Reviving a Taste for Whale

Mariko Fujino displays whale sashimi at a market in Shimonoseki, formerly a center of commercial whaling.
Mariko Fujino displays whale sashimi at a market in Shimonoseki, formerly a center of commercial whaling. (By Itsuo Inouye -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 19, 2005

NATORI, Japan -- An animated group of schoolchildren from this suburban town in northern Japan poured into their gymnasium Thursday afternoon and listened raptly to a whale expert give a talk on the gentle giants of the sea. They passed around whale teeth and were told about the growing abundance of the world's largest mammals before diving into the lecture's main course -- heaping plates of deep-fried whale chunks.

As part of a program by the Japanese government and the fishing industry to rebuild Japan's endangered taste for whale, the students -- some with less enthusiasm than others -- dug into the crispy nuggets dished into little plastic lunchboxes. After the feast, the children headed home with official books on whales that included helpful tips on how to defrost whale meat (over two days), as well as recipes for whale burgers and whale soup.

"I guess I do feel sorry for the whales," said Shun Ishimura, 7, shyly fiddling with his L.A. Dodgers T-shirt. Like many of the children, he was tasting whale flesh for the first time. He said that despite his feelings, he "ate it anyway because it looked so good. And when I ate it, I liked it. Whale is really delicious."

That is music to the ears of whalers and their supporters in Japan, who are fighting a two-front war. Japan is lobbying hard to get a nearly two-decade-old moratorium on commercial whaling overthrown at the 57th International Whaling Commission meeting in South Korea this week. Officials are also locked in a struggle back home to rekindle the nation's ebbing taste for whale.

The meat is considered a delicacy in Japan, which boasts of a thousands-year-old custom of eating the mammals -- a practice now largely limited to a few older Japanese. Supporters argue that eating whale should not be allowed to die out, lest the nation lose part of its culinary heritage.

Though commercial whaling has been banned since the 1980s to protect the animals from being hunted to extinction, Japan still brings in the world's largest catch from annual harvests of legal "scientific whaling." Research shows that whale meat has become readily available to Japanese consumers at specialty restaurants and gourmet grocery stores nationwide. Animal rights activists decry the practice as small-scale commercial whaling in disguise -- a charge Japanese officials reject.

Some opinion polls show that younger generations of Japanese are more interested in conservation than culinary delights. The price for whale meat in Japan has decreased in recent years -- falling to $12 a pound in 2004 compared with $15 a pound in 1999. Demand for whale meat has been anemic. Last year, the industry put 20 percent of its 4,000-ton haul into frozen surplus.

So the government and pro-whaling groups have pumped cash into the promotion of eating whale meat. The government is spending about $5 million a year on such campaigns, while groups of housewives and other organizations are sponsoring whale cooking classes and related seminars to stimulate the market, according to officials and industry sources.

The process highlights what anti-whaling activists call a glut of whale meat. But Japan is set to unveil a plan next week to almost double "scientific whaling" of Antarctic minke whales, from 440 to more than 850, and undertake fresh kills of humpback and fin whales for the first time in decades, according to diplomats familiar with the proposal.

Japan, leading a pro-whaling bloc in the International Whaling Commission, is seeking to wrest control of the 62-nation body from anti-whaling nations, led by Australia and New Zealand.

Observers say pro-whaling nations are likely to fall short of the three-quarters majority needed to reinstate commercial whaling. But they are within one or two votes of securing a simple majority as early as Monday, according to diplomatic sources. That would allow pro-whaling nations to lay the groundwork for an eventual lifting of the moratorium -- potentially altering the commission's agenda in support of "sustainable harvests" of some whale species.

"We are at an alarming crossroads for whales," said Susan Lieberman, the director of the Global Species Program for World Wildlife Fund International who is heading its delegation to the IWC conference. "Just as their populations are beginning to recover from being hunted almost to extinction, Japan and pro-whaling nations are closer than they have ever been to being able to push forward with their efforts to end the whaling moratorium."

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