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."
"The worst thing is most Japanese are just not that interested in eating whale anymore," she said.
But Japanese officials say the nation needs whale meat to become more self-sufficient, noting that the country imports most of its food supply. They also say their research has shown that some species, particularly smaller minke whales, have grown so plentiful that culls are necessary to prevent them from over-eating fish such as cod and sardines, potentially decreasing catches of those fish.
"If we don't eat whale meat, it would be damaging to the ecosystem of the ocean," said Masayuki Komatsu, executive director of Japan's Fisheries Research Agency, who noted that his teenage daughter is opposed to commercial whaling. He later added, "The younger generation is always a problem, so education is very important."
At the Taruichi whale restaurant in Tokyo -- where prized whale fin sashimi goes for $5 a slice -- owner Shintaro Sato said the business is still doing well. But he has nevertheless started running promotions to sell more whale meat, offering 20 percent "early bird" discounts from 5 to 7 p.m. as well as a pre-set whale course for $35 a person -- a price at which he says he takes a loss. "But we are not in this business to make a profit," said Sato, who took over the restaurant from his father, a noted pro-whaling activist, after his death two years ago. "Instead, we are here to preserve a valuable part of Japanese tradition."
Pro-whalers in Japan contend that commercial whaling would popularize the meat by making it more affordable.
But they concede that they will first need to change the views of many younger Japanese, who now tend to see the animals as creatures in need of protection.
"Most young Japanese do not recall the years after World War II when we were hungry and the Americans wanted us to eat whale to survive," said Yuriko Shiraishi, 72, head of Women's Forum for Fish. "The whale saved us then, but thousands of years before that, Japanese were eating whale. Now, the Japanese don't want to eat whale because they don't know about it as a delicious and healthy source of protein. That's what needs to change."
The pro-whalers have taken aim largely at Japan's schools. Schools in western Wakayama Prefecture, which has long been a base of the whaling industry, this year began regularly serving whale meat for lunch. Dozens of schools nationwide will host whale seminars this year like the one at Takadate Elementary School in Natori, a suburb of the city of Sendai, about 280 miles north of Tokyo. At that school, children receive a scientific lecture on whales before enjoying a whale-meat snack. But if the parents and students here are any gauge, mass marketing of whale meat may yet be a hard sell.
"I think it's okay to have these small events so we can pass down our past whaling tradition to the children, but I am not in favor of restarting commercial whaling," said Tomoko Yanai, 45, who has two children. "The meat is delicious. I used to eat it when I was in school. But whales are precious animals and now I feel they should be protected."
Special correspondent Sachiko Sakamaki contributed to this report.