In 2019, how hungry is Japan for whale meat?

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

Contributing Writers

Japan is currently the object of criticism for its decision to leave the International Whaling Commission, and resume commercial whaling in territorial waters and its own exclusive economic zone. People who support the move cite either cultural reasons — Japan traditionally, they assert, is a whale-eating country — or the assumption that whales aren’t as endangered as the IWC claims they are.

Both of these points are disputed, but another, more obscure reason to allow whaling is that the consumption of whale meat as a protein supplement is more environmentally responsible than the consumption of livestock, the production of which is considered a prime source of greenhouse gases and general environmental destruction.

A 2009 article in the Sankei Shimbun used this rationale to promote whaling by saying that the amount of carbon dioxide produced to harvest 1 kilogram of whale meat, even counting the long distances that whaling ships traveled, was less than one-tenth of the amount created to produce 1 kg of beef, citing a survey by the predecessor of what is now Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency.

The limited scale of commercial whaling in Japan would have virtually no effect on beef production, and there are other residual costs such as the amount of energy used to refrigerate and store whale meat for months or even years. Nevertheless, it’s useful to compare whale meat production to other meat production in terms of economic effect.

The Dec. 28 broadcast of the TBS radio show, “Takero Morimoto Standby,” featured a street survey of salarymen who were asked if they wanted to eat whale meat. About 33 percent of the respondents said they did want to eat whale, while the remaining 67 percent answered either that they would eat it only if offered to them, or that they didn’t want whale at all. The difference in opinion divided clearly along generational lines. The original reason that whale meat expanded from a regional staple in Japan to a nationwide one was the serious food shortage following World War II, and it was older people in the survey who said they wanted to eat whale. According to their responses, that was mainly for nostalgic reasons. Most had eaten whale when they were growing up, since whale meat was a core component of school lunches.

A great deal has changed since then as Japan grew into one of the world’s most vibrant economies, and one of those changes is the greater availability of meat, specifically chicken, pork and beef.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries cited in Kenichi Ohmae’s Business Breakthrough website in July 2018, in 1960 the average Japanese person consumed 5.2 kg of meat. By 1995, the amount had increased to 28.5 kg and in 2016 it was 31.6 kg. In contrast, the average Japanese person consumed 27.8 kg of fish in 1960. That amount increased to 40.2 kg in 2001 but then leveled off and decreased. In 2016, Japanese consumed on average 24.6 kg of fish.

In effect, the Japanese diet has shifted to meat, though perhaps not as much as people think. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that in 2018 the average American consumed about 100 kg of red meat and poultry, according to Bloomberg News, or more than three times what the average Japanese person consumed in 2016. More to the point, Americans in 2016 consumed 36 kg of beef per capita, coming in a distant fourth after Uruguay, Argentina and Hong Kong. Japan’s per capita consumption of beef in 2016 was only 9.5 kg.

This may sound surprising given that beef tends to get a lot of media attention in Japan owing to its importance in international trade. For the most part, Japanese beef producers have to compete with much cheaper beef from the U.S. and Australia. When there’s a snag in the distribution chain — such as in 2006 when Japan banned beef imports from the U.S. due to a suspected outbreak of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease) in the American cattle industry — it gets covered in detail. Generally speaking, most Japanese eat imported beef if they eat beef regularly. Domestic beef is treated almost as a delicacy, and it is much more expensive.

A survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in 2017 compared food prices in the 23 wards of Tokyo and found that 100 grams of beef cost ¥403, while the same amount of pork was ¥157 and that of chicken ¥108, according to the website garbagenews. Consumption lines up with these findings. In 2017, people in Tokyo’s 23 wards consumed 20 kg of pork and 21 kg of chicken, both three times as much as beef, the website said.

Meat consumption in Japan varies in accordance with demographics and social trends, the latter usually being those having to do with health. Over the years weight-conscious women have gravitated toward chicken, which is lower in calories than red meat as well as being cheaper. According to a 2016 research by NHK, meat is the more likely choice among younger Japanese, with fish consumption becoming more frequent with age. About a quarter of Japanese people over the age of 70 eat fish every day. Extrinsic concerns related to environmental issues and animal welfare don’t seem to have much of an effect on consumption, and are rarely remarked upon in the media. Vegetarianism as a lifestyle choice is gaining in Japan but isn’t widely covered, so it comes across as less of a moral or ethical decision than a matter of personal preference.

In this regard, the political ramifications of a return to commercial whaling are mostly lost on the public. Or, perhaps, the media just doesn’t ask the right questions. Almost none of the respondents to the TBS Radio survey said they won’t eat whale because they object to killing them, or that they are endangered, two central reasons for opposition to Japan’s resumption of commercial whaling. The TBS respondents’ reasons for not eating whale came down to the flavor or the fact that there are other foods they’d rather eat. And it should be noted that the older respondents considered whale a form of meat rather than a form of seafood, which may be how younger people see it.

Whales, of course, are mammals, and thus their flesh has more in common with red meat than with fish. When whale meat was served as part of school lunches after the war, it was used as a meat substitute. Fatty whale meat was called “bacon,” and whale was often the protein ingredient in the ubiquitous Japanese dish known as “curry rice.”

So the viability of a whale meat market after commercial whaling resumes should be based more on its association with meat than with seafood. In that sense, whale meat will probably amount to nothing more than a very narrow niche market, like horse meat or wild game.

In recent years, domestic horse meat production has hovered around 5,000 tons per year, with imports of horse meat adding another 5,000 tons, according to agriculture ministry figures cited in an online horse meat retailer website. Most of the consumption of horse meat is limited to those handful of prefectures that produce it. When local commercial whaling resumes, that will probably be the situation with whale meat consumption, too. Nationwide per capita consumption of horse meat and whale meat — which presently comes from so-called research whaling that will be discontinued after Japan leaves the IWC — is about the same, and amounts to very little; around 50 grams.

Consequently, the horse meat market may be a better indicator of the future for whale meat under a more open system of procurement. Based on our research, 100 grams of horse meat costs between ¥1,500 and ¥2,000 retail, which is roughly equivalent in price to 100 grams of high-grade domestic beef. A superior cut of whale meat is now about ¥2,300 for 100 grams if purchased online, making it even more expensive than delicacies like horse meat and Matsusaka beef. It hardly seems likely that whale meat will ever be anything more than a regional, expensive curiosity food, despite its boosters’ claims that it is an important part of Japanese food culture.

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan.