One great achievement of the European romantic nationalist movements beginning in the late 18th century was their creation of an ideal of national character rooted not in the deeds of great kings or generals but in the distinctive language, arts, folklore, customs and ancestral homelands of the ordinary people or volk.

As industrialization upended community life and social relations, the romantics popularized the ideal that the true, authentic character of a people as a nation lay in the old, endangered ways of life in its regional communities.

Yet it fell to cosmopolitan scholars and antiquarians to do what inarticulate rustics could not do — curate and repackage their folk customs and lores, marketing them to readers eager to participate as consumers in this “authentic,” nostalgic ideal of nationhood.

It is not surprising that this nationalism would find a new home in a rapidly industrializing Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Folklorists and scholars like Lafcadio Hearn and Kunio Yanagita helped popularize the idea of an authentic Japanese culture grounded in its regional communities, folklores and customs.

Still, there has always been a certain political ambivalence in this ideal of nostalgic national belonging. In the wrong hands it can be co-opted into ideologies of nationhood that are anti-liberal, racist and militarist — and that is what eventually happened in Germany and Japan in the 1930s.

It can also be manifested harmlessly in a cultural nationalism that creates a refuge from the deracinating effects of globalization and individualization, through the preservation and promotion of regional lifestyles, cultures and cuisines. This cultural nationalism lies behind the furusato (homeland) tourism and regional regeneration schemes promoted by local and national Japanese governments during the 1980s.

So how are we to understand the Diet’s recent passage of a sustainable whaling law supporting Japan’s whaling industry and undertaking to promote whale meat nationally through school lunches, now that Japan has left the International Whaling Commission and returned to commercial whaling? Should global opponents of whaling be alarmed, and is this another sign of a resurgent, chauvinistic nationalism under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government?

I want to suggest that this law, and rhetoric about Japan’s “unique whaling culinary culture,” are iterations of a nostalgic, cultural gastronationalism that has little future outside of regional whaling towns. In the meantime there are other, neglected traditional Japanese cuisines that could be promoted as more ecologically sound and culturally “authentic” dietary choices in Japan and abroad.

On Oct. 18, Shintaro Maeda, mayor of the whaling port city of Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, made a pitch at a “nationwide whaling forum” in Tokyo for promoting whaling towns as centers of Japan’s culinary culture. Speaking to 200 delegates representing 34 municipalities connected to the whaling industry, he proposed an “official declaration of whaling history and culture as ‘Japanese Heritage'” through the national government’s Cultural Affairs Agency.

Concretely this would mean educational initiatives to tell Japan’s whaling traditional and cultural “story” through municipalities countrywide, and the use of state subsidies to reinvigorate whaling heritage furusato tourism in regions like Wakayama Prefecture, where Taiji, the town made famous by the 2009 documentary “The Cove,” is located. It would also mean the promotion of whale meat lunches in schools throughout the country.

In Shimonoseki, a plan to increase whale meat in its public school lunches is also the basis for a proposed countrywide appeal to recognize whaling towns as upholders of a long culinary cultural history. Since last year the city has spent ¥3 million on this program, with the eventual hope of seeing an “implementation of whale meat school lunch programs through numerous municipalities nationwide.”

Such plans, now seemingly ratified by national law, will appeal to older voters in Liberal Democratic Party constituencies like Shimonoseki. And perhaps Japan’s decision to leave the IWC sent a symbolic message to other voters nationwide who are irritated by foreign criticism of Japanese whaling. But there are reasons for doubting how far those plans can be realized.

First, under the terms of its withdrawal from the IWC, Japan has abandoned research whaling in the Antarctic, where there are plentiful Minke whale stocks, and will now conduct commercial whaling in accordance with strict quotas in its exclusive economic zone. Whale stocks are far more limited in this zone, and will not support any major expansion in whale meat production. Such a restricted whaling industry will not deliver the economies of scale needed to bring whale meat prices down from their current eye-watering high levels. Whale meat will remain an expensive school lunch option unless government subsidies reduce the costs, or more whale meat is imported from abroad.

Second, for dietary cultural reasons whale meat will likely remain a niche regional or foodie cuisine in Japan. Whaling advocates often blame the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling, which took effect in 1985, for the collapse in demand for whale meat. However, a steep decline in consumption had set in before then.

In the early postwar years, whale meat was a crucial animal protein source for a war-devastated nation, featuring prominently in school lunches. Yet according to figures published by Nippon.com, annual whale meat consumption fell from a peak of around 230,000 tons in 1962 to less than 50,000 tons in 1978. As Japan’s postwar economy expanded, dietary preferences became gentrified. Pork, chicken and beef consumption increased while whale meat became negatively associated with the hardscrabble early postwar decades.

Third, it is doubtful whether Japanese citizens outside regional whaling towns are enthusiastic about their taxes subsidizing an expanded whaling fleet — at least until it becomes commercially viable — and a nationwide plan for promoting whale meat consumption in schools. It is a truism that Japanese citizens are more “anti-anti-whaling” than “pro-whaling.” They may defend whaling out of resentment at insensitive foreign criticism, but they appear rather less willing to change their long-standing dietary preferences and consume much more whale meat than the current total of around 3,000 tons per year.

In such circumstances, it would pay for foreign activist organizations like Sea Shepherd to hold back from campaigns that might inflame Japanese public opinion, and let the industry decline of its own accord.

The cultural nationalist project to re-imagine whaling as a national culinary culture will probably fail, since it appears unlikely that whaling can become a viable commercial enterprise appealing to the tastes and cultural sensibilities of most ordinary Japanese. Japanese culinary values have changed too much over the past five decades.

Yet shifts in values are now underway in America, Great Britain and Australia that are still dimly understood in Japan, and which are putting in question the more selective concerns for “charismatic megafauna” such as whales and dolphins in mainstream foreign criticisms of whaling.

Growing animal welfare consciousness and anxieties over the impact of livestock farming and fisheries on climate change and biodiversity are driving dietary changes among younger people. Meat consumption is falling. Veganism, once a marginal dietary fad, is slowly gaining popularity through the campaigns of animal rights activists, and through the influence of (mostly) vegan celebrities such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Ariana Grande.

In Japan’s neglected traditional, regional cuisines there are many potential inspirations for more humane, ecologically attuned diets responsive to such international trends. Sushi historians have demonstrated that bluefin tuna is not a traditionally central sushi ingredient and only started to become prominent in sushi and sashimi cuisine in the late 1970s. They have called for a return to the use of more diverse, regionally appropriate sushi ingredients that have the appeal of being more historically traditional and that can also help relieve pressure on the bluefin tuna stocks devastated by the global sushi boom.

Then there are the cultural and commercial potentials in the promotion of a Buddhist vegan cuisine known in Japan as shōjin ryōri. Shōjin ryōri has the allure of a historical lineage extending back eight centuries in Japan, and of being a once central component in devotional Buddhist practice. This culinary tradition could be (and sometimes is) marketed to vegan and vegetarian tourists often frustrated in their food choices by meat- and fish-heavy Japanese restaurant menus. It could also be marketed to domestic and foreign consumers as an ecologically sound, humane and healthy dietary option.

The promotion of this cuisine as an attractive Japanese culinary culture will require an internationally minded, youthful entrepreneurial outlook largely absent in advocacy for Japan’s whaling industry today.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures, Kyushu University.

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