¥5,000 for dinner.)

In 1991, the IWC’s Scientific Committee said that the numbers of some whales were at a sustainable level for limited commercial whaling to restart, but in the 17 years since then member countries have not been able to agree on the nitty-gritty of monitoring, quotas and so on. Pro- and anti-whaling members have also been accused of recruiting poor states to the IWC and bribing them to back their stand at the notoriously acrimonious meetings.

Both sides use the issue of conservation to back up their arguments. Japan claims there is an abundance of whales, citing 2008 estimates by the IWC that there are some 100,000 minke whales in the Atlantic and 665,000 in the Southern Hemisphere. It also claims its lethal research program — its quota was 850 minke whales and 50 fin whales this year — was started “in response to claims by a number of members of the IWC that the scientific information was insufficient to properly manage whale stocks,” according to the ICR Web site.

Kunio Yonezawa, a former IWC commissioner and now head of the Japan Overseas Fishing Association, also touts whaling as a green alternative to modern farming.

“It is a much better way ecologically in terms of climate change instead of (eating) land animals, particularly (when you consider) animal husbandry,” says Yonezawa.

He points to a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, headquartered in Rome, which says the livestock sector generates 18 percent more greenhouse gas emissions (as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent) than driving cars, accounting for 9 percent of COe deriving from human-related activities and “65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the global warming potential of COe.” Most of this comes from manure.

“To produce 1 kg of beef, it takes 18.4 kg of COe greenhouse gas emissions, whereas to produce one kilogram of whale meat it takes 2.9 kg of COe,” says Yonezawa. “Moreover, 70 percent of the Amazon forest cleared has been for ranching.”

Greenpeace, on the other hand, argues there is not enough data to justify commercial whaling, and that the research whaling quota is excessive.

Greenpeace Japan’s Junichi Sato — currently on bail after being charged with stealing whale meat — says, “this is definitely not scientific — research is an excuse. They should limit their hunt to 10 whales for research. The numbers of whales has decreased in the past 100 years.”

Sato’s colleague Wakao Hanaoka says that the IWC’s most conservation-minded scientists believe the whale population is decreasing, and that due to a lack of reliable estimates it is impossible to have an accurate count of the population, particularly since calculations are based on actual “head counts” at a limited number of sites.

“Researchers insist on using lethal methods not because they are necessary but because they supply whale meat to the markets in Japan to keep the whaling industry alive,” says Hanaoka.

A survey conducted by the Nippon Research Center in 2006 found that 95 percent of Japanese have never eaten, or very rarely eat, whale meat. Demand is so low that in 2007 more than 4,000 tons of unsold frozen whale meat was stored in Japanese warehouses, Greenpeace says. The ICR claims that keeping this amount in storage is standard practice.

Just earlier this year, to move the meat, Australia’s Herald Sun reported 10 tons of unsold meat was supplied by the ICR to 254 Yokohama schools to mark “Traditional School Lunch Week” in an attempt to boost whale consumption.

It seems whale meat is no longer the staple food it was after the war. Like sushi chef Kobayashi, for Haruko Izuhara, a young Japanese mother, tasting whale meat once in a restaurant was a novelty, but she does not intend to return for more.

“I enjoyed it, but I haven’t been back. There are so many other things to try.”

This younger generation — with little interest in or experience of whale consumption — will be crucial to whether whaling remains the hot political issue it is now. And with the next generation growing up in a warming world ever more concerned about environmental issues such as whale conservation, the future looks bleak for Japan’s whaling industry.

Bharti Legros is a freelance writer. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to